Human Rights Funding Has Much Room to Grow

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With stories like Malala Yousufuzai’s defense of girls’ education in Pakistan and Chen Guangchen’s escape from house arrest in China regularly making world headlines these days, global awareness of and demand for human rights is on the rise.

But while many philanthropic foundations, such as the Ford Foundation and the Open Society Foundation, have been at the forefront of advancing human rights, a new report from the Foundation Center and the International Human Rights Funders Group finds that philanthropists on a whole have been slow to embrace human rights funding.

Looking at data from 2010, the report identified a total of 703 foundations in 29 countries that made at least one grant to human rights (as defined by the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights) in that year. U.S. foundations were the most numerous funders, making a total of 652 grants; Western European foundations followed with 28 grants, and then Latin America foundations at 9 grants. But curiously, the report found that “half of the foundations among the top 15 donors to human rights do not describe themselves as human rights funders.” Moreover, hundreds of additional foundations who made grants to human rights-related causes did not self-identify as human rights funders either.

Reasons for this reluctance to embrace the mantle of human rights funder may simply relate to ambiguity about what constitutes human rights—many foundations may make grants targeting marginalized populations in ways that align with the UN’s definition, but still not consider themselves human rights funders.

Yet it may also have something to do with the sometimes controversial nature surrounding human rights. Two of the challenges to increasing human rights funding identified by the report included “negative public perception of human rights,” fed in part by growing political conservatism, animosity towards migrants and refugees, and perceptions of rights advocates as protecting criminals and terrorism suspects over average citizens; and “government backlash against human rights” in countries where governments have responded to calls for more personal liberties as threats to political stability. To avoid extra scrutiny in their countries of operation, some funders have gone the route of labeling their activities as “social justice grantmaking” or “social change grantmaking” instead.

This is not to say, however, that human rights funding is at all inert. The very fact that funding for human rights spans 29 countries in 7 major geographic regions indicates its global scale and significance. The 703 foundations made a combined 12,000 grants to human rights causes in 2010, totaling 1.3 billion in funding. The majority of these grants went to U.S.-based organizations working on domestic causes, but a fifth of the funds also went to U.S-based organizations working on international initiatives. Organizations working in sub-Saharan Africa also received a substantial $111 million in grants, or 9% of total human rights funding. The top cause for funders across the board was “individual integrity, liberty and security,” receiving 36% of total funding, followed by 16% to general human rights funding, 10% to health and well-being, and 9% to sexual and reproductive rights.

To help human rights funding reach its full potential, the report authors identified 7 challenges that must be overcome. In addition to the two previously mentioned (overcoming negative perceptions and government backlash), these include: making human rights accessible, connecting across sectors, increasing coordination among funders, increasing usage of rights based approach within grantmaking institutions, and evaluating the impact of human rights grant making.

Additionally, philanthropists and foundations must learn to work with the four key factors currently influencing human rights. These are:

  • Shifting Global Power Dynamics (understanding the rising prominence of the Global South and working with its government and non-governmental sector to bolster civil society)
  • Increasing Influence of Non-state Actors (addressing the human rights violations of non-state actors, such as organized crime groups, paramilitary groups, and military subconstractors, etc., and trying to engage them as allies in human rights promotion and protection)
  • The Impact of Global Financial Crisis (countering the loss of funding to human rights from governments due to austerity measures and increasing the awareness of interconnected demands for human rights)
  • Technology (leveraging technology as both a tool for human rights, but also understanding how governments may use it for repressive behaviors)

With the proper strategy and the will to implement it in place, human rights funding can ultimately lead to some of the most sustainable social transformations. Human rights funding targets structural change, which, in the best of circumstances, can empower entire communities and create a more equitable society. Philanthropists seeking to make profound change in their work can certainly play a leading role in the global advancement of human rights.

For more insights on human rights funding strategy, see the full report.  

About the Author

DSC_7053 final_smallAnh is the communications and development coordinator at Vietnam Health, Education & Literature Projects (VNHELP), a nonprofit dedicated to transforming the lives of Vietnam’s poor.  Prior to her current position, Anh worked with Give2Asia in the business development department to research and develop material for Vietnamese American and corporate philanthropy. She also served as managing for Vietnam Talking Points (part of OneVietnam Network), where she wrote about Asian American identity and culture.