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Chapter 21: Human Rights Organizations

Companion website

Chapter 25. Human Rights Organizations

Andres Baron Melendez, Braden Owens and Johanna Stansfield


Chapter summary


Edris Arib explains his views on the roles of civil society organizations (CSOs), namely, to protect the rights and interests of citizens against violations committed by governments, the private sector and other actors. He views CSOs as a force to counter the abuses and violations committed against members of society. He explains that it is important for CSOs not only to criticize human rights abuses but also to provide specific alternatives or solutions. Other functions include raising awareness through effective communications and working with other organizations to build strong coalitions. 

According to Susie Haslett, human rights organizations such as hers are, at their core, advocacy organizations. Consequently, messaging and communications are an integral part of their function. She focuses on the importance of online organizing as a way to spread the word and engage as many people as possible. Another important function of CSOs is to help people become more informed by providing resources or access to information hubs. 

Rawan Odeh explains the importance for CSOs to be visible and to ensure that “they have a seat at the table”. She discusses key elements of a fruitful relationship between an organization’s manager and its board of directors. She points to the importance of passion in this line of work and urges readers to reflect on their own motivations for working in human rights. She provides helpful tips on fundraising strategies, networking and recruitment.


Additional sources




Civil society:


Civil Society Voices (2016, 4 minutes). An inspiring video by Human Rights Democracy Network on the powerful role of civil society organizations around the world.


Civil Society Is (2013, 4 minutes). A group of activists from around the world describe what civil society means to them. 


Running a nonprofit:


Asking Hard Questions as a Non-Profit Organization (2018, 16 minutes). TedX Talk by Gordon Decker about the role of a nonprofit within a community and the importance of planning and evaluation in the setting up and running of a nonprofit.


Starting a nonprofit organization? Three things you must do first (2019, 12 minutes). Amber Melanie Smith explains some basic steps to help you set up your own nonprofit. 


What is a 501c3 organization? (2020, 8 minutes). Tiffany from Boss On a Budget explains what it means for a startup nonprofit to become tax exempt.


How to Start a Nonprofit in the USA 501(c)(3) (2019, 15 minutes). Terry Ibele from Wild Apricot breaks down the steps to incorporate a nonprofit organization in the United States. 


Best online fundraising ideas for nonprofits (2020, 13 minutes). Amber Melanie Smith offers some ideas for online fundraising.  


White savior mentality:


Just as Rawan Odeh encourages, every human rights defender should reflect on their motivations and passions that have pushed them into the human rights field. It is far too easy to name that internal voice of justice as our primary motivator, and take every quick route we can find to satisfy that voice without thinking about the damages we could be causing others. Sometimes our solutions are only temporary, and when that fades a much deeper scar is left behind. This section isn’t here to discourage anyone from defending human rights, but to push people down that path of critical assessment. Will our course of action do more harm than good? And if so, what can we do differently? 


The White Savior Complex: The Dark Side of Volunteering (2019, 12 minutes). TedX Talk by Kayley Gould about the negative consequences of volunteer tourism and ideas to address them. 


I was a humanitarian…and I regret it (2020, 18 minutes). Hyram shares his personal experience as a humanitarian volunteer and the damage he later realized it caused. 




How to Start a Nonprofit in 4 Steps (2019 blog, Terry Ibele from Wild Apricot) 

Practical details for setting up a nonprofit.


The First Step to Working in Human Rights (

Natalie Jesionka discusses the first things to consider when looking to work for a human rights organization.


Human Rights Career Paths (

Provides an extensive list of common career paths in the field of human rights.


The White-Savior Industrial Complex (2012, Teju Cole, The Atlantic)

Teju Cole points to the damaging effects of white saviors who prioritize a “big emotional experience” through small acts of charity or activism over tackling larger systemic issues. 


The Only Grant Writing Book you´ll ever need. (2019) Ellen Karsh and Arlen Sue Fox, Basic Books, New York 


Effective Fundraising for Nonprofits (2019) Ilona Bray, J.D., NOLO, USA. 


