Fundraising for Human Rights: Lessons-learned and practical advice

Conversation Details

Dates of conversation: 
Wednesday, January 18, 2012 to Tuesday, January 24, 2012
Conversation type: 
Type of tactical goal: 

Summary available

Protecting and promoting human rights is valuable and important work.  In order to do this work, organizations need financial resources.  Although there are many funders that recognize the value in financially supporting human rights efforts, many organizations struggle to find enough funding to support their work. This dialogue was an opportunity to bring together human rights practitioners, fundraisers, funders and others to discuss essential questions around funding human rights work.

Where is the money for human rights?  Acquiring financial resources for human rights work can be a confusing and complicated endeavor. It can be difficult for human rights organizations to find the right funders that share their interest and vision.  It can also be difficult to find information on specific requests for proposals, deadlines, funding cycles, requirements, etc.  Human rights funders also face big challenges; the economy has had a devastating effect on foundations and other funding institutions. Funders are struggling to balance the need for support and the available resources.   

How can funders collaborate with human rights organizations more effectively?  What does successful funder/recipient collaboration look like?  What roles do human rights groups have to influence the policies and practices of funders?  What role do human rights funders have in influencing each other's policies? 

What are the components of a sustainable funding strategy for human rights work?  How do we measure the impact of human rights work?  When is it worth the effort to seek out small foundations and when is it better to approach larger funders/institutions?  How do you know when your work is sustainable?


Where is the money for human rights?

Fundraising for human rights work is uniquely challenging, especially for longer-term solutions beyond humanitarian emergencies, because of the complex, uncomfortable and emotionally challenging nature of the work. Governments at times feel threatened by human rights organizations who work to hold them accountable for their human rights record, and at times choose to support them in order to further political aims. Aid or humanitarian agencies often choose to stay away from 'rights-based' work and advocacy work for fear of losing their funding base or of being perceived as political.

Some areas, notably freedom of expression and especially internet freedom, have received increased funding in recent years, but most organizations face major challenges in finding funding, including a mismatch between donor focus and member needs, time and resources required, economic downturn, and competition from other organizations. Just as the interest, and thus funding, fades with time after an emergency, so it is with other rights, including consumer rights - they just do not seem as immediate or interesting. This is why it is important to share stories of how the organization’s specific piece of the picture is unique and improves live. Other problems that may arise include changes in the donors’ course of action, and organizations must be prepared for this. To avoid compromise of original aims, projects such as the Where is the Money in Women’s Rights? initiative offer more collective perspectives on funding, or "resources mobilization," emphasizing both financial and non-financial (publicity, volunteer time etc.) resources that are necessary for organizations to sustain their work.

Beyond fundraising, human rights practitioners need time to reflect and plan in order to work effectively. Without it, they end up forsaking their own safety, health and happiness to get the work done. Donors need to recognize this and while some do, even encouraging grantees to include line items for this in their budgets; it is an ongoing dialogue between grantmakers and their partners to ensure that this trend continues and grows.

When searching for the right kind of funder, a database such as the International Human Rights Funders Group Directory of Human Rights Funders is a good starting point, especially for those new to the work. Meeting people in person is also important, whether is informally or formally, to tell them about what you do and to ask them about their work and priorities - important nuances of which will come across much better in person than thru websites or documentation. Conferences bringing NGOs and donors together are another great opportunity. Finally, having contact with someone before going to the work of a proposal is essential to really see whether ideas align before putting everything to paper. Funding has always been difficult for those entities that support grassroots groups, social movements, and community-led initiatives, free from externally imposed agendas. For this kind of work, collaboration, partnership, coalition building are necessary not only for funding but to make programmatic goals a reality.

How can funders collaborate with human rights organizations more effectively?

Peer-to-peer interactions in the funding world are hugely important and successful models are those in which funder/grantmaker gatherings have a space for honest discussions and debates as these relationships can radically change the way we all work together. It is also important to bring focused attention to issues in the Global South, where many donors would rather not go given the choice, and to make smaller, newer or struggling organizations understand that donors exist to be their partners - not their superiors or simply a source of funds.

In order for honesty to exist, there has to be a longevity in the relationship and an expectation set by funders from the very start that making mistakes and learning from failures is invited for both parties. Incorporating a more democratic approach to human right grantmaking requires patience, time, persistence and relinquished control by the funder, to promote an understanding of rights and responsibilities of local people, who have the best understanding of their communities and are in the best position to create solutions, to tackle powerlessness and exclusion. Collaborative funds like Disability Rights Fund are attempting to bridge the gap between donors and activists, bringing them together to make strategy and funding decisions.  These partnerships can teach a lot about how to best support human rights movements, build trust and develop programs that effectively support grantees.

