The word “philanthropy” is derived from two root words meaning relationship and people, so it’s no wonder that the field brings professionals who have a genuine interest in seeing individuals, communities, and movements thrive. Yet, as philanthropy becomes more and more structured and institutionalized, we need to remember these roots and its primary purpose: to bring people together in solidarity for social justice.
We had the opportunity to reflect on philanthropy recently at a one-day session held before the Association for Women’s Rights in Development’s Forum in Bahia, Brazil. Philanthropy Advancing Women’s Human Rights, Prospera, and other co-sponsors brought together nearly 150 representatives of donor institutions for a series of thought-provoking discussions. The opportunity to explore the philanthropic landscape couldn’t have come at a more important time, as the global women’s movement is threatened by a severe funding shortfall.
We know from our work with local grantee partners that the women’s movement is needed to hold governments’ feet to the fire on critical issues, including the health and rights of women and girls. In fact, there is strong evidence that a robust women’s movement is absolutely essential for progressive public policy change. However, many of the women’s organizations that led the charge for progress in their communities and countries are now operating on shoestring budgets and are severely overstretched.
Meanwhile, the challenges for women’s groups are vast and growing. Women’s rights activists face online harassment, threats and repression from governments, increased religious fundamentalism, and a well-funded opposition. In times like these, funding is essential and can be transformative, but it is becoming harder and harder to access. Women’s organizations face bureaucratic or administrative hurdles in tapping into the limited resources that are available. Unnecessary requirements put a strain on understaffed and under-resourced organizations. Recognizing this difficult environment, many of us spoke about the importance of providing funding that is accessible, flexible, and long-term. This allows activists to better respond to changing contexts and emerging challenges and opportunities.
Prior to the session, we spoke to our grantee partners, and we weren’t all that surprised to hear what they had to say. Women’s rights activists in Egypt face travel bans and forced disappearances. They’ve had a hard time getting financial support, and when it is available, it often comes with rigid requirements. Many times donor institutions don’t accept requests to postpone or cancel certain activities, including activities that may put activists and their families at risk.
Feminists in West Africa made the point that they are routinely asked to inform donors about the current economic, political, and social context they operate in, taking away critical time that could be spent on the frontlines. That also got us thinking that donors should be mindful of using the word “expert” to describe their understanding of complex social structures and norms, which they may not fully comprehend given that they do not necessarily live in these contexts.
We also found that many young feminists are organizing themselves in innovative ways across the globe, preferring looser structures and collectives to push back against what some call the “NGO-ization” of the movement. Many entered the field after funds had already dried up for women’s rights. For example, in Brazil, after some leading feminist organizations closed their doors or had to drastically downsize, young feminists have developed alternative tactics, such as blogging, street art, and online petitioning. While this offers exciting opportunities, how can donors get these activists the resources they need in a timely manner if there are administrative, bureaucratic and even legal barriers to money flow?
We left the forum with a lot to think about. As a donor community made up of feminists and social justice advocates, we need to reflect on how we fit into the eco-system of the global women’s movement. Our goals and objectives should be the same as feminist activists. Let’s not forget that funding decisions can impact not only if an organization survives, but also who is represented and who is left out. In the words of Ruby Johnson from the Young Feminist Fund (FRIDA), “things that work don’t always have to be innovative.”
A resounding message from the day was that those on the frontlines working with women and girls every day should have a strong voice, and we should listen. When you’re in doubt, ask the activists you are supporting; chances are, they know the answers. It was a reminder for us donors that power comes in many forms. We may have access to the funds, but that doesn’t mean that we have all the answers.