Seven things the Women’s Funds Collaborative taught me about feminist philanthropy
My eight-year term at the Hewlett Foundation comes to an end this month. Like all Hewlett program officers, I knew the end date when I was hired; I did not know it would come in the middle of a global pandemic. So much of this job is about building relationships and trust. Not being able to say “hasta luego” in person to those of you I worked closely with for years makes the transition more difficult. But I’m grateful as I look back on our accomplishments, especially the $20 million initiative to strengthen women’s funds. That experience—and so many others—put an even bigger spotlight on the many ways gender intersects with every issue, whether that’s COVID-19’s impact or the way private foundations give money. It showed me how important it is for my feminism to be reflected as a funder as well. Feminist philanthropy is not just about what you are funding, but how.
We are all witnessing in real time the gendered effects of COVID-19 and the ensuing economic crisis, called by many the first female recession. We’re seeing increased domestic violence, the shutdown of essential services for women, including abortion, austerity measures that reduce public funding to programs and services directed at women, and an already depleted funding environment for women’s funds and feminist organizations. The organizations best positioned to respond to these wide-ranging issues and provide support are often women’s funds—donor organizations like the African Women’s Development Fund and Fondo Semillas that provide financial support and accompaniment to advance the human rights and opportunities of women, girls, and LGBTQI people in countries around the world.
Women’s funds have a long track record of knowing where and more importantly how to support feminist movements because they are part of the communities they support and can respond quickly to what is needed most. It’s why I am particularly proud of being part of the design and launch of the Women’s Funds Collaborative, a $20 million effort to strengthen women’s funds internationally. The collaborative aims to strengthen the ecosystem of women’s funds by supporting individual funds and women’s funds as a collective. In doing so, we hope they are able to deepen investments in their own organizational strengths and capacity to respond to the needs of the feminist movements they are a part of. More importantly, it is a new way for women’s funds and private philanthropy to collaborate as peers.
We designed and launched the collaborative with four private foundations and women’s funds. The process highlighted important lessons for me, and I hope for others, about ways to support feminist movement-building, particularly in this moment:
- Listen to those with the most knowledge and experience. When the Hewlett Foundation’s board of directors approved the idea for an initiative focused on women’s funds, I knew we should not go at it alone. I invited the Prospera network and funders who had established relationships with women’s funds to participate in the design, decisions, and direction of the work. This helped leverage more financial resources from other funders, and more importantly, made sure the initiative was based on existing knowledge and expertise from the women’s funds themselves. We created a governance structure where women’s funds and private philanthropy have equal decision-making power. In addition to women’s funds’ representatives making decisions about strategy and grants, staff of women’s funds are members of advisory committees to learn, participate, and provide critical feedback. We wanted to make sure that we walked the walk in terms of “nothing for us without us.”
- Share responsibilities. We created co-chairs (one women’s fund representative, one private philanthropy representative) for different streams of work. This was both efficient and also gave us a chance to work more closely with and get to know our peers. Together, we are making decisions on a new name and communications strategy, hiring an executive director, and adding women’s funds representatives to the governing bodies. We’ve built relationships, trust, and shared ownership of the work.
- Participatory governance takes patience, but there is a payoff. There are many models for participatory grantmaking. At its core, it is about sharing decision-making power about grants to the communities affected by funding decisions. The Women’s Funds Collaborative decided to go beyond participatory grantmaking and set up a participatory governance structure, which goes beyond grantmaking decisions to encompass all decisions regarding the collaborative. For the Women’s Funds Collaborative, it was a way to challenge the same power structures feminism seeks to dismantle, create true partnership, and ensure the initiative achieves the goals we share. This has been difficult during the global pandemic when there are urgent needs and social distancing, virtual meetings, and competing caretaking priorities. It has taken longer than we expected, and we have not been able to invest as much time in relationship-building as we would have liked. We have had to walk a fine line between getting money out the door and making space and time to acknowledge and work on the power dynamics in the collaborative. Participatory grantmaking might not be the right approach for every issue, but for this collaborative, it has been worth it. We are working in a feminist space with a feminist philanthropic approach that requires putting power analysis at the center. The participatory approach has required time, patience, and compromise, but I remain confident that it is the right way to fund this work if we want it to succeed. In fact, I would venture to say that it is the work. We model why the process is just as important as the outcomes.
