Can Data Drive Better Human Rights Funding?

Photo: Mike Cohen/shutterstock

Photo: Mike Cohen/shutterstock

A trailblazing data initiative may hold the key to improving human rights funding practice, say the authors of a first-ever trends analysis measuring the field's progress.

The new analysis is the fruit of a partnership of Foundation Center and Human Rights Funders Network (HRFN), in collaboration with Ariadne: European Funders for Social Change and Human Rights, and Prospera: the International Network of Women’s Funds. Since 2010, these partners have been using data as a resource for better understanding the funding landscape through the Advancing Human Rights initiative. 

Foundation Center and HRFN recently released their first analysis of trends over five years.

“The analysis looks past year-to-year fluctuations to see where the field of human rights philanthropy is headed and where it still has work to do,” said Sarah Tansey, program manager for research and policy at Human Rights Funders Network, speaking to Inside Philanthropy.

Ariadne's team used the initiative's tools, which include over 225,000 grants totaling over $17 billion, to examine trends in the field, and their own Forecast for Human Rights and Social Change Funders

"Recognizing the value of perceiving the past through data, we at Ariadne also looked to the future, launching our first Forecast for Human Rights and Social Change Funders in 2015," writes Lorena Klos, Ariadne communications and events manager, for the trends analysis blog series. "This community-created resource, which included contributions from around 90 grantmakers based or funding in Europe, aims to help funders plan ahead by enabling them to see the big picture and discover new trends in both issues and grantmaking practice."

Over the period of the new trends analysis, 2011-2015, Foundation Center and HRFN found a 26 percent increase in the number of grants and 45 percent in total funding. The analyses saw further increases, but much of this was due to more funders submitting data to the project through 2015, signifying a growing recognition of the value of sharing and analyzing data. For the trends analysis, the research looks at a consistent subset of 561 foundations included in each year of the research (2011-2015).

It's important to note that the study embraces a broad definition of human rights funding. For example, the database includes tens of million of grants made in the United States to improve access to healthcare by foundations like Robert Wood Johnson and the California Endowment. These wide parameters are more likely to resonate in Europe, with its expansive social rights, than in the United States, where human rights is a term with narrower connotations. 

The new analysis offers findings on funding trends in key areas highlighted in Ariadne’s Forecast, including the growth of alternative finance, the disabling environment for cross-border funding, xenophobia and intolerance and groups at risk of being marginalized, freedom of expression, LGBTI rights, and reproductive rights. 

"The pursuit of human rights is a long-term struggle in which progress is often accompanied by backlash," Tansey said. "This multiyear analysis begins to identify long-term trends in human rights funding, while the Ariadne forecasts ask where the field is or should be going. Both are living resources that will continue to grow. We hope that, combined, they will enable funders to assess the state of the field, reflect on their priorities, and identify gaps and areas where they can contribute."

The analysis also points to wider uses of data for driving improvements in human rights funding practice, and for closing the information gap between larger and smaller funders in different parts of the world.

"We believe the research helps democratize information about human rights funding. It puts funders from the Global South and East on the map alongside major Northern donors," said Anna Koob, knowledge services manager at Foundation Center, to Inside Philanthropy. "It gives smaller funds access to data that might previously have required hiring an outside consultant. Overall, it allows funders to make strategic decisions based on field-wide data, ultimately increasing the effectiveness of their work."

The results of the research highlight the value of sharing data with projects built along the lines of the Advancing Human Rights initiative.

"Sharing data in a structured way allows for funder collaborations to emerge—between governments, international institutions or diverse types of donors—around issues that otherwise responsive grantmaking is not able to reach," Klos writes. "Data can inform decision-making and help us advocate for more and strategic funding in the human rights sector."

Increasing numbers of funders appear interested in backing projects that harness data to strengthen human rights work. Some of their investments are focused on a particular issue. By the end of 2017, for example, Google’s philanthropic arm had disbursed a total of $32 million for the data-focused work of justice system reformers across the United States.

Other funders are investing in the use of quantitative methods to advance broader agendas. Data & Society Research Institute, a self-styled “think/do” tank based in New York dedicated to tackling "the social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from data-centric technological development," has attracted funding from the MacArthur Foundation, Gates, Omidyar, and Ford.