The Urgent Action Funds are a global consortium of feminist funds that provide support for women and LBTQI+ human rights defenders across the globe. Through their four Sister Funds, they collectively support feminist activism in more than 160 countries through rapid response grants, coalition-building, collective care and protection, and feminist advocacy.
As part of our 25th anniversary, we asked Alliance members to select a topic for a special column – and the winner of our poll was feminist philanthropy. So we reached out to the Urgent Action Funds, which originated their model almost 25 years ago, to share their unique perspectives on the sector as a network of independent feminist funds that are majority based in the Global South.
We wanted to know:
- What has changed in feminist funding in the last 25 years?
- How do you grapple with power in your work?
- How are you seeing feminist funds influence the broader philanthropic sector – or not?
The Urgent Action Funds work to shift power, centre care, and fundamentally transform philanthropy. Here they share their reflections on where feminist philanthropy has been and can go.
Feminist philanthropy: driving force for a progressive giving culture
By Urgent Action Fund Africa
The past 25 years have seen an evolution of philanthropy globally, with several funders moving from seeking quick wins for investments to long-term commitments geared towards structural change. This shift wouldn’t have happened without the influence of feminist philanthropy.
Over the years, women’s and feminist funds have held up examples of what is possible to accomplish as advocates for a more equitable world. Feminist movements have created change on a wide range of issues including saving our planet; transforming governance for accountability, transparency, and meaningful participation; creating people-centred economies; winning the right to access and own land; and resisting extractivism, militarism, and violence. The work of feminist funds, underpinned by feminist principles, is horizontal and based on solidarity, support, and sharing, rather than the traditional top-down model that is customary in global philanthropy.
Feminist philanthropy mobilises resources and advocates for greater flexibility with funders, pushing them to grant large, unrestricted, and long-term funding for both strategic and humanitarian support that reaches those on the margins of society. It shows the necessity of trust and access with communities and the role that local knowledge and contextual understanding play in effective grantmaking.
The future of philanthropy is community and movement-driven.
A good example is the Urgent Action Funds (UAFs) model. We are four independent sister funds, deeply rooted in our regions and united by our shared feminist values, working to transform power relations and support the resistance and resilience of women, non-binary, and trans human rights defenders. We are collaborative, co-equal, geographically distinct entities built upon a shared history and set of values, as well as a commitment to sustaining activism by providing rapid response funds and supporting collective care. Collectively, the network of Urgent Action Funds shares a deep curiosity that drives us to learn and innovate both together and independently.
As feminist funds, we acknowledge the hindrances that come with administrative requirements and appreciate the realities that make it difficult for women human rights defenders (WHRDs) to meet to access traditional funding. Our funding is accessible within 72 hours, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year and comes with minimal requirements. As such, the interventions by the four UAF Sister Funds have resourced grassroots feminist groups from infancy to influence transformation at a large scale. Through our work, we see how collaboration, trust, and flexibility can result in pragmatic and relevant change for social movements and communities worldwide.
Sarah Musinguzi of UGANET, a network of gender justice organisations in Uganda that received a rapid response grant to establish a safe house for women experiencing gender-based violence during COVID-19 lockdown, said, “UAF was the first funder to say, ‘what can we do?’ We had no relationship with them, but they were able to establish trust and [saw the needs]… After they gave us the $20,000 grant, [two large donors] reached out to offer support. See how a seed grows, because of a funder that is responsive like UAF.
The UAFs and other feminist funds across the globe are demonstrating how philanthropy can respond to real needs and bring structural changes to complex social problems. We now see the mainstream philanthropic ecosystem shifting and changing as it seeks to remain relevant in this current moment
It is becoming common to see international non-profits, bilateral and multilateral funders redefining their mission, vision, and values; decentralising their administrations; and shifting their focus to community-driven initiatives. We witness funders introducing feminist approaches to their multi-million dollar programmes where communities and movements hold power to dictate their own solutions. For instance, the Dutch government through its Leading from the South programme has made strides in contributing towards gender equality by partnering with women’s funds based in the South that use feminist approaches to give power to grassroots communities.
INGOs like ActionAid International and Plan International have adopted feminist principles to build power with people instead of over them. Government funders like Global Affairs Canada have adopted a Feminist International Assistance Policy. This is all commendable. However, it is critical for funders to go beyond rhetoric and ensure that their operations truly reflect the feminist intersectional approach to philanthropy developed by feminist funds. They must shift power to diverse communities and movements to articulate and own their approach to addressing inequalities.
