The Ford Foundation will commit $80 million over the next five years to work that strengthens nonprofits fighting against authoritarian regimes.
Such groups are struggling in the face of governments that are restricting the right to protest, hobbling nonprofit organizations with an avalanche of bureaucratic requirements meant to stymie their effectiveness, and threatening the safety of people who work for such groups, Helena Hofbauer Balmori, director of Ford's international civic engagement and government work and director of the new grant-making effort, announced Tuesday.
"There is a rise in authoritarian tendencies or authoritarian governments," she said. "The conditions under which social movements and civil-society organizations operate are becoming harder."
The Ford commitment, called Weaving Resilience, will not provide grants to individual nonprofits. Instead, it will support virtual "hubs" in 12 countries: Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Indonesia, Kenya, Lebanon, Mexico, Nigeria, Peru, South Africa, Tanzania, and Uganda, where civil-society groups can receive help to make their organizations stronger.
The hubs will provide consulting for groups in their regions that need a guide to navigate labyrinthine regulatory and tax systems, draw up plans and publicize their work, and protect against physical and online threats to workers and their families.
The idea behind the grants is that supporting single nonprofits has no lasting impact and does little to help a broad array of organizations. Through Weaving Resilience, Ford wants to strengthen the civil-society "ecosystem" and foster the development of hundreds of vital organizations.
"There is never a shortfall of interventions on the side of foundations doing institutional strengthening efforts but that all of them ultimately always fall short," she said. "They never have a comprehensive vision, and they only focus on very specific issues as if those issues were enough to create resilience for the organization. The piecemeal approach to institutional strengthening has not been effective."
Hofbauer Balori hopes other foundations will join in. Weaving Resilience's Mexico hub, which will offer services to organizations in Central America and Mexico, has attracted $11.6 million in support including the Ford commitment and planned grants from seven other foundations including the Foundation for a Just Society and the Kellogg, Open Society, and Packard foundations.
The grants come as democracy and free expression seem to be faltering across the globe. Basic liberties declined in 2021 for the 16th straight year, according to the Freedom in the World report from Freedom House, a group that works to promote democracy worldwide.
The report found that 38% of the world's population lives in countries that are "not free," a designation made based on a range of criteria, including government corruption, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, and a functioning electoral process.
"The trajectory has been discernibly negative," says Christopher Walker, vice president of studies and analysis at the National Endowment for Democracy.
Walker, who spoke before the Ford commitment was announced, said philanthropy could play a critical role in reversing the tide.
"Philanthropy may be positioned to stimulate innovation in ways that other resources might not be able to, he said, "especially when the challenges and the threats are growing and changing at such a fast pace."
Each hub will design its own strategy. Two organizations, Compartamos con Colombia, connects nonprofits to a network of lawyers, consultants, and bankers, and Dejusticia, a legal and civil-rights group, will manage the effort in the Colombia region. During its first year, the hub will offer its services to Colombian nonprofits and then expand to Peru and Venezuela. Over the next several years, the two organizations together hope to provide services to about 200 groups in the region.
During decades of internal conflict, Colombian nonprofits were stigmatized as being related to leftist guerilla groups, says Vivian Newman Pont, executive director of Dejusticia. Following the country's 2016 peace accord, and the election in June of Gustavo Petro, the country's first leftist leader, nonprofits got some breathing room, Newman Pont said.
But despite the changed politics, nonprofits in Colombia have a lot of needs, she says. Many are in poor financial straits after years of struggling. Many have lost leaders who have joined the new administration. The Petro administration is not immune from sliding back into authoritarianism, Newman Pont said, and environmental and Indigenous leaders remain under the threat of assassination.
The government has given nonprofits "space," but Newman Pont worries social-justice and democracy organizations will lose some of their independence because they don't want to be seen contradicting the new government.
"It is a new space, and we have to take advantage of it," she said. "We feel stronger; we feel more heard. And we have to use it because now it is the moment for hope."
A big problem with foundation support from U.S. grantmakers, Newman Pont said, is that such giving is usually earmarked for specific purposes. When new needs arise, civil-society groups often feel constrained to spend their grants as they were designed so they can keep a relationship with a grant maker, rather than use funds to respond to new challenges.
The Ford commitment, Hofbauer Balmori said, looks to break that cycle. The groups that will decide how the money is best used are from the region and have a better sense of emerging needs than a New York grant maker, she said.
"They are grounded in the political context of these countries and understand the trends that are manifesting themselves."