Discussion & Debate / Human Rights Community

In a Family Foundation, Trying to Make a Bigger Difference

By Michael Hirschhorn, President, Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Foundation –

This post originally appeared on PhilanthroFiles, Exponent Philanthropy’s blog, as part of an ongoing series on the ins and outs of funding human rights as a small foundation.

In our family foundation, advancing human rights has become an increasingly central strategy, both for our grantmaking abroad and in the US. What drives our growing interest in human rights? A keen awareness that we’d like to try to make a bigger difference on the issues we care most about. We started to ask ourselves questions such as:  While we fund non-profits in Baltimore City to expand training for public school teachers and principals, why isn’t the Baltimore City Public School system adequately funded to meet its own system-wide training needs?

I cha‎ir the board of the Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Foundation, founded by my maternal grandparents more than 50 years ago in Baltimore, MD. All of the trustees are my family members — my sister, aunt and uncle, my cousin; you get the picture! — and we are assisted by three highly capable part-time professionals.

A bit of proud family history:  Following the horrors and genocide of the WWII era,  President Franklin Roosevelt appointed my grandfather, Jacob Blaustein, to serve as part of a small delegation charged with ensuring that human rights were deeply embedded in the establishment of the United Nations (“UN”). Following an arduous, highly charged international process, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (“UHDR” for short) was ultimately adopted by the UN in December 1948.  Fast forward to more recent times — despite my family’s deep-rooted history in human rights, it is only over the last 15 years or so that our family foundation has begun to explicitly articulate a “human rights approach” toward our grantmaking.  And this evolution has been a twisty road, hardly without its misunderstandings and bumps in the family road!

To understand how human rights work in a family foundation or any foundation, it’s important to keep two things in mind:

  • Human rights are integral to wide range of issues.  In addition to “well-known” civil and political rights — such as freedom of speech, or freedom from torture or religious persecution — the UDHR also specifies numerous “less famous” rights in the economic, social and cultural spheres.  These include universal rights to education, health care, and the opportunity to work. “Universal rights” mean they apply to absolutely everyone.
  • Funding human rights typically means focusing on systemic change, focusing on getting at the root of a problem. As such, human rights grantmaking tends to focus less on direct service, more on seeking to transform the fundamentals.

But before I get too wonky, here are a few examples to help illustrate.  Our family foundation has five grantmaking priority areas.  For each problem we try to address, we try to fund a mix of direct service efforts and systems-change efforts.  That means funding efforts that focus on going to bat for broad changes — at a city, state, national or global level — in policies that effect the ability of individuals to “access their rights.”

One of our foundation’s highest priorities is improving public education in Baltimore.  At the direct service level, we fund an array of terrific, creative after-school programs and teacher training initiatives.  In addition, simultaneously, we fund organizations that seek to leverage the guarantee in the constitution of the State of Maryland stating that all children have the right to an “adequate education.”  This echoes Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which pinpoints “Everyone has the right to education.”

So, for the Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Foundation, employing a “human rights approach” to improving public education in Baltimore has focused at the State level.  We have provided significant, consistent support over many years to a statewide organization in successfully pursuing litigation that led to a major revision in the State Of Maryland’s formula for funding public education. Central to this campaign has been the belief that — in Baltimore City and other high-need parts of the State — state funding equations need to be differentiated to reflect the cost of education and the rate of poverty rate of the students in each school district.

Another of our five priority funding areas is advancing women’s and minority rights in various regions of the world. Since I’m supposed to keep this blog post to 800 words, here are three really quick examples of human-rights success stories (where credit is to be shared with many, many funders and organizations!). In the first example, one of our grantees celebrated a major advocacy victory in 2014, when the highest immigration court in the US created a binding legal precedent that women who suffer gender violence — such as extreme domestic violence — are entitled to eligibility for asylum protection in the US.

In a second example, an organization we support played a key role in inspiring the 2006 adoption of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This effort has resulted in a shift of tens of millions of dollars worldwide away from segregated institutionalization — and toward integration into society — for those with disabilities.  Finally, following a multi-faceted campaign by Moroccan organizations (that we indirectly helped to fund), the Moroccan Parliament voted unanimously to delete a clause in the country’s penal code that allowed convicted rapists to escape prison time by marrying their victims.

I mentioned earlier that weaving a “human rights approach” across our foundation’s work has not been simple, requiring a patient, ongoing learning process by everyone, believers and those ambivalent alike.  One family member noted that while “getting” terrible human rights problems like torture in other countries, she had a hard time understanding what human rights have to do with strengthening mental health services in Baltimore. A couple of family members shared distrust that human rights standards are applied equally to all nations in the world’s deliberative bodies. And I remember once, about ten years ago, telling my mom that I hoped our foundation would help support a campaign to extend the right to education to include adults.  After a silence that seemed to me to last an eternity, my mom responded by asking me if I was becoming a socialist.  As they say, it’s a process.


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