- Be transparent. As with any partnership effort, it’s important to be upfront with new partners about decisions, and explicit about where input is being elicited and when you are merely informing. We used this framing to move ahead at different stages and with different stakeholders. The collaborative values transparency and community, but also highlights the importance of accountability to all parties involved, including each other.
- Solidarity is key to feminist philanthropy. One of the driving principles behind the idea of the collaborative was to support the entire ecosystem of women’s funds, not just a few. In an already underfunded ecosystem, we did not want women’s funds to compete against each other for resources. COVID-19 and the global lockdown slowed our grantmaking timeline. Because we weren’t able to meet in person and the needs of women’s funds were changing rapidly in the pandemic, we made a round of solidarity grants to all Prospera members. Between the end of 2020 and early 2021, we will make 42 organizational-strengthening grants for $75,000 each to all women’s funds who apply. There are already interesting lessons and trends of the use of funds and the needs that women’s funds have identified that will certainly inform our future rounds of grantmaking. A significant number of women’s funds requested resources to create financial reserves, a step toward building financial resilience. Sign up here for more on the next rounds of grantmaking.
- Courage and candor always. Power dynamics exist, cut across multiple issues, depend on individual and organizational relationships, and are ever-changing. There are inherent power dynamics between private philanthropy and women’s funds, who, despite also being donors, are also often grantees. Many members of the steering committee had preexisting relationships from previous jobs. All these came to life during our working sessions. As program officers, our job is to ask questions. Some women’s funds felt that when we asked questions, we were replicating a funder-grantee relationship. In one early steering committee meeting, a women’s funds representative expressed that she often felt rushed and that private philanthropy members sometimes seemed frustrated by a slowed-down rhythm as new women’s funds joined the collaborative. As a representative of private philanthropy who is very goal-driven (and an Aries, so I can be impatient), even though this comment hadn’t necessarily been directed at me, I could certainly see how my working style could have created that feeling. It took time and guts to be able to voice these, acknowledge them, and begin to address them.
- People matter. From the beginning, we designed a collaborative that was adaptive, iterative, and assumed changes. We had a new private philanthropy donor join in the midst of the first half of the design. We had different representatives from these institutions participate as the work progressed. We welcomed women’s funds representatives. This changed the team—and the group and power dynamics—twice. By the time women’s funds joined, some of us in private philanthropy had been working together for almost two years. There was a perceived “us vs. them” dynamic that we had to work through in order for all of us to feel like part of the same cohort, albeit coming from very different spaces and backgrounds. For those of you familiar with some facilitation workshops, we definitely had to go through a groan zone in order to come out of the other side of divergence towards convergence. But I am also struck by how each and every person who has been part of the process has shaped it with ideas, insights, and their own relationship and hard work. The collaborative and the grants would not exist without these individuals, and the work they were willing to do together as a team of peers who respect and support one another.
Central to the collaborative is a core feminist principle: challenging power structures, including those set up by private philanthropy. As the women’s funds themselves told us at an informational session during the Prospera Biennial in Vancouver in 2019, they want relationships with private philanthropy to be transformational, not transactional. Part of that process is sharing what we learn as we go along, including the lessons included here. My hope is that other members of the collaborative will add to these as the work evolves. I’m grateful to everyone that has been part of the design and decisions to make the Women’s Funds Collaborative a reality. I’ll be cheering for it long after my term ends and taking everything the women’s funds and my foundation colleagues have taught me wherever I go next.
 Prospera is a global network of women’s funds with almost 50 members worldwide.
 Representatives from women’s funds are not representing their fund or the region in which they are located. They have been elected by the Prospera membership to represent the network.
 The Steering Committee is comprised of nine members: four women’s funds representatives, four private philanthropy representatives, and Prospera’s Secretariat, who has representation but no vote.