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A mini revolution in Latin America: centering a human rights NGO’s funding model on the local community – It can be done!

Can a human rights organization in Latin America free itself from the traditional model of financial sustainability that depends nearly 100% on international funders? Yes, it can. Español

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Can a human rights organization in Latin America free itself from the traditional model of financial sustainability that depends nearly 100% on international funders? Yes, it can. At the Buenos Aires-based Legal and Social Studies Centre (CELS) we have exciting, incipient but concrete evidence to show that this is, indeed, possible.

And the changes we’re making in our financial sustainability model have both provoked and accompanied shifts in our model of activism toward much greater mobilization of and alliances with new social actors, with growing synergies between the two.

CELS will celebrate its 40th birthday in 2019, and for nearly all of those 40 years we have depended on international foundations and governments to fund our work. Over the years, we noted that a disproportionate amount of funding goes to Northern and international NGOs and we have worked with colleague organizations to make visible the implications for organizations in the South.

Over the last 15 years or so, we talked the talk about changing our financial model but, until recently, we did not walk the walk. It was easy to find excuses to put this off.

Some of our own resistance, discomfort and doubt that it would work was aided by some of our closest cross-cultural allies with fundraising experience in both Argentina and the US who, when hearing our plans for finding individual donors in Argentina, raised their eyebrows and questioned the feasibility of our approach. 

We are building a “CELS Community:” a space for articulation and joint social activism with both individuals and social movements that creates a sense of belonging and common purpose toward a shared goal of advancing human rights. 

So, what made us finally make the shift? Why now? First, we lost a significant institutional donor who had, at one point, provided us the exceptional opportunity to receive a significant five-year grant.

Suddenly, the time was now. Simultaneously, we saw evidence that our long-standing model of NGO activism centered primarily on influencing traditional power structures – the executive, Congress, courts, laws and public policy – at times was no longer providing sustainable results without greater emphasis on social mobilization to sustain gains beyond changes in government and other shifting political landscapes. Independent of financial issues, we knew it was time to recalibrate our strategies.

This meant streamlining our research, litigation and public policy advocacy and putting much greater weight on the alliances with social movements and other actors that we had been building since the economic, social and political crisis of 2001. These movements include, for example, the feminist collectives and student organizations that have exponentially increased social mobilization and greatly shifted the debate on gender violence and abortion rights, indigenous and peasant organizations, unions, and the like.

So, we set out to make these changes, believing theoretically in the complementarity between our objectives and strategies to mobilize support for the human rights agenda, and to transform our funding model to one with a healthy balance between international funding and income from small, medium and large local individual donors—such that efforts in one of these areas contribute to the other.

We are building a “CELS Community:” a space for articulation and joint social activism with both individuals and social movements that creates a sense of belonging and common purpose toward a shared goal of advancing human rights. All of our activities to broaden CELS’ social support base, recruit new donors and cultivate current ones have been aimed at strengthening this community.

And we have begun to crack the nut. After some initial testing to attract individual donors in 2016, in mid-2017 we launched a two-pronged campaign: 1) a digital strategy that generates contacts who support CELS via social networks, and 2) a telemarketing campaign known as warm-calling, that is, contacting prospects who have had prior contact with CELS and have shown interest in supporting our work. 

One year later, our efforts have yielded 2,400 new monthly donors within Argentina who provide, on average $120 per year, that is, over $21,000 each month – an amount that continues to grow. If we can sustain this trend, in six years, 50 percent of our budget will come from individual donors in Argentina, which we hope to complement through cultivating individuals outside the country.

Cultivation of local individual donors is as important politically as it is financially, as it is a tool for increased engagement, commitment, and accountability. 

As just one example: after the successful experience eight years ago of selling original photographs, paintings and sculptures donated by prominent Argentine artists to raise funds for CELS, we have built an entire program of Art and Human Rights that both attracts new individual donors and expands our social base through hands-on experiences with art and human rights via street art and in a host of museums, cultural centers and film festivals. At the same time, art around human rights issues is an increasingly important part of our activism toolkit.

Such work implies a shift in our identity and our capabilities to date. We are actively implementing the structural changes required to cultivate and sustain locally based individual donors – everything from record-keeping to major changes in our communications and other relationship building skills. These changes are not always easy: some are technical, others cultural, such as overcoming internal misgivings or resistance to navigate unchartered territory. 

Most importantly, this model implies greater levels of accountability to our local constituencies and ongoing dialogue, active listening, learning and adapting.  Simultaneously incorporating a host of new organizational skills and new forms of activism to promote and sustain the CELS community, while preserving the quality of our more traditional strategies, is no small matter. 

The solutions to human rights crises are no longer associated primarily with the North. On the contrary, greater leadership from governments and civil society is required in an increasingly joint fashion between North and South.

We hope that our incipient but exciting experience will inspire other organizations to move in this direction. We also hope that international funders, rather than withdrawing in light of this change, will become an active part of it, supporting organizations throughout the South as they move to make thesechallenging but groundbreaking changes.

This initiative takes place in a world marked by many geopolitical shifts. Grave human rights abuses are no longer characteristic primarily of the South. To mention just a couple of examples that come to mind, we cite the violations that occur in the context of the migration crisis in Europe and the United States, or the criminalization and repression of social protest that occurs equally in the North and South.

Likewise, the solutions to human rights crises are no longer associated primarily with the North. On the contrary, greater leadership from governments and civil society is required in an increasingly joint fashion between North and South.

This is not the first time CELS has adapted its vision, mandate and strategies to respond to distinct political realities and societal needs, while never wavering from its core values. As we get ready to celebrate our 40-year anniversary, we stand prepared to continue this mini-revolution within our organization, conscious of the risks and challenges, yet convinced about the ultimate benefits to our cause.  

About the author

Gastón Chillier is executive director of the Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), a 38-year-old Argentine human rights organization founded during the last military dictatorship. Follow him on Twitter: @gchillier

Gastón Chillier es director ejecutivo del Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales (CELS), una organización de derechos humanos de 38 años de antigüedad en la Argentina, que se fundó durante la última dictadura militar. Seguilo en Twitter: @gchillier


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