A protest in Kolkata, india. arindambanerjee/shutterstock

A protest in Kolkata, india. arindambanerjee/shutterstock

Grassroots women’s and LGBTQ+ organizations are key engines of social change. Philanthropy is slowly acknowledging that, along with funding for external programs, social justice groups need money to develop their infrastructures. It turns out, the funders who often resource front-line feminist groups around the world—women’s funds—also need support for internal development.

The oldest international women’s fund, Mama Cash, defines the funds as “public foundations that support women-led solutions to the root causes of social injustice.” The African Women’s Development Fund, South Asia Women’s Fund and Fondo de Mujeres del Sur, among many others, serve as intermediaries, grantmakers and partners for women’s and LGBTQ+ organizations. They can play a crucial role in low- to middle-income countries by providing financial and technical assistance to community groups with little other means of support.

A new philanthropic endeavor launching in the first half of 2020 involves four foundations giving “at least” $20 million to strengthen women’s funds’ internal capacities. The Foundation for a Just Society (FJS), Open Society Foundations (OSF), Wellspring Philanthropic Fund and William and Flora Hewlett Foundation created the five-year program in consultation with women’s funds, which will play an active role in its implementation. The Prospera International Network of Women’s Funds, which is made up of 38 funds from 33 countries making grants in more than 170 countries, carried out a needs assessment of its members in service of the initiative. The New Venture Fund is the project’s fiscal sponsor and Arabella Advisors, in turn, supports New Venture Fund.

The foundations involved all previously invested in women’s and human rights, both domestically and globally, and women’s funds, specifically. Betsy Hoody, Wellspring program officer, says it backs women’s funds because they play a vital role “in advancing the rights of women, girls and LGBTIQ people, [though work such as] preventing violence against women and advocating for women’s land and property rights.”

“We [learned] from women’s funds that, even when we [give] general operating support, they often allocate the funds to grantmaking [instead of] other organizational development needs,” FJS Director of Programs Maitri Morarji says. When women’s funds commit the majority of their budgets to grantees, their growth and flexibility as funders can be stifled. The new philanthropic commitment intends to help the funds apply some of their resources to inward, rather than outward, progress. Of course, the first engenders the latter.

Mama Cash Executive Director Zohra Moosa says supporting women’s funds’ internal capacity building will help “them stay strong, autonomous and resilient.”

Boosting Women’s Funds’ Infrastructure and Power

Morarji says, recently, there has been an increase in attention and financial support for women’s funds from both foundations and bilateral funders. This includes hundreds of millions committed in recent years to international women’s groups and movements by Canada and the Netherlands. Hewlett Foundation Program Officer Alfonsina Peñaloza says the funds who took part in Prospera’s assessment said they need to address organizational capacity challenges in order “to make the most of [new] resources” coming their way.

The areas targeted for funding and growth by the $20 million program include communications, fundraising, resource mobilization, leadership development and transition, IT, security, and monitoring and evaluation, among others. (Some of these goals mirror a new infrastructure project for giving circles, another vital branch of women’s philanthropy.)

The foundations will use participatory governance to ensure women’s funds have a voice in how the money is spent. Peñaloza of Hewlett says a steering committee will include both donors and representatives from women’s funds, along with a nonvoting member from Prospera’s Secretariat. This committee “will drive the overall work and make grant recommendations,” she says. The project will also have advisory committees largely comprised of women’s funds.

The foundations hope that, through improved communication efforts, awareness of women’s funds will grow, leading to increased donations. Joy Chia, senior program officer with OSF’s Women’s Rights Program, says a large part “of this work will focus on building knowledge [among philanthropies] and donors about the power and impact [of] women’s funds” on women’s rights and feminist movements.

As the process unfolds, the four foundations hope to help women’s funds learn from each other. They also plan to gain insights from the funds, themselves—Chia of OSF mentions learning more about “community-centered funding” and collaborating across sectors.

Morarji of FJS tells us women’s funds “prioritize relationship building, value local knowledge and connection, and foster trust and support with grantee partners that go beyond funding.” She says her organization wants to learn from women’s funds so it “can strengthen the ways we build relationships with [grantees],” among other goals.

Vital Civil Society Actors

Between 2011 and 2015, women and girls—half of the global population—were the focus of 23 percent of the $9.4 billion in foundation human rights funding, with over a third of that amount staying in North America. This data highlights a lack of support for women in other areas, notably the Global South.

Augusta Hagen-Dillon, program officer at Prospera, wrote on these topics for the Human Rights Funders Network blog in 2018. She said Global South organizations “generally have little to no access to funding from their own states or citizens, particularly for women’s and girls’ rights,” and that a very limited amount of the funding moving between nations typically reaches local women’s rights groups. In this light, the recent boost in bilateral aid targeting women’s movements is a welcome change of pace.

In 2010, a study of women’s organizations around the world found they had median budgets of $20,000. Despite this challenging financial landscape, feminist movements continue to make an impact. One 2012 study on violence against women conducted over four decades in 70 countries found mobilization of feminist movements to be more important for progress than national wealth, left-wing political parties or the number of women politicians.

Women’s funds are crucial to feminist movements, serving as partners and intermediaries for nascent or isolated women’s and LGBTQ+ organizations. “Supporting women’s funds is one of the most effective ways for donors to get resources to southern women’s rights organizations and movements, especially those considered too small or risky by mainstream funders,” according to the global Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

“[As] public foundations [created] by and accountable to these activists and movements, [women’s funds] are also vital civil society actors in their own right,” Moosa of Mama Cash says.

For funders who want to empower women and LGBTQ+ communities around the world, spending money to strengthen women’s funds’ capacities makes sense. A women’s fund, like any organization of people, is comparable to a living organism. Just as individual beings must practice self-care in order to survive and contribute to society, funding organizations must meet their own needs in order to serve their grantees well. The new philanthropic endeavor aims to help women’s funds build stability, resilience and power so they can support women’s and LGBTQ+ justice movements with even more vigor. As Hoody of Wellspring, says, “We need strong women’s funds to have strong movements.”

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