Guide to Nonprofit Leadeship ( 2021) Joan Garry, Wiley, New Jersey, USA. 


How to Start, Run and Grow a Successful Nonprofit Organization ( 2018) Aaron Sanders, Lost River Publishing House, USA. 




Civil Society Futures and Innovation Podcast (International Civil Society Centre) 

Covers a variety of subjects that civil society organizations specialize in.


NGO Soul + Strategy (Tosca Bruno-van Vijfeijke)

Discusses various issues related to managing and leading non-governmental organizations.  


Good to Growth (Nonprofit Hub) 

Insights on how to effectively grow a nonprofit.


Nonprofit Ally podcasts

Provides practical tips and advice from experts in nonprofit development.


Chapter 25 reflection exercises


  1. Start by listing all of the roles of CSOs mentioned in the three interviews. Of these roles, which do you think is the most important? Which resonates most with you?
  2. Edris Arib lists a number of different types of CSOs, such as non-governmental organizations, labor unions, religious groups, charitable organizations, faith-based organizations, think tanks, research organizations, and foundations. Which type of organization would you be most interested in working for? Why?
  3. According to Edris Arib, one of the most important functions of CSOs is to be a “watchdog”, that is, to monitor violations committed by governments, the private sector and other actors in order to protect the rights and interests of citizens. Find an example of a CSO that fulfills this role and explain how it does so.
  4. Raising public awareness is frequently mentioned in the chapter as an important function of CSOs. Think of one way in which a human rights organization might go about raising awareness of an issue. Write a paragraph or two explaining your strategy for your awareness-raising campaign. Can you find some examples online from existing NGOs?
  5. Both Susie Haslett and Rawan Odeh have personal stories that led them to the field of human rights. Think about your own reasons for working in the field. What motivates or drives your interests? 
  6. As Rawan Odeh mentioned, fundraising is a major part of managing a CSO. There are countless ways to raise money for a cause or a nonprofit. Think of one fundraising campaign idea that you like and find an example of an organization that has used this strategy. How does it work? Who is the target audience? Why do you think it’s effective?
  7. Essay Question: Civil Society is the place where men/women can gather together with the common purpose of cooperating to stand before the State as to demand for its needs. Analyze the relationship among CSOs and the Institutions of State to guarantee that all basic needs and human rights are met according to the social contract that rules society and State. 
  8. Essay Question: The Covid 19 pandemic has significantly changed society and will continue doing so. Analyze the transformation of CSOs during the pandemic and any new prospects for the defense and advocacy for human rights. 


Email writing


Find an organization that addresses an issue that is of interest to you. Many organizations’ websites include a “Staff” or “Our Team” page, including information and contact details for  each staff member. Select a staff member whose job you would be interested to know more about and write a one-page email asking them for advice, questions about their daily work, networking opportunities, or anything you would like!


Here are some example questions below, to help get you started.


Brief background: Literacy Connects is a nonprofit organization based in Tucson, Arizona, that runs a variety of programs for improving literacy through education and arts. One program, called Stories That Soar!, takes stories submitted by school children and turns them into videos and plays broadcast throughout the Tucson region. According to the organization’s website  “Through the talent of our professional adult ensemble of performers and digital artists, stories soar to life on stage and screen, celebrating literacy, inspiring creativity, and positively impacting the community!”. They have lots of other great programs – check them out!


Questions for the Stories that Soar! Artistic Director


  • How did you get involved in Literacy Connects, and Stories That Soar! more specifically?
  • What motivates you to work for the organization and the Stories that Soar! program?
  • What are the challenges of working for a nonprofit such as Literacy Connects?
  • What is the most rewarding part of your job?
  • What skills do you see as most important in your line of work, and for the Literacy Connects team in general?
  • How does the organization raise public awareness about the Stories that Soar! program?
  • What tangible results have you seen in the community as a result of the program?
  • Do you have any other projects/ideas that you would like to see implemented by Literacy Connects in the future? 


