Posts Tagged ‘funders’

Putting words into action: Successful narrative-building in human rights work

April 8, 2021

James Savage in Open Global Rights talks about how aligning principles with practice, addressing the power dynamics of collaboration, and nurturing an ecosystem for narrative power can help narrative work succeed.

…As the program officer for the Enabling Environment Program at the Fund for Global Human Rights, I support human rights defenders to counter a burgeoning conservative and authoritarian worldview by weaving new narratives of humanity and hope. For the past two years, I have had the joy of working with JustLabs’ Narrative Hub project, as we accompany a cohort of four human rights groups in four different countries on a journey to explore the value, tools, and tactics of successful narrative-building. 

A year ago (and one year into the process with JustLabs), I shared some initial thoughts and assumptions about ways that funders might support this kind of strategic communications and narratives work. As a narrative novice, my continued apprenticeship has offered me a reminder of how important and effective it is as funders to align our principles and practice—to be our own narrative. In the spirit of open accountability, here I offer a few reflections on the “glows and grows” I’ve experienced accompanying this work over the last year—and how we, as funders, could equip this exciting, emergent field for long-term success. 

For some other posts on story telling. see:;; and

Narrative as process vs narrative as product

I took my cue from narrative trailblazers such as ReFrame Mentorship and early funders of strategic communications work like the Thomas Paine Initiative. Based on that, I’ve striven to align principles and practice by embracing uncertainty and flexibility, as well as by elevating processes, learning over product and impact, shifting power, building trust, and collaborating authentically. Easy for me to say, but harder to do when faced with the perceptions and reality of funder power dynamics. Particularly, my experience has highlighted the difference in and connection between narrative as process and narrative as product, and how those dynamics shape the expectations and outputs of the funder-grantee relationship.

After nine months spent working with each group to incubate their narrative prototypes through research and testing, we had reached an important review point. Then COVID-19 hit.

Unable to meet in person, we recognized an opportunity to bring new creativity to both our (now online) workshops and our project’s reflection process. Although our idea—to dispense with the standard grantee-funder report and invest in more of a story-led self-reflection—had been percolating before the onset of COVID-19, the fallout of the pandemic presented a chance to operationalize this novel approach to reporting. Allowing this shift in the relationship between funder and partner relieved ourselves of the product-driven parameters we often operate in and allowed us to instead celebrate the process of experimentation and learning. 

From the outset of this initiative, JustLabs and the Fund have supported, encouraged, and created processes for our partners to help them see that for narrative work to be sustainable, it can’t just be a project or product—it must be integral to their organization’s DNA and built into its system.

The power dynamics of partnership

A second reality check came in critiquing the power dynamics of partnership. Despite our best efforts to foster a participatory spirit of collaboration, there remains the uncomfortable truth that each of us still feels somewhat beholden to others’ expectations—activist to accompanier, accompanier to funder, funder to donor. 

With our funding, the four groups wanted to explore new, creative ways of doing narrative work by aiming for ambitious prototypes that may, in fact, have been out of step with their everyday work and core capacity. For our part, we needed to see some level of consistency and coherence in the work across four countries while ensuring that it was shaped by context and driven by the interests and capacity of each of the four groups. 

In working on this together, I have—imperfectly, I’m sure—tried to walk the line between sharing my ideas and resisting my instinct to solve. For instance, to help one partner meet its concern at over-burdening their in-house communications capacity, we offered additional resources so they had the option to engage an external design agency if they wished. Such active accompaniment has power written all over it—it takes a confident grantee or one with a strong relationship of trust to turn down their funder’s suggestion/offer. But rather than avoid it entirely and lose the benefits that come from thought partnership, co-creation, and shared learning, I wonder if we can better surface and own the forms of power at play to enable stronger collaboration between funders and grantees. 

