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Meeting the moment: more and better funding for human rights

Interactive map showing where human rights grants go

When we launched our research to map the human rights funding landscape in 2010, we wanted to both increase funding for the human rights field and help funders spend it more effectively. As the COVID-19 pandemic and sweeping protests against police brutality lay bare the systemic racism and inequality that persist in the United States and globally, we must consider our values and commitments as human rights funders and ask ourselves how we can step up in this moment. What does our most recent data on grantmaking in 2017 show us? Is human rights philanthropy providing more and better funding in support of transformative change?

In 2017, a record 849 foundations based in 45 countries made more than 25,000 grants that met our definition of human rights grantmaking.[1] Their giving totaled $3.2 billion–an all-time high for human rights philanthropy. Giving by foundations that shared grants data for both 2016 and 2017 increased 24 percent in 2017.[2] The growth in grant dollars for human rights work is encouraging as we strive to change systems and structures in ways that advance human rights worldwide. As, however, more funders put their resources toward the human rights sector, we must ask: To what extent are they funding the communities most affected by injustice and inequality? Are they providing flexible and unrestricted support so those communities have the power to set their own priorities? Despite growing rhetoric from funders and activists alike about the need to get more flexible funds to groups closer to the ground, our data shows there is room for improvement.

Flexible general support

In 2017, 28 percent of human rights funding was reported as flexible general support, a significantly higher proportion than the 20 percent for philanthropy overall. Yet, whether organizations receive flexible funding varies based on where they are located. Although 30 percent of human rights funding for groups in North America is flexible, organizations based in the Global South and East receive flexible support in much smaller proportions–ranging from 16 percent of grant funding for Latin American organizations to 7 percent for organizations in Asia and the Pacific to 2 percent for organizations in the Caribbean. Communities situated on the front lines of human rights struggles have limited access to resources. As human rights funders endeavor to support these communities, we should strive to provide more flexible funding, which will enable them to determine appropriate solutions and respond nimbly as situations change. 

Funding locally based groups

Graph of foundation funding for human rights to recipients based in the region of benefit in 2017

Organizations in the Global South and East also receive a much smaller proportion of funding meant to benefit their regions than organizations in North America or Western Europe. For example, while 100 percent of funding meant to benefit North America is awarded to organizations based in North America, just 49 percent of funding to benefit Sub-Saharan Africa is awarded to organizations based there. Though there are many reasons why funders may not fund locally based groups,[3] these figures raise questions about funders’ trust in Global South and East organizations–questions amplified when we consider the disparities in flexible general support.

Human rights funders have a critical role to play in shifting power and practices in philanthropy to push for a more just and equitable world. More than 750 philanthropic institutions, including many of our members, have pledged to alter their grantmaking practices in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, including eliminating restrictions on grants, supporting community-driven solutions, and getting funding to where it is needed most. What will we see when we analyze 2020 human rights grantmaking? The coming years? We hope to see more and flexible funding placed directly in the hands of those most affected by systemic injustice and inequality, and our funder community leading that charge.

About the research

The Advancing Human Rights research tracks the evolving state of global human rights grantmaking. It is a collaboration between Human Rights Funders Network and Candid, in partnership with Ariadne—European Funders for Social Change and Human Rights and Prospera—International Network of Women’s Funds. Visit our research hub and most recent key findings report to learn more about human rights funding.

[1] Human rights grantmaking pursues structural change to ensure the protection and enjoyment of the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and subsequent human rights treaties. We include any grant that meets our definition, regardless of whether the funder considers its work to be human rights focused or uses a human rights-based approach in its grantmaking.

[2] Year-to-year changes in grantmaking can be influenced by the actions of one or a few foundations, the authorization of multi-year grants in a single year, a small number of very large grants, or a foundation submitting more detailed and comprehensive grants data. We should be cautious about drawing long-term conclusions about shifts in grantmaking based on single-year changes.

[3] In part, this failure to fund locally based organizations is likely related to the requirement that U.S. foundations must evaluate whether intended foreign grantees are the equivalent of a public charity. This evaluation can be excessively burdensome. These statistics may also indicate that some funders are opting to work through intermediaries that have local knowledge and staff.


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  • Rachel Thomas says:

    July 20, 2020 9:39 am

    Hi Rita,

    Human rights are the basic rights and freedoms all people are entitled to, regardless of sexual orientation or any other characteristic. This United Nations resource provides some helpful info on international human rights law and sexual orientation:

    Best wishes,
    Rachel Thomas

  • Rita Thrasher says:

    July 11, 2020 10:17 pm

    Are sexual orientations considered human rights ?