It’s time for human rights organisations to harness the power of local giving – and for funders to support them to do so

28 May 2021

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This blog originally appeared on the website of the European Foundation Centre


Individual giving has power. Consider the huge outpouring of donations to organisations such as the American Civil Liberties Union that followed Donald Trump’s executive ban on seven Muslim-majority countries in January 2017. Millions of dollars were raised by donations from hundreds of thousand individuals within hours of the ban, the mobilisation of a massive, perhaps normally invisible, constituency using the act of giving as an expression of protest and solidarity….

This example of “giving as protest” is perhaps something of a rather lone bright spot in what are increasingly worrying times for civil society around the world. Increasingly, governments are seeking to demonize NGOs and their international funders. Increased statutory requirements, constraints on external funding and the out-and-out demonization – even criminalisation – of civil society organisation as “foreign agents,” are all becoming increasingly common. The rise of populism and populistic politics, framed around promises of “bringing democracy back” to people who feel ignored and sidelined, is often accompanied by growing anti-minority and anti-human rights rhetoric.

At the same time, as more countries move from low to middle income status, local philanthropy is starting to emerge in many parts of the world that were previously themselves net recipients of aid. This has meant the creation of new private foundations by ultra-wealthy elites, many of whom have benefited from an increasingly unequal global economic system.

But other, more participatory or democratic types of giving are starting to emerge too, both among growing middle classes with disposable income and among poorer communities, where systems of giving and solidarity have long existed but where a new appreciation of how such assets can be mobilized and applied as part of a rights-based approach to development is gathering momentum.

While not all of this new public giving is necessarily socially progressive in its motivation or sustainable in its application, there is an important piece of the emerging discourse around participatory or community philanthropy that is being championed and innovated by civil society activists who feel that it is time for local people to have a greater say in and ownership of their development. In this framing, notions of “horizontal” (smaller, peer-to-peer) and “vertical” (larger and / or external) resources are gaining currency, with the implication that the mobilisation and blending of both types – and the interplay between them – can strengthen constituencies for specific issues or causes, flatten power dynamics and help to civil society organisations to embed themselves more deeply within their local context through increased local ownership.

At this time of flux, many civil society organisations (CSOs) working on rights and justice – often funded by international donors, and for whom local philanthropy may have always seemed like a complicated and unlikely source of support – are finding themselves facing a perfect storm. Funding – or access to funding – is drying up and they are increasingly being undermined as foreign or alien in their own communities. While local resources are becoming more relevant and more available than ever before, human rights and social justice issues are in danger of becoming further marginalised in national public narratives. And for human rights organisations themselves, doubts about seeking local resources remain, a combination of distrust of the new philanthropic establishment (and the axis of wealth and power that they represent) and concerns about compromising on core values. In other words, they are concerned about “selling out” (or at least at being perceived as doing so).

There is both an urgent need and a growing opportunity for funders to strengthen the resilience of their partners, including those that focus on human rights. An increased focus on local constituency-building (including creating a local funding base) is one part of this. In turn, this may also help such organisations to position themselves more strategically within larger local civil society eco-systems in ways that both sustain their larger purpose but are relevant to wider publics. Sure, embarking on a shift from external to local resources takes time. Although strategies, tools and tactics can be learnt, there are often fundamental – even existential – questions that individual organisations need to explore and mindsets that need to shift. But the potential returns are enormous if the right combination of public confidence can be created and mechanisms put in place through which people can give.

Typically, the task of fundraising is the work of individual grantwriters or departments, while the programme staff get on with “the work” of the organisation. This split between “money in” (fundraising) and “money out” (programmes) creates the idea that if the money can be raised, the work can be done. Clearly, in the area of human rights, it is much more than complex than that and often the key problem is that, until something happens to them directly that shifts their thinking, “ordinary” people do not regard human rights as “their problem,” or else they do not associate frustrations they may experience around bureaucracy, corruption, low public trust, weak institutions etc. as one point on a spectrum where, further along, rights violation are also happening. Building constituencies or a support base for rights work, reaching hearts and minds, unlocking and harnessing different kinds of assets (which may indeed include money) are all central ideas that need to be internalised throughout an organisation (management and board) as a central part of this work.

Hard work yes, but essential. The alternative, which is to suggest that human rights work will always be funded from outside, that local people will never embrace the values of justice and fairness, is surely not an option?


By: Jenny Hodgson, GFCF Executive Director

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