Challenging the Obvious in Philanthropy: A fundraiser’s perspective on the Human Rights Grantmaking Principles

Challenging the Obvious in Philanthropy: A fundraiser’s perspective on the Human Rights Grantmaking Principles
October 3, 2023 Jana Stardelova

By Mathilde Rivoire*, Démocratie Ouverte

I often refer to this quote from French feminist author Virginie Despentes when thinking about current transformations in our societies: “It’s time to get away from the obvious.” In the nonprofit sector, challenging the obvious could be as simple as recognizing that working for justice does not always imply doing it in the right way.

The Human Rights Grantmaking Principles are a powerful compass for aligning practice and purpose in philanthropy. Each of the six principles strongly resonate with me between the cause I work for at Démocratie Ouverte (Open Democracy) – enhancing citizens’ power to achieve ecological and social transitions – and my 10 years of experience as a fundraiser in the nonprofit sector.

The definition of an open democracy is based on 3 pillars – transparency, participation, and cooperation – with inclusion as an essential condition. The three pillars should apply to all organizations that seek the collective interest and respect for human rights. However, in many sectors – including philanthropy – there is considerable room for improvement in whether and how these pillars are incorporated. Democratizing philanthropy could actually be seen as an oxymoron since philanthropy is seldom democratized. In fact, sometimes foundation behaviors, including grantmaking practices, can reflect the same exact systemic pitfalls that foundations are trying to fight in society. For example, a foundation may focus on social justice but not be aware of or question biases in grantmaking or other behaviors, whether they be racist, classist, sexist, ableist, or other forms of discrimination.

I’ve personally observed several areas where I believe philanthropy could improve its practices.

Transparency: What about fair access to grantmaking information? 

Being transparent about grantmaking sources and processes is an important step towards sharing power. From my experience, information is key to ensuring fair access to grant funding. People who already have great connections in spheres of power (alumni groups, family networks, friends) or who are strong networkers with English language skills are often more likely to learn about and be able to access funding opportunities. To level the playing field, grantmakers can make sure that their ways of operating are easy to access. Details about average funding levels and timelines, who to contact for information, and how decision-making works should be displayed on websites and even proactively made available to people further away from spaces of power. In a very practical way, I have observed that the more transparent donors are about their processes and working methods, the easier it is for organizations to identify funders whose priorities match their needs. This furthers goals on both sides. More donor transparency also makes it easier for organizations to analyze their chance of obtaining funding, and plan their budgets accordingly.

Participation: Open up governance and transform the power dynamic!  

Echoing the first grantmaking principle “Sharing and Shifting Power,” could we imagine breaking away from the decisions too often made behind closed doors by experts who sit on a board? In a move towards more democratic governance, many organizations have started transformations in their own governing structures. Some foundations are looking to restructure their boards to include the people their funding is meant to support. For example, the SNCF (the National French Corporation of Railways) Foundation announced plans to include 28 young volunteers in its governance, and the Guerrilla Foundation established a committee of activists to help guide its funding decisions.

Another idea is to allow all team members to have a voice in decision-making, based on the one-person-one-vote approach of cooperative organizations that embrace democratic governance. This would mean that the direct expertise of the people who meet with potential grantees, study funding requests, and understand the issues specific to certain areas of intervention are heard.

Beyond the organization itself, being part of a participatory grantmaking process as an NGO is also very empowering. This has been well described through the concept of regenerative philanthropy. As Justice Funders explains, this includes shifting to an approach “where foundations actively support new economic systems that transfer the management and control of financial resources away from institutions and into the hands of communities who have been impacted by wealth accumulation and the extractive economy.” Participatory grantmaking and shared governance are ways to implement this vision.

Cooperation: Care has the power to transform the grantmaker / grantee relationship. 

I connect care directly with cooperation, since the most transformative donor relationships I have experienced are the ones where funders put care at the center of their interactions with the groups they fund.

It starts with the understanding that the donor/grantee relationship reinforces power asymmetries. Acknowledging power dynamics, seeking equity, and having an understanding of classist, racist, ableist or sexist biases is a critical step, and necessary for being able to take operational actions to address those dynamics and biases. For example, when the French foundation La France s’Engage realized it was providing larger grants to organizations founded by men, it organized workshops for women founders in order to support them in applying for more funding. (Their applications consistently asked for less money than those submitted by their male counterparts.)

As a woman interacting with philanthropy, I’ve had my own experiences of bias. I remember a recent funder meeting where I was repeatedly interrupted during my presentation by a man explaining a point he didn’t think I understood. Because of my job, I often find myself trying to stay calm, listen, and adapt in such situations so as not to jeopardize the financial interests of my organization. However, I think it is time to openly speak about changing this kind of behavior in any sphere of society, including philanthropy.

Cooperation is also caring about fair remuneration of skills and the fight against activist burnout. The significant differences in remuneration between the for-profit and nonprofit sectors can affect the sociology of certain social struggles: People who can “afford” to work for impactful causes but are poorly paid are people for whom income may not be a priority issue. How can we think about social change without those who, because they have a student loan to pay back or need access to housing in cities with high rents, will have to move to higher paying sectors? Furthermore, I think that we must reinforce our vigilance on unpaid intellectual work and consider how to compensate people who are solicited for speeches, participate in surveys, or serve on advisory committees.

Care also goes beyond financial support. For example, it can be highly transformative for nonprofits when funders facilitate connections and share knowledge about funder networks. The stress of the fundraiser or anyone in a position of applying for funding is to present the wrong project to the wrong person when other programs within the foundation could match. Facilitating internal connections, and guiding or directing organizations to other funding opportunities, promotes a culture of cooperation between grant seekers and grant makers that serves human rights projects and – most importantly – advances human rights goals.

Practice the Principles

To conclude, the Human Rights Grantmaking Principles – and how they help funders to operate in coherence with the human rights causes they are supporting – are extremely valuable for organizations seeking foundation support. Embracing participation is a step toward shifting power, building trust, and fostering stronger partnerships. Transparency in grantmaking procedures means more accessibility for all. Cooperation and care provide the foundation organizations need to sustain and strengthen their work. It is my hope that the principles will encourage more funders to challenge the obvious, reflect on how they are working, and take action to incorporate transparency, participation, and cooperation across all aspects of their work!

*Mathilde Rivoire is head of development for Démocratie Ouverte, and is also in charge of an advocacy program to develop philanthropists’ commitment to democracy in France. She is an experienced fundraiser who previously worked on corporate relations and international coordination at Doctors Without Borders US and France, as well as for the development of private foundations and art initiatives.

About Démocratie Ouverte (DO): Démocratie Ouverte is a French independent non-partisan and nonprofit organization. Its vision is of democracy as a keystone to collectively address the ecological and social challenges of the 21st century. Its mission is to work towards a more transparent, participatory, and cooperative society by empowering citizens through research-action projects, network building, and advocacy.

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