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Now That We're 'Canon': 3 Ways to Advance Human Rights Philanthropy

June 19, 2013

(Daniel Jae-Won Lee is the executive director of the Levi Strauss Foundation, an independent private foundation that conveys the pioneering spirit and enduring values of Levi Strauss & Co.: originality, empathy, integrity and courage. He leads the foundation's international grantmaking in four areas: confronting HIV/AIDS stigma and discrimination, advancing worker rights in the apparel industry, helping low-income people save and invest in their futures, and advancing social justice.)

Headshot_daniel_leeFor better or worse, the field of philanthropy is inundated with reports. My swelling "to-read" pile is the root cause of seemingly intractable clutter in my office.

Amid this cacophony, Advancing Human Rights: The State of Global Foundation Grantmaking warrants our attention. On its part, the International Human Rights Funders Group deserves kudos for culling rich insights from wide-ranging interviews with members from nine countries.

It's significant, as well, that the Foundation Center co-authored the report, its first-ever in-depth look at the topic of global human rights. As the go-to clearinghouse for information about philanthropy, the Foundation Center tracks trends and makes new knowledge visible, literally and figuratively putting grants data on the map. You might even say that funders look to the Foundation Center to discern what's "canon" in institutional philanthropic funding flows.

Human rights funders, rejoice -- we're on the map.

Some of you will recall the Foundation Center's groundbreaking survey Social Justice Grantmaking: A Report on Foundation Trends, released eight years ago (not to mention the incisive second edition in 2009). Whether by coincidence or correlation, its publication heralded a period of substantial growth for the field of social justice philanthropy, climbing to nearly 15 percent of all institutional giving. More important, it served as a touchstone for vigorous dialogue and nimble collaboration among foundations – even luring new players to the table.

As the ink dries on Advancing Human Rights, how can we spur a similar ripple effect for the field of human rights philanthropy? Here are my initial thoughts -- and let's borrow from the metaphorical trove of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights movement:

1. Help peers out of the closet. Advancing Human Rights identifies a swath of funders making grants that fall within the report’s definition of human rights but do not categorize their work as human rights philanthropy (many explicitly embrace “access to” approaches that go far beyond service delivery in such realms as health and education). Curiously, this includes six of the top fifteen funders -- all based in the United States -- that are featured in the survey.

It is time for more seasoned funders to share lessons from their institutions on "making the case" for a rights-based approach. What arguments or illustrations can convince trustees, donors, executives, and fellow staff members? What tools can we share to make human rights funding accessible -- and not the hallowed (and isolated) terrain of experts?

2. Let’s be "out, loud, and proud" on impact. Advancing Human Rights underscores the need for bold grantmaking that bolsters local advocacy and organizing -- and, moreover, for broadened general operating and multiyear support. This echoes the call to action of the U.S.-based National Committee on Responsive Philanthropy, a sector "watchdog" that aims to represent the best thinking of the nonprofit sector and social justice leaders.

Stark fault lines separate those funders who do and do not embrace these perspectives. Vigorous action to demonstrate the value proposition of investing in advocacy -- and illuminate its "life cycle" of impact over time -- is sorely needed. Within our grant portfolios and databases resides a wealth of data and narratives that will help cement this case. What are the big wins, the intermediate wins -- and, for that matter, the setbacks and upshots? How do strategies like policy advocacy, community organizing, and civic engagement collude to foster "perfect storms" of social change?

Many of us know instinctively that investing in the grassroots is a powerful and durable strategy. If we'd like to see more flows of general and multiyear support for advocacy, it is incumbent upon us to provide convincing evidence. In a provocative report, Leveraging Limited Dollars, NCRP calculated a $115 return in community benefit for every $1 invested in policy and civic engagement in the United States. Let's join this conversation with examples from the global front.

3. Convey "positive" human rights stories. As Advancing Human Rights notes, clear public messaging is critical to build a moral and political consensus for human rights on the grassroots, national, regional and global levels. But this field faces a vexing challenge: people tend to notice human rights only in their absence. In other words, communicating about human rights can seem a rather morbid affair -- as appealing as chasing ambulances.

Shedding light on egregious abuses will always remain a crux part of the human rights agenda. On the other hand, narratives of human possibility and courage -- whether of affected communities or defenders -- can powerfully influence hearts and minds. What's the positive value to society of human rights movements, mechanisms, and wins? How can we use new tools of technology and media to "color in the faces" of those bearing the brunt of stigma and discrimination? How can we make winning cases for values like participation, non-discrimination and access to justice?

No doubt, the global human rights movement is a powerful shaper of the energy and events of our time. Advancing Human Rights sets the stage for funders to deepen our commitment to bolster pioneering advocacy -- and cues the spotlight for the sector of human rights philanthropy to take center stage.

-- Daniel Lee

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