Rapid responses for courageous activists and resilient communities
How do you do your funding? Please describe your approach and process, explaining how it is different from conventional philanthropy.
Urgent Action Fund offers a new vision for global social justice philanthropy. In contrast to lengthy approval processes required by many international funders, we use online, text and mobile funding applications to act quickly to advance human rights at the grassroots. We respond to requests from women’s and transgender human rights defenders within 24 to 72 hours and have funds on the ground within a week. In fact, our fastest grant was issued within just 16 minutes! Our holistic approach and unique international network combine real-time grantmaking with training and convening activities that advance women’s leadership, improve security for women’s and LGBTQ movements, and amplify the voices and experiences of grassroots movements for equality and justice.
We believe women and transgender people know best how to respond to the problems they face, and that local organizations are best positioned to respond quickly when threats arise or to take action during opportunities for change. Whether our partners are under threat and need to be relocated, or their organization requests surveillance cameras or unarmed guards to mitigate risks, or immediate action is required to take advantage of a time-sensitive opportunity to advance gender rights, we trust our partners to determine how best to approach their situation.
While we fund urgent actions, the activists that Urgent Action Fund supports are part of broader movements that work for sustainable, rights-based, structural change for women and transgender people worldwide. As a result, Urgent Action Fund also takes a proactive, long-term approach to ensuring the security, protection, and resilience of women and transgender activists. This includes researching and publishing on key issues affecting activists, facilitating capacity building and integrated security trainings for activists, and advocating for the needs of activists among other funders.
We also recognize the importance of partnerships as a way to leverage our impact and expertise. We frequently partner with other human rights funders and women’s funds, and to ensure that activists, and the organizations and movements they are a part of, have access to vital resources.
How did Urgent Action Fund come to practice philanthropy in this way?
During the UN’s Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995 in Beijing, activists from around the world expressed a clear need for flexible, time-sensitive funds for women working in volatile conflict and post-conflict areas in order to sustain gains made, strengthen local and regional human rights infrastructure, and protect women’s human rights defenders under threat. In response, a small group of women in the Bay Area worked with activists and donors from around the world to raise funds and design the Rapid Response Grantmaking model. In 1997, Urgent Action Fund was founded. Since its creation, Urgent Action Fund has spun-off two separate, autonomous Urgent Action Fund Sister Funds – one based in Nairobi serving women throughout the continent of Africa, and one based in Colombia supporting women in Latin America and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. While each Urgent Action Fund is independent, we are closely aligned in our mission, strategies, and values. Collectively, the Urgent Action Funds have awarded more than 1,300 rapid response grants to women’s and LGBTQ human rights activists and organizations in more than 110 countries worldwide.
Have you ever been met with resistance or criticism to funding individuals?
One question that occasionally comes up for people new to Urgent Action Fund’s rapid response model is how we are able to vet organizations given our quick turnaround time for grants. In order to be responsive while ensuing proper due diligence, we rely on a network of 100+ regional advisors, who are leading human rights experts in the regions where we work. Urgent Action Fund’s advisors are our backbone and act as our eyes and ears on the ground. In addition to helping to vet partner organizations, our advisors also help to spread the word about Urgent Action Fund amongst activists in their region.
Describe a challenge you feel has the most lessons for other funders, and what those lessons were.
A challenge we continue to face is how to transfer money quickly and securely to our grantees, especially in conflict and post-conflict countries, and where governments place restrictive policies or regulations around foreign funding to civil society organizations. In response, we have worked with our networks and partner organizations to find alternative ways to transfer funds quickly while not compromising grantees safety and security.
While our staff conducts annual outreach trips, the majority of activists learn about Urgent Action Fund through word of mouth from one of our advisors, previous grantees, or partner organizations. While this is generally an effective method to increase our outreach, it also means that we are at times less well known in countries where we have fewer advisors. For example, we have had difficulties in the past verifying the credibility of individuals or organizations in more politically unstable countries, such as Iran, Iraq and Syria, where we have fewer advisors.
What can you achieve through funding individuals that might not be possible using conventional philanthropic funding models?
Our comparative advantage is two-fold. First, we are able to be very responsive in moments of crisis or time-sensitive opportunities to advance policy or change laws. This means that while our grants are relatively small, up to $5,000, they are able to have a much larger impact by supporting activists when they need it most. In practice, this means enabling activists to protect or advance policy at key moments, mobilizing demonstrations and awareness raising campaigns during political openings, increasing the security of activists in volatile regions, and saving lives by evacuating activists and organizations when they come under threat. Second, by strengthening the ability of individual activists and organizations to more effectively respond to crises and leverage opportunities, our grantmaking seeks to strengthen movements to become more resilient, resulting in stronger social movements for the long-term.
What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to a funder curious about doing something similar?
Urgent Action Fund was born out of an expressed need by grassroots women’s human rights defenders who observed a lack of time-sensitive support from funders. This notion, that activists and grassroots organizations know best what their communities need, and which strategies will be most effective for making lasting change, is integral to our grantmaking model. As a funder, our role is to listen and learn from our partners, and to support them when they need it most, through our rapid response grants, integrated security convenings, and advocacy efforts among other funders and governing bodies.
Whether you are interested in replicating the rapid response model for a specific need, or you would simply like to get more involved in philanthropy, my recommendation is to listen to those individuals and grassroots organizations who are working directly on those issues you care about, and to let their advice guide your funding priorities and strategies.
Why does Indie Philanthropy and creative grantmaking matter to you?
At Urgent Action Fund, the personal is political. Prior to joining Urgent Action Fund, I worked for a gender rights organization that was responsible for overturning Colombia’s strict abortion laws. During my time with them, there was an assassination attempt on our Director of Programs. Luckily, the six bullet shots fired into our Bogotá office missed, and she was not hurt. Following the incident, Urgent Action Fund was the first organization to respond. In less than 48 hours, they delivered a rapid response grant to support additional security, repairs and funds to investigate the incident. It was at that moment that the vital need for this type of grantmaking became clear to me. Later, in a fortuitous turn, I saw a job opening with Urgent Action Fund and immediately applied. Since then, I’ve had the privilege to mobilize resources to support women’s and LGBTQ human rights defenders around the world at precisely the moment they need it most.