What Does the Current Global Human Rights Funding Landscape Look Like?

The International Human Rights Funders Group (IHRFG) just released its 2016 report Advancing Human Rights: Update on Global Foundation Grantmaking, created in collaboration with the Foundation Center. The report tracked global human rights funding and created interactive data and research tools in an effort to help funders increase their impact. It includes information from over 800 funders—which, of course, does not comprise all human rights funders, and offers lots of insights into how philanthropic dollars are advocating, advancing and fighting for the human rights of all people.

Two caveats to bear in mind regarding these numbers: First, the data is from 2013; second, the report casts a wide net in its definition of human rights, including grantmaking for health equity and well-being. 

Here are a few highlights:

The Top 10

Six of the top 10 foundations giving the most grant dollars to human rights causes are based in the U.S. and include: 

  • Open Society Foundations ($270.9 million)
  • Ford Foundation ($270.9 million)
  • Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation ($120.9 million)
  • Atlantic Philanthropies ($115.1 million)
  • National Endowment for Democracy ($64.8 million)
  • Vanguard Charitable Endowment Program ($49.4 million) 

Rounding out the top 10: 

  • National Postcode Lottery (Netherlands, $269.6 million)
  • Oak Foundation (Switzerland, $72.7 million)
  • Hivos (Netherlands, $50 million)
  • Comic Relief UK (United Kingdom, $49.6 million) 

Of the foundations surveyed for the report, the top 10 funders contributed just over $1 billion of the total $2.3 billion in support for human rights. The top 20 funders accounted for around $1.35 billion of that total.

Where the Money Went

Here’s where things get a bit skewed, mainly due to information availability or lack thereof. 

  • North America received around 41 percent of human rights funding
  • Sub-Saharan Africa received 12 percent
  • Western Europe got 11 percent
  • Asia and the Pacific came in at 7 percent 

So, there are a few surprises here, like North America getting a big percentage of funding. The region, particularly the United States, certainly has its share of rights problems, ranging from the rights of immigrant populations, abuses of authority in regard to minority populations, and disparities in access to quality affordable healthcare. But again, that number is a bit skewed due to the ease of access to information from funders in North America.

Rights Challenges Receiving the Most and Least Funding Attention

Areas of focus getting the most attention from funders surveyed include equality and freedom from discrimination and general human rights programs, which received the most funding attention at 15 percent and 13 percent of total funding, respectively. This was followed by health and well-being (11 percent) and sexual and reproductive health rights (9 percent).

Program areas receiving the least amount funding include transitional justice and peacebuilding, which accounted for 2 percent of funding; expression and information rights got 4 percent, and migration and displacement came in at just 6 percent.

Largest and Smallest Beneficiary Populations

According to the report, the largest beneficiary populations were women and girls, which received 21 percent of funding dollars. That certainly tracks with a lot of what we've been seeing anecdotally, as gender issues draw lots of funder attention. This was followed by children and youth, which got 21 percent, and migrants and refuges with 12 percent.

Populations receiving the least amount of funding attention include: LGBT groups which received 3 percent of funding dollars, followed by human rights defenders at 0.7 percent and sex workers at 0.3 percent.

OK, now that we’ve got the basics out of the way, let’s dig a little deeper.

Of the top U.S. funders, the Open Society and Ford foundations are no surprise.

The Open Society Foundations’ mission has always been to fight for the rights of marginalized, vulnerable and disadvantaged populations including refugees, migrants, and LGBTQ people. It is also one of the very few funders paying attention to the rights of those living in the margins of society like sex workers and illicit drug users. And these days, as we've reported, OSF is in a growing tug of war with governments around the world turning in a more authoritarian direction.

Related: Philanthropy vs. Tyranny: Inside the Open Society Foundations’ Biggest Battle Yet

Open Society’s grantmaking spans a number of rights matters, including those related to access to medicine, drug policy reform, and disability rights, to name a few. And this funder is super-sized, with annual global spending over $900 million. As we've noted, that makes it the second largest grantmaker in the U.S. after Gates. OSF has a far-flung global presence; with some three dozen overseas offices, it's the largest foundation in the world. In 2014, OSF awarded over 350 human rights related grants including: 

  • $2.6 million in total grants to organizations working with refugee and internally displaced populations around the world, mainly in the Middle East.
  • $1.5 million went toward LGBTQ rights groups
  • Over $300,000 went to outfits advocating for the rights of sex workers
  • Around $290,000 in grants were awarded to organizations fighting for the rights of illicit drug users 

The Ford Foundation, a longtime human rights grantmaker, has settled into its revamped mission of combating “inequality in all its forms." Between 2015 and 2016 to date, the foundation has made 338 rights grants to just under 300 grantees totaling over $107 million. A few recent awards include: 

  • $1.5 million to the Kenya Human Rights Commission for its work toward improving rights-based governance, promoting democratic values, advocating for social justice, and enhancing corporate accountability at all the county, national, regional, and international levels.
  • $1.2 million to the International Network of Civil Liberties Organizations for the support of its work with human rights groups addressing civil liberties matters like surveillance and the criminalization of protest.
  • $200,000 to Derecho, Ambiente y Recursos Naturales to support its work related to the resource rights and sustainable development of indigenous peoples in Peruvian Amazon. 

Related: About Those “Big Changes” at the Ford Foundation

Of the big three, here, the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation (STBF) is among the most reclusive. Its website provides minimal information, which appears to pertain only to college scholarships and the Alice Buffett Outstanding Teacher Award. With net assets hovering between $2 billion and $3 billion, STBF is definitely sizable and awards some hefty grants, as well. But information on the foundation is so sparse that it can be a bit maddening.

But this is for sure: STBF's human rights funding largely revolves around women’s sexual and reproductive health rights. Between 2013 and 2014, the foundation awarded millions in grants toward those ends with major grants going to large organizations like the Center for Reproductive Rights and Funders Network on Population Reproductive Health Rights.

Related: Here’s What You Need to Know About the Secretive Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation

Now let's talk about the migrant and refugee numbers.

According to the report, migrant and refugee populations were a top beneficiary population, receiving 12 percent of funding dollars in 2013. Open Society’s giving definitely supports those numbers, but at Ford, comparatively few funding dollars went toward migrants and refugees, and STBF dedicated zero grant dollars here. Of course, it stands to reason that the remaining funders made up the difference. There are a lot of major NGOs here including the Gates, MacArthur, and Hewlett foundations as well as Sigrid Rausing Trust and the Fund for Global Human Rights.

Human rights funding is an incredibly complex ecosystem, and there's a lot to take in with this report. One last notable conclusion is that there is a profound shortage of funding toward peace building and transitional justice. According the report, of the total $6 billion in funds donated by foundations, governments, and bilateral groups, just $194 million combined was dedicated to peacebuilding. By my math, that’s just over 3 percent.

That's a problem, given that serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights laws almost always arise during armed conflict. Conflict is the No. 1 reason why 60 million people around the globe are displaced by war or repression.

Shouldn’t there be a larger focus on not only why radicalization, political polarization, and social uprisings are happening, but what can be done to materially affect positive change in order to prevent these incidences from occurring in the first place?