The Freshwater Institute, a new hub for human rights activists and civil society leaders in East Asia, hosted its first major event May 24-27 in Taipei. The Civil Society Innovation (CSI) Lab brought together 23 civil society leaders from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China to build community and introduce methodologies for developing new fundraising and business approaches. 

CSI Lab participants, who were selected from a competitive application process, represent a diverse group of grassroots civil society organizations working on freedom of expression, access to information, access to justice, environmental rights, labor rights, LGBT and gender equality, civic participation, and democratic resilience.*  


The CSI Lab kicked off with a nature walk in the grasslands of Yangmingshan National Park where participants got to know each other and share their challenges and aspirations. 

The following days featured business development workshops at the Chang-Fo Chuan Human Rights Center at Soochow University. Participants refined their organizations’ theories of change and discussed the challenges of fundraising in politically restricted contexts. With guidance from Freshwater co-directors Shawn Shieh and Ed Rekosh, they developed ideas for business models to generate revenue in support of their missions, taking inspiration from the dozens of innovative funding ideas on Rights CoLab’s Mapping Civil Society Innovation project. Lab members also heard from nonprofits such as Tò-uat Books, which is a hybrid social enterprise, on the challenges and rewards of developing membership programs and other revenue generation approaches.

“We shouldn’t avoid talking about money—we need to lean into it, because local business models give our organizations greater independence.”—CSI Lab member

The CSI Lab ended with a trip to the National Human Rights Museum, located in a former prison complex that held many political prisoners during the period from 1949 to the late 1980s  known as the White Terror.

At Rights CoLab and Social Innovations Advisory, the founding organizations of the Freshwater Institute, we are grateful for the enthusiastic participation and insights of the first CSI Lab cohort. In addition to developing exciting business ideas, the participants provided valuable feedback which will help us improve the next CSI Lab in 2024.

Freshwater Institute’s next offering will be the Human Rights Accelerator Program, a nine-month incubator program supporting civil society leaders to implement their business prototypes. We look forward to inviting CSI Lab participants and others to apply to the first Accelerator which will kick off in September 2023.

* Civil society organizations represented by the first CSI Lab cohort include: Lady Liberty Hong Kong, FLUID Hong Kong, Taiwan Labor Front, FLOW HK, Tainan Sprout, Tò-uat Books, Judicial Reform Foundation, Taiwan Alliance to Promote Civil Rights, Open Culture Foundation, and 29 Principles.