5 things funders should know about the impact of human rights activism
Donors want to know if their money is making a mark. Here’s what they should look for.
This article is part of an editorial partnership with The Fund for Global Human Rights.
How can human rights funders be sure that their money is making a difference? Measuring the effectiveness of a grant can be tricky – it’s often hard to see the real impact of the work activists do. But the need is as great as ever.
People who defend human rights face mounting challenges around the world: restrictive laws, patchy public support, physical and digital threats, and attacks from organised crime, corporate interests and religious fundamentalists. In this moment, it’s critical that funders in the international arena stick with their frontline grantees.
At The Fund for Global Human Rights, we’ve spent more than fifteen years supporting such activists. Through this, we’ve learned five key lessons about how to measure the effectiveness of grassroots human rights work – takeaways that, in this challenging global environment, all supporters of grassroots activism can use.
1. It’s not about the numbers
People hostile to human rights and their defenders are spreading mistrust about civil society, so funders and activists are being pressed to demonstrate more wins, bigger gains and higher figures. But activism isn’t a numbers game – the changes we achieve can’t always be quantified.
To understand what drives progress we have to look beyond the numbers that funders often use to measure success: how many schools were built, say, or how many people attended a workshop or community meeting. Three new schools don’t guarantee equal opportunity for all pupils. And high turnout at a meeting does not mean the information shared was useful or later applied.
For example, the Fund recently brought together migrants’ rights activists from North Africa, Latin America and the US to form alliances, share learning and discuss better ways to protect the rights of child migrants. We aren’t measuring the success of that convening by counting how many people attended. The real impact comes afterwards, when participants return to their work with fresh ideas, new contacts and strengthened resolve.
Numbers alone don’t tell that story.
2. Change takes time
Movements aren’t built in a day – or by a one-year, one-off grant. Philanthropic organisations often award short-term, restricted funding and measure impact project by project. But real progress requires flexible financing over the long term.
Look at a recent landmark moment for India’s LGBTQ movement.
In September 2018, India’s Supreme Court struck down a provision in the country’s penal code that essentially outlawed same-sex relations and encouraged discrimination by criminalising “carnal intercourse” as “against the order of nature”.
That victory was the result of decades of work by Fund grantees like Ondede-Swatantra and Vikalp Women’s Group, as well as other courageous activists who campaigned tirelessly to defend the fundamental rights of LGBTQ people.
For more than a decade, the Fund has stood with and supported these remarkable activists with long-term, flexible financing and other forms of continued strategic support. The years of renewed support paid off when they achieved an historic victory. Would this incredible success have been realised if, half-way through a protracted legal and social battle, funders had pulled their support?
3. Measuring failures and setbacks is key
Learning from adversity can bring more insight than analysing a victory. The entire human rights community can learn from transparent reporting and honest assessment.
For example, during a visit to a grantee in Myanmar, Fund staff observed that no women were participating in meetings. We raised this issue with our grantee, and thanks to our long-term support and close working relationship they trusted us enough to have a frank discussion about it without fear of reprisal. The activists explained the challenges they face due to cultural norms in gender roles, but also took responsibility for their failure to prioritise gender parity. As a result, far from terminating the grant-making relationship, we’re providing them with additional resources, such as exchanges with women’s rights organisations, in order to adopt a strong feminist approach. We’re also undertaking a gender audit of the Fund’s entire Myanmar programme, because we believe that more inclusive organisations and movements are more powerful.
Failure can be a bitter pill, but measuring and learning from it is essential.
4. Little victories add up to big results
Real progress is often the result of many small steps. Not every success story makes the news, but incremental victories can amount to lasting, systemic change.
Take Fund grantee the Lesbian and Gay Legislative Advocacy Network Philippines, or LAGABLAB, as an example. Although the Congress of the Philippines failed to pass a national Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Expression (SOGIE) Equality Bill last year, LAGABLAB’s members still managed to mobilise a faction of equality champions in government and inspired eighteen cities, six provinces and three local districts to pass their own anti-discrimination ordinances. These victories at the personal or local levels pave the way for larger national outcomes – and they should be celebrated, too.
By investing in incremental change, we’re building the foundation for something larger.
5. Context matters
Measuring impact can be like comparing apples and oranges. Success looks different everywhere, and positive social change in one environment might not even be possible in another.
The Fund awarded its first grants to Tunisian human rights organisations in 2004. Long stifled by the administration of former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisian civil society received little support from US and European funders. We recognised that under Ben Ali’s brutal rule many local groups had necessarily modest ambitions. So for years we supported besieged human rights organisations, helping to keep their lights on and operations afloat. We understood that making an impact in Tunisia meant maintaining a nascent human rights movement that would be able to step forward when the time came.
Less than six months after a discouraging Fund visit to Tunisia in October 2010, that opportunity arrived. Popular protests overthrew the Ben Ali regime, human rights activists were welcomed back into public life and civil society emerged to help build a new Tunisia based on dignity and equality. That movement existed, in part, because we recognised that its survival through a difficult period was a victory in and of itself. Using context to set realistic expectations ensures that every activist receives the right support.
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