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Fundraising During a Crisis is All About Relationships: The Human Rights Watch Story

Fundraising during COVID-19

As COVID-19 continues its spread and infects our global population without reservation, society is turning to nonprofit organizations, like Human Rights Watch, to stymie the rise of this unprecedented health crisis.  Protecting the basic human rights of all global citizens, regardless of socioeconomic standing, has been the mission of Human Rights Watch for over 40 years.  Now, that mission is made all the more critical in the face of a global health event that doesn’t discriminate on the basis of culture, race, or geographic location.

Protecting Human Rights Globally

Human Rights Watch seeks to protect the world’s most at risk from abuses of their basic human rights with a global team comprised of nearly 450 members.  Country experts, lawyers, journalists, and more, across over 70 nationalities partner with organizations large and small in the pursuit of global human justice.

Spanning 90+ countries featuring dozens of disparate languages and currencies, this global organization works tirelessly to champion activists and ensure fair treatment for all.  The international nature of Human Rights Watch’s advocacy now makes them uniquely qualified to face the mounting challenges brought forth by the COVID-19 pandemic.  From protecting freedom of expression, representing people in custody and preserving patient confidentiality, ensuring access to critical information, and fulfilling the right to education, Human Rights Watch is turning, head-on, to battle injustice.

Fundraising During the Uncertainty of COVID-19

The health and safety of Human Rights Watch’s patrons, donors, employees, and friends are of the utmost importance during this time.  To help mitigate COVID-19’s spread, they have followed the CDC’s guidelines and recommendations on large community events and mass gatherings by canceling all of their pre-scheduled events over the next few months.  These events, including dinners and fundraising activities, generated a sizeable portion of the organization’s fundraising revenue.  Despite these difficult decisions, Human Rights Watch is continuing the forward momentum of its mission through adaptability.

As our reality continuously evolves and new complexities color our daily lives, Human Rights Watch is remaining progressive and adaptable by confronting those complexities and strengthening its mission in the face of uncertainty.  With our global economy crippled and our combined cultures quarantining to stave off the virus’ spread, Human Rights Watch is pivoting to a virtual environment while remaining nimble and fleet-footed in ensuring the world’s underserved secure access to critical relief efforts.

“The people who support Human Rights Watch typically aren’t one-off donors.  They support the cause because they truly believe in fighting for human rights on a global scale.  These are lifelong friends whose values align with the work conducted by Human Rights Watch.  They relentlessly support our organization and mission.  When they purchase a dinner plate at an event, they aren’t doing it for a meal, they are doing it to support a cause.” – Michele Alexander, Deputy Executive Director of Development and Global Initiatives

While the world practices social distancing, Human Rights Watch is pushing through this historic moment by doubling down on relationship building as the key to their success as an organization.  Frontline fundraisers are leaning on each other for help and information, providing invaluable communication for each other’s causes.  Supporters of Human Rights Watch are now able to join their “Mission Alert Calls” which feature researchers from the field discussing their latest work and keeping constituents abreast of critical developments.  In addition to opening up lines of communication, board members are meeting regularly to assess COVID-19 fundraising tactics, leveraging successful strategies in certain cities to address the struggles in others, while development teams cross-collaborate with marketing and fundraising teams to offer their unique perspectives.  Everyone feels the responsibility to step up and support their cohesive ecosystem of fundraisers.

“This organic system of mutually reinforced relationships has always been built off information sharing and extensive communication, and now those past priorities are adding an even higher level of importance to the organization’s overall operations.” – Matthew Collins-Gibson Deputy Director of Development and Outreach

Readying a Rapid Response

As a global organization, the progression of COVID-19’s spread has been on the radar of Human Rights Watch for quite some time.  With staff and offices based in Asia, the organization has been able to closely track the virus since its initial outbreak in Wuhan, China.

“The very nature of the Human Rights Watch mission relies on both reactive and proactive responses to situations like these.  Early on in the lifespan of COVID-19, we set up a response team consisting of representatives across a wide swath of departments and countries within the organization.  Our security director, program leaders, operations staff, and fundraisers, among many other high-level authorities, immediately leveraged their global influence to keep information flowing freely and enabling quick, educated decisions,” said Matthew Collins-Gibson.

Free-flowing information represents a foundational priority for Human Rights Watch.  In the wake of COVID-19, protecting freedom of expression and the right to information for vulnerable populations has taken on added significance.  Several countries and their governments have not treated these basic human rights as significant, resulting in a preventable spread of the virus and a weakened trust in the actions of these authorities.  Countries like China, Iran, and Thailand have taken damaging steps to control public panic, going so far as to downplay the infection’s severity and censoring individuals publicly questioning their government’s response to the outbreak.

Human Rights Watch is answering the call to ensure a rights-respecting response is provided by all affected governments, and those vital information and relief efforts are provided to all their citizens.  The vulnerable populations of the world are, unfortunately, often targeted during times of crisis.  Human Rights Watch’s global response team is working to keep information shared freely, enabling people to make educated decisions on their health and safety.

Finding Connection Through Activism

It’s critical to remember that Human Rights Watch is more than simply a nonprofit organization, they’re an essential source of news as well.  Skyrocketing traffic to their website during the pandemic’s rise speaks to that fact.  The importance of understanding the human rights perspective of this pandemic cannot be underestimated.  Constituents care deeply about the fundamental human rights central to the organization’s mission, and they value the protection of those rights during this all-important time.  Digital campaigns prioritizing the spread of reliable news are calling on web visitors for vital donations and unifying constituents in a real, quantifiable way.  The interest in connecting virtually, mirroring society’s new reliance on remote work, has become a phenomenal reflection of Human Rights Watch’s ability to strengthen its fundraising when help is needed most.  This glimmer of hope speaks to the importance of trusting in the central mission, especially in times of turbulence.

We, as a unified human race, are all in this together.  Our collective understanding of the virus, and the action necessary to snuff it out, is evolving by the day.  Times of instability bring us together in unexpected ways; they can teach us valuable lessons on the importance of service, raising funds for a central cause, and maintaining reliable information-sharing.  At the core of these valuable lessons is a belief in the power of human relationships.  Building relationships, not off transactional gain but on a true expression of mutual values, has strengthened the resolve of Human Rights Watch and amplified its advocacy efforts.  While the war against COVID-19 rages on, Human Rights Watch continues to win battles each and every day in the name of human preservation.

To learn more about Human Rights Watch, visit

Written by Blake Becker

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