Exploring new possibilities beyond foreign funding in Brazil

For many years, large foreign financiers, such as foundations and multilateral funds, were the only source of funding for Brazilian human rights organizations. However, more recently, critics—such as conservative elements of society and government—have been questioning the dependence on these funders..

Reassessing their business models and, most importantly, diversifying sources of funding, could be the first steps that human rights NGOs need to take to achieve legitimate support for their cause. This shift could create benefits that go beyond financial sustainability, bolstering a human rights movement in Brazil that needs to be strengthened in light of the current complex political scenario.

Edwin Rekosh recently argued that the current human rights business model is not keeping up with trends in technology, philanthropy, business, and society. A change of business model and the diversification of sources of funding—exploring other means such as individual contributions—demand that an organization reinvent itself, moving away from traditional structures and processes. Such a change would also require remaining open to the new digital and communication trends that are becoming essential to mobilize and engage citizens.

Organizations that were established in Brazil in the early 1990s, such as Médecins Sans Frontières and Greenpeace, created solid communication, fundraising, and marketing structures that assured their brands’ strong presence in the country. The robust individual giving market that these organizations created then called the attention of other international NGOs such as Oxfam and International Amnesty, who started their operations in Brazil in 2012 with ambitious fundraising goals. 

Latin America is nearly uncharted territory, full of possibilities for the fundraising market.

Evidently, large organizations can rely on sizeable initial investments from their headquarters’ annual budget to set out the conditions that maintain national budgets that are in the millions. In 2015, for example, Greenpeace Brazil had an annual budget of over R$ 29 million. Beyond financial investments, these organizations also invested in people, training an army dedicated to mobilizing and fundraising in order to reach people online and on the streets with a simple, emotional and concise message.

Unfortunately, such large sums are not available for Brazilian human rights NGOs that are struggling just to keep programs running—they cannot afford to make significant investments into fundraising and establishing a brand. Is there space for national organizations to diversify their sources of funding and fundraise with individuals under such diverse conditions?

The answer is not simple, but Latin America is nearly uncharted territory, full of possibilities for the fundraising market. James Ron’s research in Mexico suggests that if human rights organizations use fundraising strategies based on solid data, transparency and their credibility, the general public will be more likely to contribute.

In Brazil, IDIS (the Institute for the Development of Social Investment) led research on the philanthropic behavior of Brazilians—donors and non-donors were included in the study—and the findings are promising. At least 52% of Brazilians made a contribution in 2015 and, among those who did not donate, 29% stated that they were simply not approached. These findings indicate that Brazil is indeed open for the development of a larger philanthropy market.

The Brazilian organization Conectas Human Rights has been investing in the reformulation of its business model since 2015 to address these issues. The first step we took was a brand renewal project that started after a detailed analysis to rethink communication and marketing strategies, mainly to build empathy with Brazilians through relevant narratives that match the aspirations of a diversity of audiences.

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Digital fundraising allows us to experiment with different messages and audiences, performance indicators can be measured more easily and it is significantly cheaper.

We need to acknowledge that we work with an unpopular cause. In Brazil, the most conservative segments of society know how to use new technologies and the media to build the idea that human rights “protect criminals”. Historically, the Brazilian human rights movement did not know how to effectively confront this narrative and keep up with marketing and communication trends.

In response, Conectas made another important choice: to exclusively invest in digital fundraising with individuals. Although this source traditionally results in smaller monthly contributions than others, for instance, street and telephone fundraising, digital fundraising allows us to experiment with different messages and audiences, performance indicators can be measured more easily and it is significantly cheaper, costing 50% less to reach the intended audience.  In addition, online donor retention rates are higher than other individual fundraising channels. Conectas, for example, retained more than 80% of all online donors acquired in the last six months.

There are a number of necessary measures for the implementation of a digital fundraising program. First, having a communications staff working in partnership with the fundraising team is essential to achieving successful strategies; moreover, both teams need to have aligned narratives and coherent messages. Often, the messages from the fundraising and communications teams can diverge, as if coming from two separate organizations, which hampers the general public’s understanding of the cause. This confusion directly affects the credibility of the narrative and, consequently, can damage fundraising results.

The second step is an investment in systems. Today, having a CRM—Customer Relationship Management—platform integrated with payment methods and donation forms is not a luxury only for large operations, but a necessity for smaller organizations too. Without an adequate CRM tool, our donor’s data security is at risk. Payment mistakes may cost us a good relationship with a donor, who will likely share the bad experience on social media, jeopardizing all of our work dedicated to building a positive image.

Although this seems to be a strenuous process with long-term financial returns, setting up fundraising with individuals brings other institutional benefits that are more immediately apparent. This is an opportunity to both rethink how NGOs address different audiences and to revisit their structures, so that they can be ready for new and challenging scenarios. Moreover, progress in this sector depends on effective collaboration among these organizations, which can no longer expect to rely on a single funding source but can, together, effectively create a solid philanthropy market in Brazil by sharing knowledge and good practices.