One way we—JustLabs and the Fund—tried to do that was to join our grantees in being interviewed by Rebecca Lichtenfeld, our ally storyteller, so as to also take part in the reflection process. Then, in the spirit of mutual accountability, we summarized and shared our own learning with the four groups, inviting our grantees to further help us define our collective learning process. There is much more to do here, as Panthea Lee has suggested—addressing the power dynamics of co-creation and partnership demands real intentionality.

Nurturing collective narrative power – a challenge for funders

This brings me to my third key reflection from the past year, derived both from my work with the Narrative Hub and from illuminating interactions with narrative veterans. As the points above reflect, my take on power has been mostly internal—focused on navigating the power infused in my relationships. As I think about the sustainability of this process, I realise that it is equally important to nurture the collective narrative power of partners with their peers and allies, rooted in shared values and visions. A critical question for our next year of work together, is whether we are providing the resources and accompaniment that best enables them and their allies to do that. 

As Rashad Robinson has explained, narratives that help change the norms and rules that secure economic, climate, racial, gender, and other forms of social justice will come through “equipping a tight network of people organizing on the ground and working within various sectors to develop strategic and powerful narrative ideas, and then, against the odds of the imbalanced resources stacked against us, immerse people in a sustained series of narrative experiences required to enduringly change hearts, minds, behaviors, and relationships.”

As funders, we must act thoughtfully in how we help create such an ecosystem for narrative power. How we show up and how we do narrative work matters just as much as what we do and what we produce. We must center an accompaniment approach that aligns principles and process, starts from the real-world reality and goals of our partners, and invests in the infrastructure movements need to build and sustain their narrative power.

This article is a part of a collection by JustLabs and the Fund for Global Human Rights on bringing narrative initiatives to life in human rights work.

5 things funders should know about the impact of human rights activism

November 20, 2019
Fund for Global Human Rights horizontal logo

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.

See also:


Uncalculated Risks: attacks on human rights defenders in name of development

July 30, 2019

The Campaign is made up of defenders and those who work with them on issues of development and human rights – community organizations, human rights and environmental groups, defender security organizations, transparency and accountability NGOs, and indigenous peoples and women’s networks. It is hosted by the Coalition for Human Rights in Development. You can find the Campaign Declaration and list of participant organizations here. In June, the Coalition for Human Rights in Development (CHRD) launched a landmark report with the Defenders in Development Campaign, exposing the risks of mega-infrastructure  and other ill-planned development projects on human rights defenders (HRDs). The report laid out 25 case studies demonstrating that HRDs are facing increasing threats and attacks in the context of their resistance to activities undertaken in the name of development, including harassment, physical violence, criminalisation, arbitrary detention and murder.

The Findings:

  • Threats and attacks against human rights defenders in the context of development activities are widespread.
  • Though they take many different forms, the threats and attacks often start with the labeling of communities, groups, and individuals as “anti-development.”
  • The imposition of development activities without the consent or meaningful consultation of local communities and marginalized groups is one of the key root causes of threats for defenders in development.
  • Development finance institutions have a duty to respect human rights and to ensure that their investments are not putting people at risk.
  • Yet too often, development interventions exacerbate risks for defenders due to lack of adequate attention to the rights and interests of local communities and marginalized populations, and to the contextual risks and power imbalances that may cause them to bear negative impacts or to be made vulnerable.
  • Early warning signs of potential threats to defenders are often missed or ignored.
  • DFIs have a wide range of resources and influence that can be utilized to change the risk equation for defenders under threat, but often fail to proactively develop this leverage or are reluctant to utilize the leverage they have.
  • DFIs often remain silent in the face of threats and attacks, or responses come too little, too late and defenders and communities are left without protection or remedy for harm.
  • Several DFIs are beginning to grapple with threats to defenders in development, but much more is needed.

Effectively addressing the shrinking space for participation in development processes and the growing threats to defenders will require not only a change in policy and practice, but a fundamental shift that places human rights and local communities at the center of how development is conceived and implemented.

Landmark report finds attacks on human rights defenders in name of ‘development’ on the rise