Donors who view philanthropy solely through the lens of impact often neglect the ingredients of sustainable social change. This was made abundantly clear to me on a recent trip to meet with human rights activists in Morocco.
On one hand, I understand why donors want to know what their gifts accomplish; their hard-earned (or inherited) money is inherently imbued with value. At the same time, I find the whole enterprise of measurement as the basis of giving to be short-sighted and unfair.
I work for a human rights organization, the Fund for Global Human Rights, that supports local groups working to effect change in their communities. In a traditional sense, we might consider grantees’ impact by the laws they change, the reduction of rates of violence against women they are able to bring about, or the achievement of increased access of girls to secondary school – all important and quantifiable milestones.
But it’s not so simple. In Morocco, where public space is more strictly policed, activists must tread carefully; thus, they have evolved, working less confrontationally and more creatively. Some of the most effective local groups I met with use the arts to reach their communities and nurture freedom of expression. Others offer health information, legal assistance, or job training to help people and engage them in conversations about their needs and expectations. The immediate effects were obvious. But importantly, long-term benefits were being created too.
Many rights groups in Morocco are increasingly focused on youth. They create spaces for young people to meet one another, exchange ideas, and learn to ask incisive questions about the communities in which they live. Media plays an important role here; I saw young people running radio stations, creating videos, and being willing to have hard conversations about topics normally unspoken. These activities are liberating for people who live in a country where questioning the government and monarchy are generally taboo.
The human rights groups I met are planting the seeds for an educated citizenry that will come of age soon. Aside from knowing that students shared ideas, learned skills, and created community, how will we know whether these activities had an impact? How do you measure an open mind?
We plant trees knowing that they’re good for the earth. We don’t necessarily know how tall they’ll be or when they will reach their full height. But we know it’s the right thing to do for the preservation of our planet. If we can do this for trees, why can’t we do it for people? Why is the kind of long-term investment I described – community building and civic education – hard for so many donors to imagine?
If we really want to see change, we need to be patient and generous, trusting the local activists who understand people’s needs and providing grassroots groups the necessary resources to support their communities. This – and not a narrow fixation on measurable impact – is strategic philanthropy. More importantly, perhaps, it is a form of giving that epitomizes justice and respect, not control or management.
Rona Peligal is Vice President for Development and Communications at the Fund for Global Human Rights.