As the feminist model of philanthropy reshapes the global philanthropic ecosystem, it remains to be seen whether philanthropists will fully integrate this way of working into their giving principles and culture. The future of philanthropy is community and movement-driven. Who else will join us?
A feminist philanthropy that transforms power
By Urgent Action Fund Latin America & Caribbean
The Urgent Action Funds were founded nearly 25 years ago to fill a structural gap in the funding landscape: if feminist activists needed rapid funding to respond to urgent needs, it was nowhere to be found. This became our Rapid Response Grants model, which helps sustain feminist movements by providing resources at critical times of crisis and opportunity.
Since then, hand in hand with activists and movements, we have imagined and developed a model of feminist financing that centres care and protection and provides flexible support for the autonomous strategies developed by activists to respond to the constant crises they face, along with practices that contribute to their well-being, safety, and sustainability. To ensure the sustainability of movements and guarantee that their needs are heard, the UAF Sisterhood puts care at the centre of our philanthropy and seeks to influence the donor community to do the same.
Strategies to support care and protection are an integral part of our model, including making resources available to help activists cope with exhaustion, trauma, grief, and the emotions that may be present in their lives and activism. It is clear to us that there is no single way to understand and practice protection and care, as each person and organisation finds and develops its own strategies along the way.
As feminist funds, it is core to our approach to respect the autonomy and agency of activists and organisations.
We believe it is fundamental to transform the colonial structure still present in philanthropy, including the focus on productivity and capitalist logics, the dismissal of non-western knowledge, and the reification of North-South power relationships. From our political location in the global South, we promote openness, flexibility, and diversity when financing care and protection practices. We understand that such practices are often built from the spiritual and intimate processes of each activist and based on community and ancestral worldviews and knowledge. This also implies questioning the anthropocentric vision that limits protection and care only to human beings, even though they are linked to other beings, territories, and common goods.
It is vital that grantmaking practices do not put at risk or generate greater stress or an overload of work for activists and their organisations. At the same time, it is important to not only consider the specific situation the activist or organisation faces, but also listen carefully to the strategies they propose from their knowledge of the context. As feminist funds, it is core to our approach to respect the autonomy and agency of activists and organisations. We provide resources that adapt to the needs and contexts of movements, without trying to change their strategies or rhythms.
As part of our model of feminist financing, we review our practices and question ourselves to continue learning constantly. We ask for feedback from the organisations we support, and we take it seriously. We reflect on how we practice intersectionality and continually seek to strengthen our relationships with grantees, allies, and donors.
As we look to the future of feminist funding, we encourage financing that is intercultural and intersectional, promotes care in an integral manner, is respectful of organisations and movements’ autonomy, and strengthens a collaborative and horizontal relationship between organisations and donors. It is only by funding in this way, by questioning our own power and privileges, that we can redefine power relations and colonial dynamics. We invite all donors to join us in shifting and transforming these practices.
Using feminist values as guiding lights
By Urgent Action Fund Asia and Pacific
As the youngest of the four Urgent Action Funds, UAF Asia and Pacific has had the benefit of learning from our three trailblazing sister funds who were generous in sharing their models for us to adopt and adapt. While retaining the core of what it means to be an Urgent Action Fund, we were keen to develop our own identity and path that resonated with the women and non-binary defenders of Asia and the Pacific. As our small team came together to realise the vision of a regional fund dreamt up by fierce feminist women, we stepped away from patriarchal and capitalist ways of working – where goals, outcomes, and impact matrices are guides to measuring work, progress, and success.
We chose instead to work with feminist values as our guide. We prioritised relationship-building and trusting the communities we serve to tell us how best to meet their needs. We acknowledged our privilege as a funder and sought to shift power to women and non-binary defenders at the frontlines of human rights defense by making resources accessible to them in times of urgent needs.
We hope to bring about a future in which we forge new ways to resource the resistance and resilience of feminist movements, such that when crises peak, they can persist, exist, and resist with dignity.
In the last 18 months, we have faced unprecedented crises, from the pandemic to Myanmar to Afghanistan. These crises have offered us opportunities to practice and live our value of flexibility. We work with activists and communities of defenders to guide us on what kinds of resources they need to continue their work, so our resource mobilisation and grantmaking are aligned to their needs. When the pandemic hit, for example, we expanded our definition of human rights defenders to ensure that those at the frontlines of resistance would qualify. We saw that several groups of defenders were left out of the welfare net that many countries hurriedly implemented and prioritised our support accordingly, increasing resources for defenders with disabilities, environmental defenders, and LBTQI groups.
