New Funder Collaborative Takes on Workers’ Rights—Starting With COVID Response

When grappling with the issues of fair labor, philanthropy has generally gravitated toward workforce development programs rather than meeting head-on the entrenched interests of bottom-line capitalism— and dividing effects of globalization.

But in this unique moment, several factors have converged to lay bare economic disparities and need, from the destabilizing effects of COVID-19 to a growing racial justice movement.

Now, a collaboration of funders called FORGE, Funders Organized for Rights in the Global Economy, is aligning and funding efforts to make the global economy work for all, with a focus on raising the voices of workers and giving all stakeholders a seat at the table.

Today, FORGE announced the first cohort of grantees for its Response and Vision Fund, created to advance equitable economic responses in the short and long term. The eight organizations it’s funding illustrate an inclusive approach to finding solutions, from a global labor union federation to organizations supporting domestic, garment and migrant workers.

A Rising Response

Before the pandemic, the movement for fair labor had chalked up a number of wins against the stubborn structures of capitalism: the 1998 adoption of the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) declaration on fundamental principles and rights, and the 2019 adoption of Convention 190, or C190, on the elimination of gender-based violence at work, which had recently moved into the spotlight through the #metoo movement.

As previously covered in Inside Philanthropy, while funders have not historically thrown their weight behind the labor movement, a few progressive funders have pursued advances in workers’ rights over the years. The Ford Foundation is well established in this space, and made the Future of Work(ers) one of its nine engagement areas to challenge inequality. W.K. Kellogg Foundation has worked to organize farmworkers, while the Surdna Foundation invested in maximizing
employment opportunities for people of color. In 2018, the Omidyar Network became the rare funder from the tech world explicitly trying to build worker power.

Then, almost exactly a year ago, a group of around 40 philanthropies gathered at an event adjacent to the United Nations General Assembly to engage in a growing movement to advance workers’ rights and labor standards. Hosted by the Open Society Foundations (OSF), it approached the issues through the lens of women’s leadership.

Five core funders—the C&A Foundation, the Freedom Fund, Fundacion Avina, OSF and Humanity United, which is part of the Omidyar Group —signed on to a statement of intent to support fair labor, build a collaborative community of practice around the issues, break down silos, and include workers and labor groups in their portfolios.

Fast-forward 12 months, and a group of heavy hitters has committed to FORGE’s vision of “a global economy that works for all people and the planet, shaped by and accountable to worker and community-led movements.” All parties agree that COVID-19 was a strong catalyst, exposing entrenched disparities and a chance to rebuild from the ground up. But the speed with which funders came together around shared principles is remarkable.

FORGE helps philanthropists learn and align their strategies, and moves money through the Response and Vision Fund, a pooled funding vehicle. Nine donors are direct funders of the collaborative: the Ford Foundation, Humanity United, Laudes Foundation (formerly the C&A Foundation), Open Society Foundations, True Costs Initiative, Wellspring Philanthropic Fund, Wallace Global Fund, Omidyar Network and an anonymous donor. Collectively, they’ve raised $5 million in gifts ranging from $100,000 to $1 million.

Response and Vision

The Response and Vision Fund offers donors the chance to collaborate globally on advancing equitable solutions through two “streams.”

Stream A, “response,” is a global funding mechanism supporting immediate action on the economic fallout from COVID-19. Resources are directed to a range of organizations working toward three primary goals: building power, strengthening accountability, and shaping bailout and recovery packages and policies.

Stream B, “vision,” provides funding for efforts advocating long-term systems change and initiatives to shift power dynamics and expand network building. Work is expected to create social protections, strengthen corporate rules and regulations, and secure accountability in dealings with financial actors like development banks and pension funds.

Both streams were built on funding principles adopted by many philanthropies during the pandemic: making support flexible and responsive as urgent needs arise, and aiming it squarely at strengthening resilience.

The First Cohort

Eight organizations were chosen to meet the fund’s Stream A objectives of building power, strengthening accountability and shaping recovery initiatives.

The Shojag Coalition in Bangladesh received $100,000 to hold accountable corporations that benefit from financial stimulus packages for the labor and human rights of workers impacted by the coronavirus. The Migrant Forum in Asia is deploying its $150,000 grant to combat wage theft for migrants in Asia and the Middle East.

The International Domestic Workers Federation received a $100,000 grant to organize and advocate for global domestic workers who are
struggling with the impacts of the pandemic.

A $200,000 investment in DAR, Derecho, Ambiente y Recursos Naturales, will support a community-led response to development finance in Latin America and parts of the Global South.

