What would you do with a million dollars for digital rights?

It was less than two years ago that we started to build the vision, infrastructure, and processes for a new grantmaking program at Access Now, Access Now Grants. Today, we’re excited to share some updates on how we help empower grassroots activists and NGOs globally. Our aim is to partner with these groups in their efforts to defend and extend the digital rights of “users at risk” —  that is, journalists, bloggers, dissidents, activists, human rights defenders, and members of oppressed and marginalized communities worldwide.

I’m Billie Goodman, the new Grants Program Manager at Access Now. I started at Access Now in January 2017, and I couldn’t be more thrilled to be a part of this team and to join you in the digital rights movement. My background is in grassroots human rights grantmaking, much of which has been in very repressive contexts. I have supported communities surviving and organizing in the face of armed conflict, ethnic and religious discrimination, militarization, and attacks on human rights defenders.

My experience has made me a strong believer in the power of social movements and the promise inherent in the human rights framework. My colleague Kevin Willits and I are committed to making sure Access Now Grants makes the strongest contribution possible to addressing the serious challenges we face as a community working to protect the fundamental rights of vulnerable internet users worldwide.

Access Now didn’t start granting until the end of 2015, but a lot has happened since then. Here’s a recap of what we’ve done in that time:

  • Awarded 45 grants totaling over $985,000 in 22 countries to civil society organizations and individuals, ranging in size from $600 to $60,000, with an average grant size of around $22,000;
  • Granted more than 20 small Discretionary and Digital Safe Spaces grants, including seven rapid response grants, often getting money out the door just a few days after an application is received and vetted;
  • Provided support globally across five regions – Latin America, the New Independent States, Sub Saharan Africa, Middle East/North Africa, and Asia, leveraging a diverse network of partners from across the globe;
  • Worked to ensure funds are directed towards underrepresented populations with 17 of 45 grants funding projects with gender or LGBTQ-related programming;
  • Connected 20 grantee organizations to Access Now’s Digital Security Helpline, helping to improve their technical infrastructure and design locally relevant digital security curricula and documentation.

What does all of this really mean for digital rights? It means that our grantees are empowered to:

  • Provide digital security trainings to users at risk;
  • Monitor and report on internet shutdowns;
  • Ensure access to information and free expression online during elections and other tense political moments;
  • Support women to raise their voices online and build their capacity to protect themselves from harassment; and
  • Build understanding among policymakers, corporations, and the general public that privacy and protection of personal data is a human rights issue.

Even more exciting for us than looking at what’s happened so far is looking ahead. Here are the questions we have to answer this year to make sure that our funding has the biggest possible impact in advancing digital rights globally. We invite you to take a look, and if you have advice or suggestions to share with us, contact us at [email protected]. We’d love to hear from you.

  1. What is the most meaningful way that we can contribute $1 million to the digital rights movement? This is the most important question before us. It will guide us in our granting work every day of 2017, yet we can’t answer it alone. Tell us what you see as the biggest and most impactful way we can contribute to the broader digital rights community. Your thoughts will help us clarify and solidify our vision for this nascent, but rapidly growing, program.
  2. How should we balance long-term funding with nimble and responsive grantmaking? We’re maintaining our relationship with many of our current grantees, particularly those that receive core funding. We know from our own experience that having a source of stable, consistent funds is critical for the long-term success of institutions. We seek to balance this approach with making funds available to respond to urgent opportunities and threats, as well as with geographically expanding our program and supporting emerging digital rights activists.
  3. How can we best show solidarity and provide support when grantees come under attack? We are in a time of rising authoritarianism, rejection of human rights, politics of division, and attacks on the media. Civic space and dissenting voices are under threat. We know that our grantees are among those who may find themselves paying a higher price for their work. Since its inception, Access Now Grants has prioritized the security of our information and communication, and that will continue. Like many of you, we are concerned with the efforts to restrict foreign funding and tie the hands of civil society, which needs resources to do its important work. As a funder we think it is important to have protocols and resources in place that enable us to mobilize in defense of our grantees and other allies. Please feel free to share your thoughts.
  4. Who are the users at risk who need a stronger voice within our community? We are already prioritizing feminist and LGBTQ activists through grantmaking and our Digital Security Helpline. We are keen to identify other communities that are particularly at risk online and likewise rely heavily on the digital space to promote human rights.

I look forward to hearing from you, and meeting many of you personally at RightsCon Brussels on March 29-31. Please do reach out, say hi, and let us know how you think we should answer the questions we’re asking about 2017. We’re here to empower you.