Local community funding: what’s possible in Latin America?


Gastón Chillier


Much has been written about whether human rights organisations can centre their financial sustainability on support from local individual donors and free themselves from the traditional model of international funding. At CELS, we have concrete evidence to show that in Latin America this is possible. And the changes in our funding model have both provoked and accompanied shifts in our model of activism toward much greater mobilization of and alliances with new social actors, with growing synergies between the two.

CELS will celebrate its 40th birthday in 2019, and for nearly all these years we have depended on funding from international foundations and governments. Yet, we have noted that a disproportionate amount of funding goes to Northern and international NGOs. Over the last 15 years, we talked the talk about changing our financial model but, until recently, we did not walk the walk.

Then circumstances changed. First, we lost a key institutional donor who had provided us the exceptional opportunity to receive a significant five-year grant. Simultaneously, we saw evidence that our long-standing model of NGO activism centred primarily on influencing traditional power structures—the executive, Congress, courts, laws and public policy—at times was no longer providing sustainable results; greater emphasis on social mobilization was needed to sustain gains in the long term. It was time to recalibrate our strategies, streamline our research, litigation, and public policy advocacy, and put much greater weight on the alliances with social movements and other actors that we had been building since the crisis of 2001.

We set out to make these changes, believing in the complementarity between mobilizing support for the human rights agenda and transforming our funding model to one with a healthy balance between international funders and local individual donors. We are building a ‘CELS Community:’ a space for articulation and joint social activism with both individuals and social movements that creates a sense of belonging and common purpose toward advancing human rights.

In this context, in mid-2017 we launched a two-pronged campaign: 1) a digital strategy that generates contacts who support CELS via social networks, and 2) a telemarketing campaign known as warm-calling—contacting prospects who have shown interest in supporting our work. One year later, our efforts have yielded 2,400 new monthly donors within Argentina who provide over $21,000 each month—an amount that continues to grow. If we can sustain this trend, in six years, 50 per cent of our budget will come from individual donors in Argentina.

Cultivation of local donors is important both politically and financially, as it is a tool for increased engagement, commitment, and accountability. As just one example: eight years after selling original artwork donated by prominent Argentine artists to raise funds for CELS, we have built an entire program of Art and Human Rights that attracts new individual donors and expands our social base.

Such work implies a shift in our identity and our capabilities to date. We are implementing the structural changes required to cultivate and sustain individual donors—from record-keeping to major changes in our communications skills.

We are also incorporating new forms of activism to promote the CELS community, such as collaborations with student groups that range from street mobilisations to video projects. Incorporating these activities while preserving the quality of more traditional strategies is no small matter. We hope that our experience will inspire other organisations to move in this direction. We also hope that international funders, rather than withdrawing in light of this change, will become an active part of it, supporting Southern organisations as they make these challenging but groundbreaking changes.

This is not the first time CELS has adapted to respond to distinct political realities and societal needs, while never wavering from its core values. As we approach our 40-year anniversary, we stand prepared to continue this mini-revolution within our organisation, conscious of the risks and challenges, yet convinced about the ultimate benefits to our cause.

Gastón Chillier is executive director of the Center for Legal and Social Studies

This is an abridged version of a piece first published in OpenGlobalRights.org. The original version can be found here.

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