Where Is Human Rights Funding Headed?

No matter the field, nonprofits face a daunting, hyper-competitive process when it comes to raising enough money to keep the lights on. The funding landscape is always shifting, with organizations expending a lot of effort to keep up on the latest trends.

When it comes to human right funding, though, gaining a bird's eye view of grantmaking just got a whole lot easier. 

Last month, the International Human Rights Funders Group (IHRFG) and the Foundation Center launched a new interactive website on human rights funding and also released a major study of such funding, “Advancing Human Rights: Update on Global Foundation Grantmaking.” 

The site vividly brings to life data compiled on foundations funding human rights work to the tune of $1.7 billion in 34 countries across the globe in 2011. The layout lets users explore the results of the research by issue, population of interest, or by geography. It also provides case studies and sample grants that highlight trends and best practices.

Christen Dobson, the Research and Policy Program Director for IHRFG, spoke with Inside Philanthropy about the report, the new site, and what's happening in human rights funding.

The current initiative arose from an interest among IHRFG’s members in being more strategic in their grantmaking. “It’s hard to be strategic when you don’t really know what the baseline is, how much funding is going to human rights, what the geography is,” Dobson notes, “so we decided to go ahead and partner with the Foundation Center to explore these questions.”

Dobson describes how their project evolved:

When we started this project we framed it more as a mapping, as something we would do annually. As we’ve really delved into it we’ve realized it’s something so much bigger than that. We’ve gone beyond simple research into something that’s almost field building. . . it’s involved a lot of time sharing the tools we’ve created with funders, working with them to apply it to their work, thinking about how to be strategic. We’ve been putting in almost as much time in the uptake of the tools as in producing them.

So what are some of the major findings, and what do they say about where the human rights funding field is headed? 

A few surprising results stand out. 

One was the high percentage of funding occurring within the United States, even though many organizations doing such work don't use the term "human rights." But U.S.-focused efforts to advance the rights and equality of marginalized groups such as LGBT Americans clearly do meet the definition of human rights work, and funders are deeply invested in supporting such efforts. 

Second, the report notes that there has been an uptick in human rights funding following the popular uprisings that swept through the Middle East and North Africa known as the Arab Spring, and the similar protests that erupted in Europe and even the United States’ Occupy Wall Street. And while the report found that the Middle East and North Africa was the second least funded region, with only 2 percent of human rights funding, Dobson notes that between 2010 and 2011 there was a 33 percent increase in dollars going to the region.

Given how popular uprisings have used social media, it's no suprise that technology issues are very much on the radar of human rights funders. But Dobson said there is a range of engagement with this nexus depending on the comfort level of funders. “One of the priorities is certainly funding organizations that are using innovative approaches.”

Another priority is dealing with the crackdown on digital technologies by repressive regimes, like when Turkey shut down Twitter and YouTube in March. The squeeze on cyberspace has occurred simultaneously with efforts in many countries to block outside funding of human rights organizations. Dobson described the disturbing trend: “There are about 16 countries that have either passed or are currently reviewing restrictions related to foreign funding.”

Funders have been responding to growing global turbulence and government crackdowns with a new nimbleness, Dobson says, noting an increase in “rapid response grantmaking.”

One example is the Urgent Action Fund, which is a constellation of three independent urgent action funds that aim to distribute funds to human rights activists quickly—like if their offices are broken into and ransacked, or they need to be relocated due to threats to their lives, or need increased security, or if particularly draconian legislation restricting activism is being considered and requires an immediate mobilization. Money can be turned around in as little as 72 hours, and Dobson adds that it accepts applications in multiple languages through multiple mediums, which is critical for activists in far-flung locales.

Other shifts include a move by some funding groups like Humanity United and the Proteus Fund toward an activist model. More funders have created 501(c)4s which can engage in lobbying and political work. This is model is hardly new, but has become more common in the human rights field.

Another interesting shift is participatory grantmaking. In such a model, the people most affected by a particular issue are making the decisions about where the funding goes. This could mean that the boards are comprised entirely of people that are affected by the issue. One example Dobson cites is the Disability Rights Fund. “There’s a certain percentage of their staff and board members who are people with disabilities who are active in the movement, that are making grant-making decisions” she adds. 

More broadly, Dobson said that questions about who's calling the shots in the human rights community are very much front and center. “These are very challenging issues and change is slow,” she adds. “I think a lot of funders are thinking there needs to be more attention given to grassroots organizations that are supporting communities that are directly effected. So having a participatory grant model is one way to get at that. And I think it’s one way to mitigate the inherent power dynamics in human rights funding, and really in grant making in any way.”

When asked about any specific tips Dobson had for newer organizations looking to get funders' attention, she suggested: “Be public about the great work you’re doing.” Also, know that foundations are just one force of funding, a broader trend in the world of philanthropy. “[There are] Kickstarter campaigns, and other governmental sources, corporate sources to diversify your fundraising efforts. Think about innovating your fundraising models.”

Dobson also said, “Do your research... know who the donors are, use this website to see who is funding your issue areas, who’s funding in your region, read the reports that we put out.”

Additionally, she suggested that grantseekers see funders as a resource, even when they can't make a grant. “Don’t be afraid to ask current donors who else might be interested in your work,” says Dobson. “As well if you get a declination from a funder because what you’re proposing doesn’t meet their strategic priorities, I wouldn’t hesitate to ask if there are funders that they know of that would be a good fit. They’re both just looking for ‘where is that fit?’ ”