What matters most in grantmaking for human rights is having a cultural competency, building trusting and respectful relationships, actively participating in alliances and networks between civil society organizations, committing to supporting partners, having a results orientation, and inviting grassroots partners to provide input into funding practice, protocols and criteria. Finally, the real case studies, stories and complexities of rights-based impacts needs to be more boldly articulated to educate and inspire funders to make better philanthropic choices and learn from first hand experiences.

What are the components of a sustainable funding strategy for human rights work?

A sustainable funding strategy will likely involve a balance between staff working on fundraising and on human rights. Having fundraisers able to participate "in the field", and non-fundraising staff able to understand the value of fundraising for human rights work can strengthen relationships and boost fundraising ability. Otherwise, promises are made or concepts 'sold' that cannot actually be delivered. Clear channels of communication must exist along with high levels of mutual accountability.

While some, especially in the US, argue that nonprofits spend too much on overhead costs, relying on donor funding makes it extremely difficult to be entirely sustainable. With changing donor priorities and time limits on funding, organizations will always be looking for new sources of support. These organizations also have difficulty thinking of the value that they create outside of the social impact and do not consider income generating initiatives, and yet not having to rely on repeat support from donors is key to assessing whether a fundraising model is sustainable. Having a ‘demand pull’ response, where beneficiaries take charge of project implementation and results on the ground speak clearly to a well-thought out strategy and approach and donors respond enthusiastically to the success achieved.

One funding trend among foundations and governments that traditionally have funded NGOs based in developed countries is to fund local groups in developing countries directly. In practice, though, few local NGOs have experience or much knowledge about fundraising and funders, committed to letting them craft their own solutions, have done little to equip these new grantees to sustain themselves financially. Another trend is toward more collaborative approaches to HR work, largely aided by digital communications and social media. For this to work, planning and budgeting needs to be done in advance, formal agreements made and a lead group made responsible for keeping track of activity. Such "net-centric" proposals acknowledge and leverage the power of networks to achieve common goals, aiming to connect with existing networks and communities of practice, online and offline, implementing information and communication technologies, budgeting ample time and money for content creation and community management, promoting openness and transparency, measuring, evaluating and publishing successes and failures to pass on lessons learned, and highlighting the importance of flexibility.

An issue which is fundamental for the human rights sector is that of where the limit is put on donations – what can be accepted and what cannot. Over the last three decade, the human rights sector has mainstreamed approaches and "do no harm" policies into development and other sectors, but little has been done to assess the extent to which these policies have been applied by the human rights sector itself. Just as donors screen potential beneficiaries, grantees may want to consider screening donors before accepting donations.  WITNESS shares 5 categories they use to screen potential investments/donors: qualitative, positive and avoidance screening, shareholder engagement and proxy voting.

Assessing the impact of human rights work is a central component of effective fundraising strategies. It also poses major challenges with regards to elements such as attribution of (human rights) change to particular interventions and a focus on expected results as opposed to wider program impact. It is also import, though difficult, to make donors who want quick and quantifiable results aware that while human rights work does brings about deep societal change, it may take years and is particularly challenging to measure with traditional methods (log frames, quantifiable indicators, etc). For this, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has developed a range of useful indicators on HR work.

Assessing the impact of human rights work is not just the job of the fundraising, however!  IFEX has found a way to avoid the creation of silos (those that carry out the program work versus those that raise money for the work).  IFEX has integrated their program development, implementation and monitoring/reporting proccesses.  IFEX shared their 2011 Program Summary as an example of how they organize their work each year and track their impact.  

There are lots of creative ways to share stories of impact!  More and more stories are being presented visually, to speak to the diversity of audiences. While some need longer, more detailed narrative reports, others only want pictures and visually interesting results. The added benefit is that these visual reports can also then be used for promoting your work.

One impediment to sustainable fundraising that arises time and again is the poor way in which the value of human rights work is communicated. Part of this is the challenge of showing impact, but at least three other things come into play: an inability/resistance to communicate intentions written materials, an absence of human beings in the discussion on fundraising and a lack of awareness of audience or failure to distinguish among various funding audiences.


Conversation Leaders

AlixTrot's picture
the engine room
Revolutions's picture
Jane Barry
jwrenn's picture
Jesse Wrenn
American Jewish World Service
rajasvini's picture
Rajasvini Bhansali
International Development Exchange (IDEX)
vploton's picture
Vincent Ploton
Association for the Prevention of Torture (APT)
Maureen James's picture
Maureen James
International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX)
Sara Federlein-WITNESS's picture
Sara Federlein
Anne Travers's picture
Anne Travers
Shalini Nataraj's picture
Shalini Nataraj
Global Fund for Women