Philanthropy is innovative, invests in long-term solutions, and take risks, right? Isn’t that what we always say when called on to explain why foundations should be independent, free from excessive regulation, and not told how to spend their money? On Tuesday, George Soros walked the talk with a $100 million grant to Human Rights Watch.
The fact that the Soros gift should seem remarkable is, in itself, remarkable. Despite claims to the contrary, philanthropy in general is quite risk averse. In 2008, the largest share of grant dollars went to Health (23 percent) and Education (22 percent). Within each of these areas, some risky grants were made. Any donor who has chosen to fund reproductive health is well aware of the political firestorm that can erupt around that issue. Likewise, the first donors who funded charter schools were roundly criticized for breaking with education reform orthodoxy. But much philanthropy in these areas goes to wealthy alma maters and major hospitals. That is to be applauded; the American system depends on the generosity of donors for these institutions to thrive, but it would be a stretch to say such grants are risky.
Human rights is definitely risky business. By picking Human Rights Watch, George Soros has opened himself to criticism that he is betting on an organization some have accused of having a double standard when it comes to reporting on Israel’s role in Middle East conflicts. The AP story on the Soros gift talks about this and the readers’ comments below hardly read like fan mail. Human rights, by definition, holds governments accountable for measuring up to the high standards of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Human Rights organizations are a thorn in the side of governments everywhere, exposing illegal detention and torture, crimes against humanity, and political repression. Any donor that decides to support human rights can be guaranteed that somewhere in the world, including the U.S., somebody in power will be unhappy with the work their grantees are doing. In extreme cases, the lives of those they are supporting may be in danger.
Because human rights is risky business, it is particularly well-suited to philanthropy. We know who the big human rights funders are: George Soros’ own Open Society Institute, the Ford Foundation, Atlantic Philanthropies, the MacArthur Foundation, and European-based funders like the Oak Foundation and the Sigrid Rausing Trust. But how many foundations support human rights work, how much do they spend annually in doing so, and who gets the money? Together, the Foundation Center and the International Human Rights Funders Group plan to answer those questions. By coming up with better definitions of what constitutes human rights philanthropy, applying them to existing data, collecting new data, doing research, and designing interactive ways to visualize this information, we hope to help existing donors become more strategic and encourage new donors who might be considering human rights funding to take the plunge. And lest anyone think human rights is only for the big foundations, consider the High Stakes Foundation in Arlee, Montana, which gives about $750,000 annually and in 2008 used $30,000 of that for a grant to the Montana Human Rights Network.
Russell Leffingwell, former chair of the Carnegie Corporation, said it best in 1952 when testifying before Congress in response to allegations that foundations were supporting “un-American activities”:
To my mind, it is not merely the money that the foundations give, but the stimulus and encouragement, the feeling that there is somebody that you can go to and say, “I know this a very difficult thing, and I am going to get into a lot of trouble and get you into a lot of trouble, probably. But here is something that ought to be tried. Those are the risks.”
Soros himself reminded us of where philanthropists find the courage to take such risks when he told the New York Times that his gift to Human Rights Watch was “from the heart.”
Bradford Smith is president of the Foundation Center.
This blog post was originally published as part of the Philan Topic blog on the Philanthropy News Digest website.