For further toolkits and resources on mailing and communicating with current and potential donors, followers, volunteers and all actor in the Civil Society ecosystem  visit ; The Alliance of Nonprofit Mailers works to preserve affordable, reliable U.S. Mail so that nonprofits continue to fulfill vital missions.


Get Further Involved


There’s an abundance of opportunities in the field of human rights, from higher education, to grassroots activism, to shadow reporting. All it takes is a foot in the door to open that wider path to a career as a human rights practitioner. Here are a few examples of how you can get further involved and make an impact.  


Deforestation and Hunger


Trees for the Future is a global organization dedicated to solving hunger and poverty crises through agroforestry, a farming method that plants trees to create a more sustainable and stable environment for crops and animals. Agroforestry can strengthen the soil, reduce water loss, protect the ecological balance and mitigate the damage of the earth due to unsustainable farming practices. With more stable crops both food and income increase, and the environment is healed in the process. 


What you can do

  • Donate 
    • This is one of the primary sources of income for many nonprofits and NGOs worldwide. 
  • Fundraise
    • Create a video and share it on social media to spread awareness and allow others the opportunity to donate towards a specific goal. There are multiple ways to fundraise and anyone can do it!
  • Become an Ambassador
    • Ambassador’s are volunteers, using their skills and resources to represent Trees for the Future whether on social media, fundraisers, or other events. Ambassadors fulfill a variety of roles and it’s a great first step to take for those who want to get further involved.
    • One idea is a monthly post on Instagram to spread information about current projects, goals, or new problems arising. 


Here is an example of a fundraising initiative started by an individual: 


Amnesty International


One of the largest NGOs in the world, Amnesty uses social mobilization to create movements millions strong. They tackle numerous contemporary human rights issues, from migration to gun violence to climate change; Amnesty handles it all. Regular donations is all it takes to become a member, but there is so much more you can do through Amnesty. 


What you can do

  • Start or join a group of activists in your community.
    • Focus on local human rights issues and pool together your talents and capabilities to achieve greater results than possible alone. 
  • Join a protest movement on an issue you feel passionate about. 
  • Intern with Amnesty International.
    • Large organizations have large networks, and interning at Amnesty could open multiple doors for future career opportunities in human rights. 
  • Urgent Action Network
    • For those with dedication and quick thumbs, the Urgent Action Network uses all methods of written communication to alert officials about an existing problem that requires immediate action. 
  • Attend events
    • Amnesty hosts a variety of events worldwide. Through their website find out what events may be happening close to home. 


WOLA Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas


A leading research and advocacy organization advancing human rights in the Americas. It envisions a future where public policies protect human rights and recognize human dignity, and where justice overcomes violence. WOLA tackles problems that transcend borders and demand cross-border solutions.


You can: 


  • Attend conferences, events and seminars which are for free. 
  • You can do an internship that seeks to give interns hands-on experience and broad exposure to human rights advocacy and the foreign policy-making process. 
  • Donate: with your support WOLA will fight against injustice, unfair policies, and violence throughout the hemisphere.


Human Rights Watch 


Human Rights Watch investigates and reports on abuses happening in all corners of the world. They are roughly 450 people of 70-plus nationalities, country experts, lawyers, journalists, and others who work to protect the most at risk, from vulnerable minorities and civilians in wartime, to refugees and children in need. 


You can: 


  • Stay informed by accessing the most recent updates on breaking human rights news from around the world.
  • Help educate on human rights abuses by taking action on different fronts. 
  • Volunteer for the Human Rights Council, supporting the organization through fundraising, outreach, and advocacy initiatives.
  • Become a member of the legacy for justice society, which is a special group of supporters who have made estate plans or established life-income gifts to benefit Human Rights Watch. Membership in the Society is bestowed without regard to gift level, as each commitment represents a lifetime pledge to Human Rights Watch that expresses both the desire for a world that is just and the future of what is possible through philanthropy.
Chapter 21: Human Rights Organizations

William Paul Simmons

Professor, Gender and Women's Studies; Director, Human Rights Practice Program (University of Arizona)

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