Corporate Philanthropy Needs a Human Rights Approach

Corporate human rights obligations should extend to philanthropic initiatives for sustainable and meaningful systemic change

Amy Coulterman
3 min readFeb 4, 2020


People in a circle. Philanthropy; human rights-based approach; grantmaking; human rights; corporate giving; structural change
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Today, the term “human rights” can be found throughout the corporate social responsibility (CSR) and environmental, social and governance (ESG) reports of many of Canada’s largest companies. The introduction of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights in 2011 formally set out the expectation that corporations need to be proactive in avoiding causing or contributing to adverse human rights impacts through their own activities and addressing impacts when they occur. The commitments to protect, address and remedy human rights now underlie many current initiatives in the CSR space and the work towards achieving these commitments are leading to more sustainable solutions and stronger and more profitable companies.

Human rights responsibilities, however, don’t have to be limited to a company’s business activities, such as supply chain, procurement and labour policies. Philanthropic initiatives are a typical level one entry point when building a company’s CSR program, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be discerning or purposeful. Philanthropy can help to signal a company’s total commitment to their human rights responsibilities through a “human rights approach” to funding.

Human rights grantmaking is defined by the Advancing Human Rights initiative as “funding in pursuit of structural change to ensure the protection and enjoyment of rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and subsequent human rights treaties.” A human rights approach to grantmaking is when the realization of human rights becomes the ultimate goal of funding.

Companies don’t have to be intimately familiar with UN treaties to undertake a human rights approach: they’re likely already funding human rights-focused charities and programs. But what a human rights approach requires is an assessment of how funding can support systemic structural change and how this can complement the traditional grantmaking a company already does.

Hands in the air. Philanthropy; human rights-based approach; grantmaking; human rights; corporate giving; structural change
Photo by Chris Slupski on Unsplash

Here are some examples of what a human rights approach to funding can look like in practice:

A human rights approach to giving encompasses not just the “what”, but also the “how” of funding. It’s not only about outcomes, but also about principles like participation, accountability and non-discrimination. It can help to push a company to assess and refine its internal selection process to ensure that there is a diversity of voices on a funding committee, to engage in an intersectional approach to funding and to build a social purpose within the company, which can all lead to more sustainable and effective funding.

It’s time for companies to take bold steps to deeply embed their commitment to human rights throughout all of their CSR initiatives. Philanthropy is a part of the movement that can’t be left behind if the realization of human rights and a better world for everyone are our goals.



Amy Coulterman

Attempting to link a non-profit mindset to the corporate world. Corporate social responsibility | social impact | Toronto, Canada |