Most recently in Afghanistan, the political upheaval and crisis resulted in banking systems being in disarray for several weeks. We used the lessons learned from our response to the Myanmar crisis in April to ideate and establish flexible and urgent ways to get money into the hands of women and non-binary defenders on the ground when they most needed it using hawala, a system of informal cash transfer. Focusing on our feminist values helped us centre the needs of defenders and activists, rather than seek to fit them into pre-determined grantmaking conditions that are often difficult to fulfil during a crisis. We also harnessed the power of the feminist collective. Together with our sisters, donors, and other funds in the region, we worked collaboratively to support the needs of Afghan activists and defenders, including fundraising to ensure adequate resources, finding unlikely allies to coordinate the safe evacuation of activists at risk, and collectively advocating to forefront their lived experiences.
In this context of crisis after crisis, we have consciously resisted focusing on goals and targets, always keeping defenders at the centre of our work. It does not serve them when we valorize productivity or dismiss the toll it takes on our planet. Instead, we value collective well-being and care.
Looking ahead, we hope to deepen these reflections and share them more widely in philanthropy. Our experiences in Myanmar, Afghanistan, and the pandemic taught us to lean into conversations with activists who are often the first to know when crises are worsening. Relying on their expertise serves as an early warning sign and helps us to check our own blindspots. We will continue listening to them and centring their wisdom, resourcing collective spaces where they can learn from each other, and using the megaphone of the Urgent Action Funds to encourage other donors to do the same. We hope to bring about a future in which we forge new ways to resource the resistance and resilience of feminist movements, such that when crises peak, they can persist, exist, and resist with dignity.
Flocking: building alignment through collective leadership and care
By Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights
The Urgent Action Funds were founded on a belief in the power of feminist movements and an understanding that transformative change is not a solo act. Rather, change happens through collective action.
By envisioning not just one but many UAFs – equal, independent, and connected by our mandate to provide rapid support to feminist activists – we have built a simple yet radical blueprint for philanthropy. Shared power. Horizontal leadership. And what, for almost 25 years, has been an experiment in collective direction-setting among independent sister funds.
adrienne maree brown describes this beautifully in her book Emergent Strategy: ‘There is an art to flocking: staying separate enough not to crowd each other, aligned enough to maintain a shared direction, and cohesive enough to always move towards each other.’
The aspirations that direct our journey of collective leadership mirror those we hold for feminist movements with care at the centre of all things.
This process is never static and requires constant care and curiosity about our relationships. To flock, for us, has meant allowing space for personal and organisational shifts while undertaking collective strategy. As a global sisterhood, it means continual attention to anti-racist and decolonial praxis: centring Global South feminist analysis, for example, and rotating leadership of our programmatic work and funding partnerships.
All of this came into play when the pandemic hit. The crisis echoed through feminist movements, as activists on the frontlines were hit hard by economic uncertainty, unequal access to healthcare, and mounting government repression. Within our own institutions, we faced illness, loss, and transition.
Drawing on our own experiences and those of our movement partners, we made a choice to centre care. We had to speed up to meet the crisis as it affected movements – getting urgent funds to them to support their survival. And we had to slow down to take care of ourselves and one another.
As the months of shelter-in-place extended, we began to develop practices, even in the virtual space, that could tend to all of our well-being. These included collective learning on emerging issues like disability justice, and collective mourning and celebration of life when we lost our beloved Tatiana, Executive Director of UAF LAC, to cancer.
In these moments of crisis, we looked to the movements we support to see what care would look like for feminist activists and how best we could resource it. We dreamed big, going well beyond rapid response grants. We envisioned infrastructure in each of our regions, like a healing farm in Africa; hubs for rest and respite in South Asia; and initiatives that politicize healing justice and collective care in the Balkans, the Caucasus, and the United States. Underpinning this design work has been a desire to see feminists resourced to express and experience care. To nurture relationships and practices that will support their movement work. And to allow them to flock: to build alignment without crowding and always turn towards one another at moments of opportunity or crisis.
As the UAFs continue on our path of transformation, the aspirations that direct our journey of collective leadership mirror those we hold for feminist movements, with care at the centre of all things.
As part of Alliance magazine’s 25th anniversary, we are looking back over the debates and questions covered in almost 100 issues and ahead to what the future of philanthropy may hold. Follow our other anniversary coverage and subscribe to make sure you don’t miss a minute of it.