Over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, the funding community has wrestled with how to meet the moment as challenges continue to mount. An informal poll of Fund for Global Human Rights grantees found that, six months into the pandemic, almost twice as many respondents had lost funding and been forced to let go of staff compared to an earlier survey. Grantees also reported an uptick in governments weaponising pandemic restrictions against activists who challenge their policies.
How have those of us in philanthropy responded? Amid calls to spend down, some private foundations have stepped up. Instead of holding on to money and power, they are increasing their rate of payout and releasing more funding as its needed.
Now, it’s time for public charities and international organisations that operate as grant-makers to change the way we work as well. That begins by shifting the philanthropy sector’s focus from attempting to solve discreet problems to resourcing long-term change, investing in intersectional solidarity, and – ultimately – by ceding power directly to the activists and movements working toward systemic transformation.
Human rights funders have long sought to be accountable not only to our donors but to the grantees and communities we serve. For example, the Fund for Global Human Rights, where I work, has taken steps that include having activists on our board of directors and vetting our grant-making strategies and priorities with activist advisory committees – actions that we believe have fostered trust-based relationships with grantees.
We’re ready to admit that this approach is no longer sufficient.
Philanthropy should not be necessary to meet basic needs or fill gaps in government services in the first place. The funds we distribute have been generated by an unfettered capitalist system that has eroded rights and left communities much more vulnerable to crises like the current pandemic. Global capitalism has generated austerity, privatised public services to the exclusion of many, and created debt dependency and debt-focused state expenditures in the Global South.
It is incumbent on international NGOs and public charities to re-examine our role in that punitive system. And it’s clearer than ever that we have an urgent responsibility to not only meet immediate needs but to push harder for transformational change.
First, those of us with access to financial capital must work to increase the volume of funding that makes it to the ground. As intermediary organisations, we also have a duty to transform restricted funding – granted with a focus on short-term outcomes and single-sector work – into the flexible support that groups need to face new challenges. Raising highly restricted funds, taking on the reporting burden, and directing those funds to frontline groups without restrictions are all concrete steps we can take.
Second, we can resource groups and movements that – regardless of the issues they seek to address – work in solidarity with other struggles, from healthcare to police brutality to land rights. As authoritarians threaten civic space, frontline groups are leveraging a tremendous opportunity to demonstrate their relevance. Resourcing their intersectional work can create new opportunities. Through their vitally important efforts, human rights defenders are driving conversations about what is needed to prepare for future pandemics, climate change, and other existential threats.
Finally, one promising way to truly shift power is through participatory grant-making, in which the activists and communities most affected have the power to decide where to allocate funding. Some progressive grant-making organisations – most notably women’s funds – have already adopted a participatory model. As we move to do more to shift power and be accountable to activists and communities, the Fund is piloting its first participatory grant-making project, building forms of participatory grant-making into more future programming, and looking to movements to set priorities about where resources are most needed.
As grant-makers, we need to orient toward ceding power to the frontline groups and movements meeting those unprecedented challenges. Reflecting deeply on the power dynamics of funding relationships is the first step toward building a just and sustainable future.
It’s time for the philanthropic community to have a frank conversation about our funding priorities and practices. Making bold changes now will ensure that power rests where it belongs – in the hands of activists and movements.
David B. Mattingly is vice president for programmes at the Fund for Global Human Rights.