Access Now Grants: implementation and a look ahead

Last June, we announced the launch of a three-year granting program that would allow us to more directly support the critical work of civil society actors working on digital rights. In the eight months since, we have established a grantmaking framework, built our grantmaking team, and conducted our first grantmaking cycle, resulting in over a dozen grants awarded in our target areas.  

As we discussed previously, one of our primary goals is to be as open and transparent as possible, which is why we wanted to update the Access Now community on the state of our program. Below, we detail some of the challenges we faced in this inaugural year, and look ahead through 2016. For more information on the program as a whole, head over to Access Now Grants.



As previously discussed, our grant program’s primary mission is to empower those who are working to defend and extend the digital rights of users, particularly those most at risk. To guide us as we developed the program’s overarching structure, and to ensure funds reached the right projects, organizations, and actors, we undertook a multistakeholder consultation process to establish a set of guiding operational principles. These principles include:

  • crafting our applications and procedures to make them as simple and clear as possible, with limited bureaucracy;
  • practicing a policy of maximum flexibility to respond to fluid circumstances;
  • being as transparent as allowable, and;
  • recognizing the need for continuous engagement and self evaluation.

With these guiding principles in place, decisions about grant types and programmatic themes are tied thematically to the work of Access Now’s programmatic arms, focusing on the issues of privacy, freedom of expression, network discrimination, digital security, and business & human rights. Relatedly, we wanted to ensure that the grants program covers the geographic areas in which we are working, while ensuring that there was a cross-cutting element of LGBTI & gender programming, an increasingly important goal of our organization.

Digital Security

Conversations with stakeholders have highlighted — and our own tech team recognized — the potential security threats inherent in the new program, from both an internal and external standpoint. This is why we are working to address security issues at each point of weakness: we are training not only our own staff, but offering the same training to our grantees on the most current tools for communicating; restricting access to grantee information; and creating processes which will help ameliorate security risks.  

We also took care in choosing a Grants Management System (GMS), consulting with other funders and analyzing industry research to identify an appropriate provider. In comparing best options, we took into consideration security, reputation, functionality, and price, and ultimately concluded that Fluxx was the best option. While no platform is perfectly secure, Fluxx remains committed to continuous improvement of its protocols. Fluxx is working with us on specific security benchmarks during the course of our contract.  

We are currently testing Fluxx infrastructure and workflow as we work with our current grantees and new applicants, beginning from the referral of a “Regional Ally” to closeout of the grant. We will continue testing the system with our grantees and gather feedback on the grants process, auditing and improving our processes on an ongoing basis.

Whom we’ve funded and lessons learned

To date, we’ve made 14 grants: five in Latin America, four in Asia, four in Sub Saharan Africa, and one in the NIS region. Our first award was to the African School on Internet Governance (AfriSig), which is run by the Association of Progressive Communications (APC).  APC is a strong and historical partner of Access Now, and their request provided us with a perfect opportunity to test our systems and processes.  

The feedback we received from APC proved to be rich in content, flagging areas we needed to improve. It allowed us to make substantive changes to many external documents, which has not only made the application and the agreement easier for the grantees, but also amplifies Access Now’s grants program communication strategy and evaluative capabilities.  

Each successive grant allowed us to test and evaluate a different part of our foundation. Globe International focused on operational and decision-making hierarchy; Fundación Acceso

streamlined referrals; Fundación Karisma examined regional ally participation values; IBIDEM tackled non-audit agreement contracts and alternative financial reporting mechanisms; and Centre for Communication Governance addressed giving in complicated legal environments.   

Full details of the grants can be found at on the Access Now Grants page, but below are the grantee stories from two organizations:

IBIDEM – Beta Institute for Internet and Democracy is a Brazil-based nonprofit organization engaged in defending and promoting human rights in the digital environment. IBIDEM operates digital advocacy campaigns within Brazil and on a global scale to promote freedom of expression and equality on the internet and other information and communication technologies.

Funding from Access Now went towards a digital advocacy campaign to inform the public of a proposed law nicknamed “PLespião” (or “Spy Bill), which would have greatly decreased freedom of expression online by modifying the landmark Marco Civil legislation. Among other things, the legislation would have: increased the ability of authorities to circumvent courts for personal information; instituted an almost limitless (for the right price) “Right to be Forgotten”; and attempted to police behavior through “civility” legislation.  With the help of Access Now, IBIDEM was able to design and launch a multimedia campaign just in time for the Internet Governance Forum, which was being held in Brazil.  

Globe International

Globe International Center is a Mongolia-based NGO whose mission is to sustain Mongolian democracy and civil society, and spread the power of information and knowledge. Globe International works on freedom of expression, information, and media, and has collaborated with thousands of individuals and civil society groups through workshops, seminars, round tables, festivals, forums, competitions, and other public meetings. Globe International also runs media campaigns that cooperate with media outlets throughout Mongolia to raise public awareness on human rights and crucial social issues.

Mongolia was the site of the Freedom Online Coalition meeting in 2015. Globe International, wishing to capitalize on the momentum, hosted a Joint International Experts Mission and Multistakeholder Consultation roundtable which significantly built internal domestic capacity to implement international standards on freedom of expression and the internet. Attendees drafted a list of recommendations for how the government could improve human rights issues online; created an action plan on actions for implementating Universal Periodic Review recommendations; educated youth consortium attendees on media techniques; and translated into Mongolian and distributed to attendees the “Universal Implementation Guide for the International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance.”

Looking ahead

Building the portfolio of grants

Prior to our next disbursement cycle, we will be compiling a report that outlines how we are tracking against our regional, topic, type, gender/LGBTI, and mission objectives. These data, combined with the feedback gathered at RightsCon, will help us create portfolio goals for the next few cycles that will inform our outreach and communications. Throughout the year, we will engage in ongoing consultations with the program team and external partners to ensure that we are meeting these goals.  


This year’s RightsCon, which takes place next week (March 30-April 1), provides us with a unique opportunity to check in with current and potential grantees; regional allies; advisory board members; staff; and the many people attending the conference whom we consulted to implement this project. This feedback will allow us to conduct a top-to-bottom review of the program that we will discuss at the Access Now staff retreat in early April. Once this initial, inaugural-year review is complete, we will implement a more cyclical timeline of review to ensure that we continue to evaluate and improve the program on an ongoing basis.

Sharing results with the community

One of the major challenges for Access Now Grants over the course of the next year will be creating and implementing a process to share information about what we have learned. We are already engaging with partners about responsible data-sharing practices, and will continue to work to identify the best way to share our results and our understanding of the digital security landscape with technologists at large.

Becoming a resource

In addition to translating our work into data about the community, in subsequent cycles we will incorporate new ways to make resources available to grantees throughout the life of their grants. This may include digital security trainings and/or greater access to our Digital Security Helpline; training on how to write grants; and strategies for capacity building. We look forward to working with other grantors in the space to facilitate these processes.

If you’d like to stay updated on our grants program and the work we do in digital rights across the globe, we encourage you to follow us on Twitter and Facebook, and sign up for our newsletter and action alerts.