How do you position an NGO to get funding to rewrite the playbook for human rights funding?
Future Challenges, a Berlin-based NGO, has been leveraging digital technologies to improve human rights work for over 12 years. In the wake of receiving a significant grant from the German Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development for a pilot project in Uganda, they realized their old identity and website didn't live up to the level of their current work anymore. A more refined look was needed in support of their quest to expand operations.
And while, on a surface level, things were going better than ever, the team was actually experiencing a minor existential crisis. A string of successful but disparate projects had muddied their sense of purpose, the feverish pace of day-to-day project work slowly evaporating their grasp on the bigger picture. Where are we headed? Why are we doing this again? And why should anyone care?
„Working with Chris felt like a true partnership right from the start. We are now able to clearly articulate our vision for the future of human rights work. It has not only aligned our team, but it has made a night-and-day-difference, for how we approach pitches and negotiations.“Linda walter, Ceo/Co-founder Future challenges
So, when co-founders Eike Leonhardt and Linda Walter approached me to help them rediscover and define their raison-d'être, running a brand strategy workshop was our first order of business.
Three takeaways are especially worth mentioning:
Firstly, we uncovered a common thread running through all their projects: championing the cause of grassroots human rights activists using internet-enabled technology, tools, and mindsets.
Secondly, their latest project, the Digital Human Rights Lab (DHRL), inherently promised a chance to address a more systemic issue: the supply-centric logic of the funding process in human rights work. A process in which well-intentioned bureaucrats, far removed from the actual trials of grassroots human rights organizations, decide what sensible "solutions" deserve to get money. If this sounds suspiciously like central planning for political points, you wouldn't be entirely wrong. What looks good in a spreadsheet doesn't necessarily translate to impact on the ground.
However, the DHRL had already been funded to do things differently. And it was working really well. So we were getting a little excited. What if they had a blueprint for pivoting human rights funding from a global money sink into a serendipity machine for impact?
A compelling idea, yet it left us, thirdly, with a puzzle: How do we tell that story in a way that would be sophisticated enough to appeal to large donor organizations without repelling the activists they ultimately exist to serve?
We solved the puzzle by positioning Future Challenges as an accelerator rather than a classical NGO. But, instead of startups, we have grassroots human rights organizations. Instead of venture capital, we have international development agencies. Instead of Return on Invest, we have Return of Impact. But the smart money still bets on smart people and seeks ways to empower them. That's, after all, one of the few proven ways to boost your chances for serendipitous turnouts.
But how do you empower activists without returning to the tried and failed ways of funding armchair solutions based on armchair diagnoses?
Future Challenges' approach is financing and incubating regional networks of grassroots human rights organizations called Seeds. Seeds connect local activists to knowledge, funding, and one another, slowly turning local impact into change at scale.
This is appealing to donor organizations because not only do they get accountability and impressive sounding numbers for their spreadsheets. Funding through Future Challenges' Seeds also increases the chances of their dollars producing a tangible good.
It's also immensely appealing from a grassroots human rights organization's perspective because they get funding, help, and connections to solve their problems, all with minimal strings attached.
And for Future Challenges, this means they are once again internally and externally aligned and on a mission to tackle one of the biggest challenges for sustainable human rights work: the supply-centric funding process.
With a firm strategic base established, we started building a messaging system that fluently adapts to our different audiences. The website, for instance, highlights Future Challenges' commitment to reducing the plight of grassroots human rights organizations rather than focusing on the abstract systemic issue. Whereas in many pitch situations, the promise of greater leverage from the systemic angle is bound to create more buy-in from potential donors.
Meanwhile, we brought in M2HS to create a small identity system. The new logo features a red horizon line that alludes to the great divide separating the world's haves from the have-nots, the connected from the disconnected. It also reminds us that it's always the challenges right in front of us that stand between us and the future we want to have, thus cleverly putting the name Future Challenges in perspective.
From this point, designing the website almost felt like biking downhill. We wanted to create a professional, no-frills experience that would still feel unique in a subtle way. To achieve a reduced but ownable look we created a functional typographic system based on a strict three-column grid. Throughout the website, we only use three different point sizes and two weights. Clean, self-evident hierarchies are also established through the careful use of whitespace and systematic splashes of color. Typographic micro-expressions then re-introduce a touch of playfulness into our visual language, for instance, by enclosing quotes set in midnight blue with an alarm-red quotation mark and period.