CESR, the Center for Economic and Social Rights, received $150,000 for its “Resourcing a Just Recovery” program. Ignacio Saiz, executive director of CESR, says the funding is already playing a crucial role in shifting power dynamics through its work, allowing activists from across movements to unite in their push for a paradigm shift on the mobilization of public resources in the wake of COVID-19. CESR is also working to strengthen accountability, advocating through organizations like the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to hold governments responsible for their economic responses.

ReMake, the global organization that protects garment workers, received $75,000 to address the long-term fallout of declining fashion sales caused by the pandemic, including payment against canceled orders and volume decline. The Workers Rights Consortium (WRC) received the same amount to stand with garment workers in the Global North and South by meeting immediate basic needs and influencing structural reform on working and wage conditions.

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), an organization that represents 200 million unionized workers worldwide, received $75,000 to build online capacity to meet a changed future. Catherine Feingold, its deputy president, says the times have shown the world that we can’t “go back to normal, and have to create a new model.”

Funding will shape a platform that members can access for trusted information, including resources critical to meeting basic needs. It will also help ITUC organize across the confederation to build influence and speak with one voice. Feingold considers the ability to engage with the convening forces of FORGE to be “just as powerful as the funding” when dealing with the imbalances of power, calling it a “good model to embrace.”

Funding Economic Progress

Two operational leaders will implement the fund. Fundacion Avina, an expert in managing collaborative funds that address complex social challenges, is anchoring the response stream, and will act as the principal funding custodian and vehicle. SAGE Fund is anchoring the vision stream, and will bring to the role a long history of incubating new strategies and filling governance gaps.

Contributions to the fund will be deployed as joint grants, though funders can also “express interest in aligning funding alongside the fund.” Presently, co-funders can designate the percentage of spread across streams A and B, or let the fund allocate funds equally between the two. Valeria Scorza, Fundacion Avina’s executive director of partnerships, says most funders have decided on a 50/50 or 40/60 split, saying yes to immediate support while eyeing long-term solutions.

Entities that contribute $100,000 or more to a stream will receive one voting seat to guide it, plus one seat for an observer. Funders contributing less receive verbal and written briefings and the opportunity to suggest partners and strategies.

Aligned Efforts

Ford, the Laudes Foundation and OSI occupy three of the seats at the table.

Sarita Gupta, director of the Ford Foundation’s Future of Work(ers) program, says that this is “not a moment for a band-aid solution.”
While COVID-19 hasn’t changed the foundation’s general perspectives, Gupta says efforts are “much more steeped in the global now,” as times have “elevated how interconnected the world is, and how entrenched structures remain.”

Ford sees the two investment streams as interconnected, and did a 40/60 split between them, aiming at both immediate impact and fundamental shift toward equity. Gupta praised FORGE’s ability to support the development and incubation of big ideas, and recognized the value of “sitting at the intersection of climate, gender and labor.” She hopes to bring more funders along, calling on “all sorts of foundations who are asking themselves what they can do to help us rethink and reshape” the global economy.

Amol Mehra, director of industry transformation at the Laudes Foundation, says FORGE’s collaborative approach to economic reform caught its interest, and that it came on board to accelerate the process of bringing donors together on common-cause issues, challenging the group to create a pooled fund.

Laudes responds to the twin crises of inequality and climate change by taking a systemic approach to achieving structural change. Consistent with that, Mehra says that while he was involved in setting up Stream A to allow quick action as moments of opportunity arise, the foundation invested 60% of its funding in the Stream B vision work, which takes a “longer-term systems based approach.

Mehra similarly praised FORGE’s pooled funding process for giving every investor a seat at the table, allowing them to filter and make choices, and do the best by partners, raising a “synergistic approach to philanthropy.”

Laine Romero-Alston, interim fair work division director of the International Migration Initiative at OSF, says that “economic justice broadly, and issues related to workers and workers’ rights specifically,” are increasingly core to OSF’s future. That includes building on a cross-OSF network initiative that includes 14 thematic and 14 regional programs, which collectively invested millions in protecting workers rights. It committed equally across the fund’s two streams.

Noting that “not an essential worker was to be found” during conversations on economic equity following the pandemic, Romero- Alston recognizes that the virus has both baldly revealed that the system is broken, while offering an unprecedented chance to get it right.

“This inaugural slate of Response and Vision Fund investments uplift a much-needed power and systemic analysis of the economic crises COVID-19 has so clearly revealed and exacerbated,” she says. Investments show the “types of strategies and solutions necessary to ensure that those communities most at the front lines of the global economy—women and migrants, domestic workers and workers toiling at the bottom of supply chains, indigenous communities and small land holders—are at the center, with voice, power and priority, in the response and recovery investments of public and private institutions alike.”

Article published in Inside Philanthropy

New Funder Collaborative Takes on Workers’ Rights—Starting With COVID Response

By Liz Longley

Read more