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What Surprises Me about Human Rights Grantmaking

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melinda-fine-headshotMelinda Fine of TCC Group reflects on IHRFG and Foundation Center’s latest key findings report, Advancing Human Rights: Update on Global Foundation Grantmaking, and its implications for the field of human rights philanthropy.

When your job centers on helping funders assess needs, devise strategies, and manage and evaluate their grantmaking, you wish that every field would have a resource like Advancing Human Rights: Update on Global Foundation Grantmaking. Since IHRFG and Foundation Center launched this series four years ago—and added an interactive website three years ago—I have made regular use of these tools to understand levels of foundation engagement within and at the intersection of issues ranging from women’s rights in the Global South to environmental justice in the United States. This research has also been invaluable in helping the foundations I work with to see just how many peers and practitioners have aligned interests and could become partners in realizing their goals.

That is why I was surprised when I sat down to read the 2017 Edition of the Advancing Human Rights report. I realized that in using these resources to answer my very specific, client-focused questions, I had been missing some findings and trends that are beginning to reshape my thinking about foundation support for human rights. For example:

  • CCapacity Building and Technical Assistance image.pngapacity building and technical assistance ranks as the second most funded strategy after advocacy. I was not surprised to see that advocacy and systems reform was the top-ranked strategy, given that human rights work is ultimately about making structural change happen. But I was pleasantly surprised to see that capacity building and technical assistance ranked second. The fact that helping to build foundation and NGO capacity is central to the work of my own organization is certainly a factor. More importantly, however, is my understanding that the organizations most in need of this type of support are generally the ones physically closest to the individuals working to ensure their own rights. Which is what made the next finding surprising—or not.
  • Big grants seem to go to organizations headquartered outside of the regions they serve. The Advancing Human Rights report includes a chart showing how much of the funding focused on a specific region goes to recipient organizations headquartered in that region. In the case of Asia and the Pacific, three-quarters of the number of grants but only one-third of the dollars went to organizations in the region. That means most of the biggest grants focused on the region went to major organizations based outside of the region. Are those dollars ultimately being spent in the region? The report does not say. Either way, it does suggest that there is plenty of need for foundations to continue building the capacity of in-region organizations to be able to manage larger human rights initiatives themselves.
  • Foundations make more grants for human rights than bilateral and multilateral funders. According to the report, foundations made close to 21,000 human rights grants, compared to about 15,000 aid disbursements by bilaterals and multilaterals. Sure, the bilaterals and multilaterals gave more dollars ($3.8 billion versus $2.7 billion), but the difference really is not that great. I wonder how many other people fail to realize exactly how important foundation funding is to supporting human rights globally.
  • The Wikimedia Foundation now ranks as a top human rights funder. As I scanned down the list of leading human rights funders by number of grants, past usual suspects such as the Ford FoundationHIVOSOpen Society Foundations, and Global Fund for Women, I was surprised and excited to see the Wikimedia Foundation, a new movement-building funder, in 19th place (see TCC’s case study). Not only is a digital entity supporting human rights (and I saw in a footnote that they are also an IHRFG member), it has risen to the top rank of funders and can serve as a role model and guide for digital economy philanthropists. This may be especially important given my final surprise.
  • 2017-kt-report-coverWho will take the place of Atlantic Philanthropies after it sunsets? Okay, this was not so much a surprise as an observation, given that we all know Atlantic Philanthropies has given their last human rights grant and will be closing its doors over the next decade. But in this report, Atlantic ranks third among human rights funders with giving of $197 million. When they are gone, which foundation or foundations will take their place? Perhaps it will be family foundations like the Thomas Phillips and Jane Moore Johnson Foundation and the David Bohnett Foundation, which ranked among the top 25 funders for LGBTQI rights, or the Segal Family Foundation, which ranked among the top 25 funders for the rights of children and youth. I, for one, will be using the Advancing Human Rights resources to engage funders in thinking about how they may want to develop or deepen an engagement in some aspect of supporting human rights.

As for the other trends that surprised me, I will just have to wait until IHRFG and Foundation Center release their 5-year trend analysis later this year to see how they play out. In the meantime, I would be curious to see what a list of surprising findings might look like for others. And, of course, the Advancing Human Rights tools will continue to be the resources I start with when trying to understand and explain what is happening in the field of human rights grantmaking.

Melinda Fine is the Director of Philanthropy & Strategic Partnerships at TCC Group, a consulting firm that provides education, strategy, capacity building, and grantmaking support to nonprofits, philanthropies, and corporate citizenship programs.

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