Amid Tough Times for Global Human Rights Activists, Funders Are Upping Their Game

a rally for turkish president Erdogan. photo: thomas koch/shutterstock

a rally for turkish president Erdogan. photo: thomas koch/shutterstock

The human rights movement is facing a backlash and greater restrictions as it tackles rising abuses around the world. This bad news is no surprise amid a drumbeat of news reports about strongman leaders in places like Russia, Hungary and Turkey.

The good news may be more of a surprise: Philanthropic support for human rights has grown significantly in recent years, and funders from the Global North, South and East are beginning to coordinate more closely, as well as embrace new approaches. 

The evidence of rising funding comes from the Foundation Center and Human Rights Funders Network (HRFN), which document grantmaking trends in this field on the Advancing Human Rights research hub.

Global funding for human rights work grew by 44 percent between 2011-2015, from $1.4 billion annually to over $2 billion, according to the data.

Maybe more importantly, human rights funders have gotten more sophisticated and effective in recent years.

“Funders have learned that grantmaking for structural change must be long-term, flexible, and risk-taking, and incorporate safety and security planning in a holistic and proactive way,” said Jenna Capeci, deputy director at HRFN.

Capeci also said that while recent critiques have asserted that the human rights movement has failed to address rising economic inequality, such perspectives “discount the tireless work of movements and funders to bring economic, social, and cultural rights from the margins into the center.”

An expansive definition of human rights—to include issues like labor conditions and healthcare access—is a key feature of the global movement that HRFN is working to advance. In contrast to most funder affinity groups, HRFN has an international membership—including members from many countries where social rights, not just political ones, are guaranteed by constitutions. In 2017 alone, it added 342 new individual members from 26 countries, expanding the network to over 1,550 grantmakers across 68 countries. 

Another area where funders are pushing forward their thinking, Capeci said, is around better supporting grassroots movements and getting in sync with the “need to reflect and honor peoples’ lived realities." 

“Many of our members are assessing their strategies with an eye to supporting social movements, given the critical role they play in broadening support for human rights. Since people do not live segmented lives, this often requires approaches that are intersectional and cross-issue,” Capeci said.

As we’ve reported, HRFN and the Peace and Security Funders Group recently teamed up on a study about better engagement with local activists. One of the people involved in that effort, Bridget Moix of Peace Direct, told Inside Philanthropy that more funders understand the need to change how they operate. “The traditional models of donor-driven agendas have not worked, and private philanthropy across the global North is shifting slowly but surely toward more direct support for initiatives that are designed and sustained through local leadership.”

Related: Yes, Think Globally and Fund Locally. But Here's How To Do It Better

That shift is driving another trend that Capeci brought up, which is growing interest in participatory grantmaking. This is a model that “moves the decision-making about money—which many see as the locus of power—to the people most affected by the issues.” Capeci said that HRFN members, such as FRIDA The Young Feminist Fund, Disability Rights Fund and Red Umbrella Fund, have been pioneers in this area.

Interest in bottom-up approaches that disrupt philanthropy’s traditional top-down model is something we’re hearing a lot about right now, with change afoot in domestic U.S. funding areas like education, racial justice, community development and climate change.

It’s not surprising that this conversation is also getting traction in global funding networks. There’s a long history of tensions over grant money from wealthy nations flowing to poorer countries—an argument set against an unhappy legacy of imperialism and neocolonialism.

A big difference today is that the international funding landscape is in flux, bringing new voices to the table. Capeci said that the face of global philanthropy is changing, noting that the HRFN’s Global South and East-based membership had grown significantly over the last few years. More remains to be done, however, to truly leverage the diverse strengths of the network’s members.

“While we have not yet capitalized as a field on the complementary roles of Global South and Global North funders, the momentum and interest is there,” said Capeci. “Global North funders are increasingly resourcing Global South philanthropies, which is a promising development. What’s most critical moving forward is to transform donor approaches so that Global South actors are resourced in ways that enable them to determine their own agendas.”

Related: What Does the Current Global Human Rights Landscape Look Like?