Civil Society and Philanthropic Ecosystems in Latin America: Obstacles and Opportunities

by Graciela Hopstein. Executive Coordinator of the Brazilian Philanthropy Network for Social Justice

Recent research and studies indicate that philanthropy is a field that is growing globally.  This phenomenon is directly tied to the processes through which civil society expands and becomes more complex, as verified over the past 30 years in Western countries and the expansion of representative democracy.


In the case of Latin American countries, civil society has undergone some important transformations, primarily through the struggles against dictatorships and repressive regimes. This has given way to the emergence of new dynamics and political subjects. However, in the context of liberal and social democracies, civil society was conceived as a space differentiated from the state, and at the same time linked to it and the market. As political parties and labor unions (the main civil society actors in the post-war context) had the role of mediating, controlling, and attaining power – and more recently (within the context of the crisis of representative democracy), the operating dynamics of civil society have undergone major changes.

In Latin American societies, new emerging organizations – collectives, NGOs, movements, networks, etc. – began to take a stance not only against the historical problems of social inequality characteristic of the region, but also against the excluding dynamics inherent to the globalized capitalist system. These collectives were organized, consolidated and affirmed in their territorial reach and construction of political agendas based on race, ethnicity, gender, and diversified social-cultural problems.  The main actions by these collectives focused on obtaining and defending rights – in the ample sense of the term,  “having the right to rights”[1] in different spheres and agendas. They hoped to control and influence public policies (advocacy) with their solutions, specifically in addressing exclusion and inequality. This in turn signified the emergence of new political forces, strategies of struggle, and types of collective organization.

Starting in the early 2000s, a withdrawal process of international cooperation and philanthropy began to take place– a situation that created some evident obstacles for the financial sustainability of CSOs and emerging movements. If during the 1990s, international financing represented 80% of the resources intended for social organizations, starting with the new millennium, Latin American CSOs found themselves faced with the need to seek their own solutions to guarantee their financial sustainability. This applied to both the traditional CSOs associated with education and welfare, as well as the new emerging ones) to be able to continue strengthening the agendas focused on rights and democratic systems.

The growth of civil society in Latin America implied not only the emergence of new organizations, agendas, and political dynamics, but also clear obstacles related to the shrinking political and social spaces. This was done through the criminalization of NGOs and movements primarily tied to the field of rights and recognition of identities (indigenous, communities of African descent, LGBTQI, etc.) – as well as in the field of financial sustainability, caused by the withdrawal of international financing. Certainly, if this situation created a void in civil society financing, it also implied the need (and opportunity) to build local philanthropic ecosystems capable of meeting their demands.

“Certainly, if this situation created a void in civil society financing, it also implied the need (and opportunity) to build local philanthropic ecosystems capable of meeting their demands.”

The emergence of local and community funds in the early 2000s, which focused on women, social-environmental causes, community foundations and human rights, should be understood as a process inscribed in this context, as they played a central role building autonomous philanthropic ecosystems. This happened both in terms of agendas, as well as the financial resources available to support organizations and social movements, and in this way, would strengthen civil societies and regional democracies. Evidently, the issue of mobilizing financial resources at a local level continues to be an obstacle and major challenge for Latin American philanthropy, since it continues to be dependent on international funding.

In the case of Brazil – the country I am most familiar with – if it is possible to state that over the past 20 years philanthropy has grown and become stronger through the installation of a incipient ecosystem that is becoming more diverse, it still faces major difficulties when it comes to the culture of donation (primarily in terms of financial resources for civil society), even when compared to the countries in the region. According to the World Giving Index, Brazil was the worst placed in Latin America and has been following a pattern of decline since 2016[2]. The absence of a legal framework to support donations, a not very well-developed grantmaking culture, and the incipient dialogue among the many actors that work in the field are some of the trends that characterize and inhibit the Brazilian philanthropic ecosystem.

In Brazil, one of the phenomena that receives attention is that grantmaking practices are not predominant in the local philanthropic field. This situation indicates the existence of a void in the financing map for civil society organizations and movements, primarily impacting small and medium-sized institutions and grassroots community groups, with those working human rights and social justice most severely affected.  Furthermore, within the context of corporate philanthropy – which is the sector that most mobilizes financial resources – grantmaking practices are under-developed. According to data mapped in GIFE’s 2016 Census, only 16% of foundations and business institutes focused on donating resources to social organizations, and 41% work in a mixed way- developing their own programs and donating resources to third parties[3].

“In order to ensure a dynamic philanthropic ecosystem capable of meeting local demands, it is crucial that Latin American philanthropy become increasingly more organized, coordinated, and interconnected so it can better look after its interests and agendas.”

Despite the scarce development of grantmaking practices – which represents a significant obstacle for Brazilian civil society – it is important to recognize the emergence of new actors and dynamics such as independent, community, and family philanthropy organizations and funds, as well as a stronger relationships between major international and corporate foundations and local donors as part of a joint effort to support CSOs and movements. Certainly, within this context, PSJP- Philanthropy for Social Justice Network – hosted by grantmakers local organizations[4] – is a key actor in the process of building a local philanthropic ecosystem, not only due to the dimension of the work developed[5], but primarily because it seeks to strengthen and focus on the field by promoting a more encompassing and diversified philanthropic culture that guarantees and increases resources for social justice and community development.

In order to ensure a dynamic philanthropic ecosystem capable of meeting local demands, it is crucial that Latin American philanthropy become increasingly more organized, coordinated, and interconnected so it can better look after its interests and agendas. Within the current political context of the region (characterized by predominantly conservative governments), if the growth of philanthropy can imply new opportunities, it can also allow for the emergence of threats, proven by the closure or shrinking of civil society spaces, criminalization and persecution of activists, and strong government control over private resources donated to CSOs and movements. Within this context, it is crucial to join forces and design coordination strategies to think about the possibility of building a “network of networks” within the Latin American context – a true web of local funds and international foundations focused on strengthening the philanthropy and culture of donation in the region to guarantee the existence of a plural, active, and autonomous civil society, and being an effectively a key player in democracy.

[1] Arendt, Hannah, A Condição Humana (“The Human Condition”). Forense Universitária: Rio de Janeiro; 2016.

[2] “CAF World Giving Index” (WGI), which measures the degree of annual solidarity among nations around the world, indicates that the country experienced a peak in 2015, reaching 68thplace, fell to 75th in 2016, and then to 122nd in 2017.

[3] GRUPO DE INSTITUTOS, FUNDAÇÕES E EMPRESAS – GIFE (GROUP OF INSTITUTES, FOUNDATIONS, AND COMPANIES). 2016 GIFE Census. São Paulo: GIFE, 2017. 256 pgs. Available at: Accessed on: January 2019.

[4] To learn more about the network and member organizations, see:

[5] Between the years 2000 and 2017, member organizations directly donated a total of R$ 146,895,761.29 (approximately US$ 41,970,217) to 10,669 NGOs and social movements in Brazil.

Graciela Circle Picture

Graciela Hopstein

Executive Coordinator

Brazilian Philanthropy Network for Social Justice

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