Transforming our grantmaking

Transforming our grantmaking

By Thomas Vink and Laurence Meyer, 22nd June 2023

At the start of 2023 we published our new strategic plan for the next four years. A key aspect of this strategic plan is decolonising our grantmaking to increase the accessibility of grants to all actors in the digital rights community, and to concretely implement one of our key values.

Below, we summarise why we are transforming our grantmaking, what has happened so far, what the next steps are, and how you can be involved.

Our Aspirations

Building on our Theory of Change, and informed by Rosa González’s Spectrum of Community Engagement to Ownership, we want to mitigate the extractivism in our grantmaking and instead support the organisations working on digital rights issues in their efforts do to transformative work, shifting power towards those most negatively affected by technological harm. We have five initial aspirational goals that we want to work towards. These aspirations may change over time and will involve setting milestones and exploring different methods along the way.

  • Strategy – our funding priorities are developed by a wide range of organisations working on digital rights issues, particularly those groups most affected by digital rights violations.
  • Funding – grant recipients retain the right to use our funding to design the solutions for their lives rather than have approaches imposed on them.
  • Process – our grant processes are determined by those they aim to serve, reduce burden on applicants and grantees, and are primarily oriented around how to best support them.
  • Decisions – decisions about DFF grants are made using participatory methods/models.
  • Philanthropy – advocacy work supports the wider community of digital rights funders transfer the management and control of financial resources towards communities who have been most impacted by digital rights violations.

There is no quick fix, and progress will not be straightforward or linear, but there is nonetheless an impetus to begin the work so that the money can more widely reach movements that make change happen.

Decolonising the Digital Rights Field

The motivation for this work goes back to 2019, when DFF’s founding Director, Nani Jansen Reventlow initiated, with EDRi as a partner, a process to decolonise the digital rights field in Europe. The process works towards a digital rights field better equipped to challenge structural forms of digital harm, which have their roots in a history and present of colonial domination and violence.

As of May 2023, a first draft of the programme went  through a consultation process to expose and fill in the gaps, deepen certain points and re-interrogate and revise others.

To engage in such work meant for us at DFF to also reflect on our practices and understand the change needed to enable the organisation to act in service of real transformative change.  We therefore engaged both in an internal organisational process, as well as a process for our grantmaking.

Decolonising Our Grantmaking

The history of philanthropy is in many ways rooted in colonialism and exploitative dynamics. As a funder, we need to change our approach from a charity framework – which makes how wealth is accumulated invisible – to a reparation framework – which acknowledges that the money must go back to the lands and communities that were exploited, displaced and extracted from, in order to stop undue accumulation of wealth.

The direct consequences of a charity framework are the lack of funding for movements and organisations who bring about real change. For example, a report by the Black Feminist Fund shows that “81% of Black feminist organisations do not have the financial resources to meet their goals” and that only “5% of human rights funding went to Black women, girls and trans people.”

In addition to this, we solely fund strategic litigation. And though strategic litigation can be a tremendous tool for change, it also comes with certain baggage.

To be in service of the transformation that we believe is necessary, in early 2022 we started working with a consultant, Kamardip Singh, to move towards decolonising our grantmaking practices. To stay true to our belief in decolonising as a necessary process, as well as honest concerning what we are in a position to do now, we are now using the term “transformative grantmaking” instead. 

Transformative grantmaking is hopefully a first step towards reparatory practices of grantmaking, which will demand a broader change within the philanthropic sector.

A key reflection from our initial assessment is that to engage in a decolonising grantmaking process, it is crucial that DFF staff, management, and the Board fully see DFF as a movement actor, engaged with a larger ecosystem of actors working towards rights-based movements. This will allow us to have a clear-eyed view of our own role within a larger decolonising agenda.

We carried out a series of interviews with some of our grant recipients and applicants, other partner organisations, and other funders that work with decolonising and anti-oppression principles, including the Disability Rights Fund, Thousand Currents, Black Feminist Fund, Mama Cash, and the Legal Empowerment Fund.

During these discussions the importance for funders to move away from being risk-calculators and towards becoming risk-takers was a common thread. This means, in the case of Thousand Currents for example, who give flexible multiyear grants to their grantees, there is only one reporting question: “What do you need us to know about the work you did?”. Both the Black Feminist Fund and Mama Cash use a participatory form of grantmaking which allows more power-sharing.

These conversations helped us formulate cardinal questions when looking at funding and grantmaking: what type of power do we have and why? Who are we accountable to? If we are accountable to our grantees/the communities we are in solidarity with, how can they exercise this accountability? Are we power sharing or power hoarding? Are we deciding what the priorities are? Or are we building relations of trust in which grant recipients can decide how to spend the money and be flexible?

Next Steps

Fabiola Mizero produced a report in early 2023, providing a summary of barriers in the digital rights field, what we are doing well and what can be improved, and recommendations for further transforming our grantmaking.

Key recommendations outlined in the report include:

  • Increase flexibility of funding, including supporting more informal legal action.
  • Rethink the language and format of our grant processes.
  • Expand our grant outreach/advertising, including with more languages.
  • Be open to revising our grant criteria, including new targeted criteria to attract specific under-represented groups and communities to apply.
  • Empower organisations after the funding process, for example through funding financial and literacy training.
  • Revise grant decision-making, such as through more participative methods and increasing the diversity of our Panel of Experts.
  • Continue to simplify reporting requirements, giving ownership to organisations to tell their stories, their challenges and their wins in the format and medium that empowers them.
  • De-emphasise criteria around the importance of pro-bono legal support, as this is un-realistic and burdensome to many organisations.
  • Take on more risks in a way that reduces burden on others, such as less documentation.
  • Integrate more regular feedback methods to make ongoing revisions and improvements to our grantmaking.

We are already making ongoing revisions to our processes, following the recommendations. Over the coming months we will have further internal conversations among the staff and Board, talk to organisations working on digital rights issues to check which recommendations are relevant, revise our goals and set the priorities for taking steps to transform our grantmaking over the coming months and years. We will also explore and experiment with new and more flexible forms of funding and consider how more participatory grantmaking methods can be brought into our processes and decision-making.

We are already very thankful and inspired by the numerous inputs that were generously shared by other funders, grantees and human rights organisations, which we recognise as them resourcing us.