Philanthropists must step up and adapt to support local community action


David Mattingly


‘HELLO!’ reads the stock flyer, ‘If you are self-isolating, I can help with picking up shopping, posting mail, a friendly phone call, urgent supplies.’ Printed by the thousands and distributed around neighborhoods by members of community mutual aid groups in the US and UK, this little leaflet has sent a powerful message of solidarity amid the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic. Despite physical distancing, shelter-in-place orders, and quarantines, neighbours are stepping up to look after each other’s physical wellbeing, mental health, and access to critical resources.

Now, as the Global South braces for the full impact of COVID-19, funders have the same opportunity to resource local activists as they step up for their communities.

At the height of the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the Fund for Global Human Rights’ John Kabia noted that local groups were largely excluded from international funding and policy-making conversations. Despite possessing the credibility, knowledge, and organisational capacity to lead the fight against Ebola, these activists and organisations struggled to break through and obtain essential support. As grant-makers, we can’t afford to let that happen again.

For funders working with human rights defenders and organisations on the front lines of COVID-19, here are three ways we can step up to support them.

Offer flexible funding

With travel restrictions preventing site visits and the working environment changing by the hour, it’s more important than ever that we listen to – and trust – our locally-rooted partners.

Grantees must be able to reprogram existing funds, not only for human rights advocacy but for community education and safety efforts. For many communities, their only experiences with state authorities have been rooted in exploitation and repression. Local groups are key to ensuring these communities understand the vital importance of following safety measures and allowing health care workers access.

In addition to repurposing funds, we need to award more emergency off-cycle grants than we’re used to. Requests are already flooding in for personal protective equipment like masks, gowns, and gloves. We must help our grantees pay for critical supplies – whether it was in their budget or not.

This crisis demands that we respect changing priorities and shifting targets. Overnight, local organizers turned into frontline first responders. It’s on us, as funders, to make sure our money is meeting their needs.

Try new things

It’s been heartening to see many grant-makers easing restrictions and responding to the need for greater flexibility, but the urgency of the moment demands even more.

It’s essential that we support experimentation, try new ways of conducting human rights work, and exchange learning on how to protect rights in the context of a global pandemic.

For years, local activists have challenged the same systemic inequalities and discrimination that are exacerbating this public health crisis. Now, with the right support, they have an opportunity to demonstrate the power of human rights activism to meet community needs.

No one has all the answers right now – but with space to operate and ample resources, creative frontline activists can lead the way.

Support staff livelihood

For years, some in the funding community have talked about the lack of health insurance and other benefits afforded to grantee staff and contractors. Despite working selflessly to improve their communities and defend core freedoms, few activists enjoy things like paid sick leave or access to affordable health care.

Facing seismic shifts to their political, social, and economic realities, our frontline grantees deserve support that goes beyond funding and technical assistance.

First and foremost, that means allowing organizations to use grants to pay staff salaries and honor consultants’ contracts – even if they are unable to work right now. We must help activists and their families survive the worst days of this crisis.

It also means setting aside stringent requirements and unrealistic deliverables. Grantees are often compelled to prioritise work with meagre resources over their own wellbeing. This imbalance is driven largely by donor demands.

It’s on us to demonstrate that their mental health and livelihood are our highest priorities. This is the moment to have difficult conversations with our grantees’ management about what systems are in place to assist staff and contractors, what the barriers are to providing better care, and what resources they need to support mental health and safety.

This is an unprecedented crisis and funders must leverage the entirety of our resources as effectively as possible to support frontline groups.

By supporting our grantees with flexible funding, providing room for experimentation, and putting a new emphasis on their health and wellbeing, funders can signal that we are ready to adapt with them. These changes are necessary to meet the demands of the pandemic, but they’re also the first steps toward a new approach to philanthropy: one rooted in responsiveness, care, and utilizing our own power and privilege to amplify marginalized voices.

With our help, local civil society will weather this storm. And in the aftermath of COVID-19’s destructive spread, they’ll be there – to pick up the pieces and build a better, fairer future.

David Mattingly is the Vice President for Programs at the Fund for Global Human Rights, a public foundation supporting over 300 grassroots organisations and local activists in more than 20 countries across the globe.

Tagged in: Covid-19

Comments (1)

Adelaida Berino

Very good approach to protect the well-being of workers in the field of human rights, but how about those who had been working and retired and who also need help especially during this pandemic period,

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