IHRFG conference brings new clarity about priorities of human rights funders


Catherine Townsend


I’ve just returned from the International Human Rights Funders Group (IHRFG) conference in San Francisco. IHRFG is an international network of private philanthropic institutions and public grantmaking charities committed to advancing human rights around the world. In my many years of attending these conferences, I’ve rarely left with such clarity about the priorities of human rights funders.

While these are not new developments per se, it was striking the way donors from all around the world, whether from the US, Europe or the Global South, coalesced around three priorities:

  1. Investing in security measures that protect both us and our grantees
  2. Understanding economic systems and funding human rights work to strengthen economic justice
  3. Increasing the involvement of communities in donor decision-making

Investing in security measures

The conference kicked off with a digital security training coordinated by Tactical Technology Collective. Recent revelations about government surveillance, media coverage of how vulnerable data security is, and grantee experiences with digital threats have focused donors’ attention. The day revealed how much we have to learn about protecting both our foundations’ data and the rich content that we collect from our grantees. Concerns about how donors manage security (or ignore it) were raised again during a discussion about balancing grantee security and funder transparency and how we collect and share grants data. As a donor supporting the security and protection of human rights activists, I was heartened to see how much this discussion has shifted over the past several years, with a broad swath of donors now contemplating security audits and staff trainings on digital security, and how they can talk to their grantees about these threats and the multitude of mitigation steps available.

Understanding economic systems

From sessions on water to just food systems to a superbly fun Wheel-of-Fortune plenary, powerful economic actors and the human rights violations that result from economic structures were the main attraction – not the side show. During the conference Wellspring Advisors released a funders’ guide on Advancing Human Rights Accountability for Economic Actors. During the last plenary session, organizers shared an incredibly powerful video about income inequality around the world. Annie Hillar from Mama Cash summed it up this way in her conference tweet:

If we care about human rights, clean water, women’s rights, funders have to understand trade, investment, economic systems #ihrfg2015sf.’

Many of us left knowing more about trade and overly powerful economic actors, but we also acknowledged how little we know and how much more donors must do to support work that confronts economic injustices by states and non-state actors alike.

Increasing involvement of communities in decision-making

Participatory grantmaking percolated at almost every session – whether participants were talking about measurement and evaluation systems or about free and informed prior consent. The San Francisco meeting also marked the launch of a new working group focused on how donors effectively involve affected communities in decision-making. A report released last year by the Lafayette Practice entitled Who Decides: How participatory grantmaking benefits donors, communities and movements catalysed the collaboration by bringing together donors that were already using participatory models. Yet, what surprised me was the unity around the moral imperative to better involve affected communities in all grantmaking models.

Catherine Hyde Townsend is a senior programme officer at Wellspring Advisors.

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