Image from the campaign toolkit for Equality Can’t Wait, a new $30 million philanthropic contest.

Image from the campaign toolkit for Equality Can’t Wait, a new $30 million philanthropic contest.

Melinda Gates and Mackenzie Bezos made big waves in feminist philanthropy recently when they teamed up to launch Equality Can’t Wait, a new $30 million grant contest focused on gender equality. It’s run by Gates’ investment and incubation company, Pivotal Ventures, with support from Bezos and the nonprofit Lever For Change. The creation of this competition launches a major new partnership between two of the richest women on the planet.

Applicant organizations will try to convince these philanthropic powerhouses, as well as their nonprofit peers, that they can move the needle on women’s empowerment in meaningful ways within the next 10 years. At least two winners will receive at least $10 million over five years, with the remaining funds to be split among up to 10 finalists.

Gates’ Pivotal Ventures seeks to seed social progress, and it is one branch of her commitment to devoting $1 billion to U.S. gender equity through 2030. Another example of Pivotal’s work is the Ascend Fund, which aims to advance women in U.S. politics.

This is one of Mackenzie Bezos’ biggest solo funding moves since she and Jeff Bezos divorced last summer, and since she signed the Giving Pledge. She’s an award-winning author, founder of the anti-bullying group Bystander Revolution, and a mother of four children, now grown. Her previous philanthropy with her husband focused on medical research, education and more, and her fortune is currently estimated at around $50 billion.

Back in 2019, in an article advising Bezos on the potential pitfalls of launching a solo philanthropy career, IP’s David Callahan suggested she collaborate with other funders and take advantage of funding intermediaries when possible, while establishing her own course. This partnership with Pivotal and Lever for Change is a good example of such a strategy.

Lever for Change is an affiliate nonprofit of the MacArthur Foundation that recently launched with a mission to host a variety of grant contests, including MacArthur’s own 100&Change competition. The Gates Foundation is one of its supporters, and as we covered recently, the platform can serve other philanthropists who need help finding and vetting grantees. The richest families in America are sitting on $4 trillion, and many claim they’d like to give more—Lever for Change is well-poised as a facilitator.

A Philanthropic Ecosystem

Nicole Bates, Pivotal Ventures director of strategic partnerships and initiatives, said Lever for Change’s “model, approach and partnership in managing customized competitions… will help us source new and innovative solutions, evaluate them from a diverse set of perspectives, and provide a philanthropic ecosystem that ensures top proposals have access to [resources].”

Lever for Change runs what it calls the Bold Solutions Network, which curates top entries from a variety of its contests, similar to MacArthur’s Solutions Bank, which is now hosted by Candid. Lever for Change CEO Cecilia Conrad said that for donors, the Bold Solutions Network creates an “efficient way to find and fund high-impact solutions to [issues they care about] while leveraging rigorous evaluation and technical support” from Lever for Change. Applicants are exposed to greater donor attention, along with networking and learning opportunities, she said.

The idea behind this network is to provide even non-winners with a shot at funding, widening the impact of any individual competition. Leading applicants from the Equality Can’t Wait challenge, for example, will be featured on this network.

Why Equality Can’t Wait

The contest offers plenty of data regarding how serious gender inequality in America remains. In 2019, the World Economic Forum projected that at the current rate of progress, it would take the U.S. 208 years to achieve gender equality—a prediction Gates turned into a video series called “Equality Can’t Wait” in 2018.

The challenge’s website points out that women are underrepresented in Congress (<24%), as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies (7%), in U.S. undergraduate degrees in computer and information sciences (19%), and other areas. Women spend two hours more each day on caregiving and are almost three times more likely to quit their jobs to care for a family member.

The wage gap is another huge hurdle. In 2018, women earned 85% of what men earned. When broken down by race, the numbers are bleaker: In 2018, Black women who worked full time year-round were typically paid 62 cents for every dollar paid to white men. In the same year, U.S. Latinas were paid, on average, 46% less than white men (and 31% less than white women). The Equality Can’t Wait contest targets women of all backgrounds, and especially women of color.

As a matter of human rights, women’s equality doesn’t need to promise secondary benefits to be considered a critical issue. But both Pivotal and Bezos point out that it is good for everyone. Pivotal states that “removing the barriers that hold people back improves life for all.” And Bezos said in the announcement of the new contest, “Closing the gap on gender equality will benefit everyone. History keeps teaching us that when a diversity of voices is represented in decisions, the outcome is better for all.”

