Funders as allies in the movement for migrant rights

By Vanessa Stevens | February 28, 2020 | The Americas | Gender Equity, Youth Empowerment

This story was originally published in Alliance Magazine.

‘They won’t even let us buy coffee for meetings, only water,’ shared one grassroots leader as she dialogued with funders and fellow participants at the Gender, Children, and Youth on the Move convening last week. In a conversation about transforming power relations between funders and organizations, she shared this example of a demoralizing restriction that some funders create.

During this convening that brought together grassroots leaders from Central America, Mexico, and the US, the hosts asked how funders could be better allies to civil society organizations in the movement for migrant rights. After listening to three small group dialogues, I gathered participants’ responses in three overarching themes that demonstrate how funders can shift power in solidarity with local organizations:

Find and fund the most invisibilized organizations and issues

Grassroots leaders expressed the need to get closer to communities. They expressed frustration about requirements that restrict access to funding, such as the number of years of operation, budget size, NGO registration, or audit completion.

They also urged funding for indigenous and LGBTQ+ led organizations to ensure reaching some of the most marginalized communities. Some participants emphasized that efforts led by women who have been deported are overlooked with migrant communities.

Funders must be proactive in finding groups who would not typically apply for their funding and should make their applications more accessible, including availability in Spanish.

Cultivate an abundance of trust

Participants shared that they have experienced donors who treat them with suspicion and make them feel guilty, some experiencing a complete distrust of their financial management and project evaluation.

Participants emphasized the importance of flexible grants and investing in strategies, rather than specific projects, to enable creative and responsive programming and advocacy. They encouraged funders to support partners’ own metrics and indicators, and not set any for them, especially ones that are unrealistic.

Organizations also want to be able to count on funders’ support for at least ten years, and not only during moments of crisis.

Fund holistically and flexibly

Local leaders expressed appreciation for funders that invest in their organizational development, leadership, and wellbeing.

They expressed frustration about not being able to pay their team dignified salaries or offer social security and health insurance ­– that funders must recognize that they need to eat and take care of their families.

Local organizations want to be able to invest in their human resources, infrastructure and property, and operating reserves.

They emphasized the importance of donors having an exit strategy, and well before that, making introductions to other funders and developing their organizational capacity to look and successfully apply for other sources of funding.

Towards horizontalidad and beyond

The human rights defenders engaging in the dialogue expressed challenges like decreased funding in the Americas, unpredictable and unstable political climates, and ongoing migration and humanitarian crises that constrain their impact. Trust-based philanthropy practices described above ensure local organizations have more allies lifting up their fight for justice with and for migrant children and their families.

A word that kept coming up in the dialogue in Spanish was “horizontalidad” ­– or having horizontal, versus hierarchical, relationships. I later learned that the term arose during the 2001 economic crisis in Argentina, when workers in hundreds of workplaces recuperated their jobs without bosses or hierarchy, creating spaces where everyone can lead.

Funders need to do more than facilitate horizontal relationships as allies. We need to let local and grassroots civil society organizations lead, and listen to and respond to their needs and ideas, with trust at the center of how and why we fund.

The header photo was taken at the Gender, Childhood, and Youth on the Move convening. Photo © Jeff Valenzuela.

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