We also know that women who live more equitable lives are better positioned to pursue their goals. They are more likely to pass on liberated conditions to the generations they birth and raise, and to the networks they build and support. Many philanthropists and advocates discuss the positive “ripple effect” that occurs in communities when women are safe and unrepressed. Supporting women who face intersectional barriers, as the Equality Can’t Wait contest aims in part to do, may have the deepest and farthest-reaching effect.

In 2018, when the Ms. Foundation for Women announced a $25 million commitment to invest in gender equity with a focus on women and girls of color, foundation president and CEO Teresa C. Younger told us, “[We] are looking at the pool of inequality and saying, if we have one pebble to drop, we want to drop it over the efforts and the supports needed for women and girls of color, because we believe that the ripple that will come out of that will affect everybody who is in that pool of inequality and lift up everybody in the process.”

What Is This Contest Looking for?

For Equality Can’t Wait, successful applicants will present ideas for boosting women’s power and influence in three core areas: dismantling barriers, fast-tracking women in certain sectors, and calling society to action. Some of those barriers include harassment, caregiving imbalances, wage and wealth gaps, racial biases and gender stereotypes. Sectors like tech, government, entrepreneurship and media will be focuses, and empowering various leaders with better gender equality resources will be a big part of the call for society to act. Nonprofits (including private foundations), public universities, colleges and junior colleges, and tribal governments or tribal-owned enterprises can apply.

Ideas should be “transformative, equitable, innovative and feasible.” The contest asks whether a proposal includes an equity lens “that considers the experiences of women of all backgrounds, including women of color, women living in poverty, and LGBTQ women.” The current movement for racial justice and the disparate impact of COVID-19 on women are both mentioned in press statements for the contest’s launch (of course, the pandemic also disproportionately affects people of color).

Peer reviewers, outside experts, Pivotal Ventures and Bezos will carry out the evaluation and selection process. Peer organizations will play a key role in narrowing down a list of applicants for finalist positions.

Conrad of Lever for Change said the peer-to-peer review will include all eligible groups that meet the requirements and rules of an initial administrative review. “We often hear… that these reviews are particularly valuable because they come from other applicants in the same area who understand their day-to-day work experience.” Lever for Change has been told that being a peer reviewer can offer insights that can “improve the reviewers’ own work.”

Pivotal Ventures and Bezos will make the call on the finalists and winners. That means this process uses participatory evaluation and decision-making up to a point, while leaving the ultimate decision in the hands of those with access to the funds. We see a similar model at play in the new Hive Fund for Climate and Gender Justice, which seeks to catalyze a climate response in the South led by women of color. It engages nonprofits that are experienced in these fields during the grantee selection process, while its directors, veterans in philanthropy (both women, one of whom is Black), make the final funding decisions.

But before winners are selected, the Equality Can’t Wait challenge states finalists will be chosen based on considerations that may include but are “not limited to, ranking from the evaluation panel, organizational capacity, geographic diversity and feasibility.” Organizational capacity is a controversial funding filter, especially in the realm of social justice, and has been discouraged by leaders in the field. By backing only groups of a certain size and complexity, grantmakers sometimes exclude work led by underfunded communities at the locus of intersectional inequity—namely, women of color.

While the struggles of small bail funds to process their recent surge in donations show that infrastructure can be crucial, seasoned and deeply resourced grantmakers are in a position to help smaller groups adapt and scale up. Without funding, the capacity and impact of these groups remain hampered.

Furthermore, Pivotal states, “Our strategies are guided by data, experts and those with lived experience in our focus areas.” As we reported in our recent story on funding Black-led groups, some social and racial justice advocates and activists would advise Pivotal to rearrange these sources, placing those with lived experience front and center.

But actions can speak louder than strategy descriptions. Through its Ascend Fund, Pivotal specifically works to recruit women from myriad backgrounds into office. Its latest round of grantees center and are led by Black women, Latinas, openly LGBTQ leaders and Asian Pacific American women, among others. The chosen winners of the Equality Can’t Wait contest will further reveal the extent to which Pivotal wants to uphold the equity lens it discusses and follow the leadership of diverse women.

Interested organizations should register for Equality Can’t Wait by Sept. 1, 2020. Applications are due the same month, and winners will be announced in the summer of 2021.

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