A strategy to advance social change philanthropy: strengthening the capacity of local women’s funds in wealthy economies


Linda To


Linda To

A wealthy economy does not necessarily indicate a commitment to social change philanthropy, and a developed economy does not always go hand in hand with a democratic political structure or an awareness about human rights. Hong Kong, a special administrative region in China, is a good case in point. Its Gross Domestic Product is rated in the top ten internationally. However, its Gini coefficient rose from 0.483 in 1996 to 0.537 in 2012 (the higher this number, the greater the disparity in wealth distribution). This indicates that Hong Kong has become one of the most unequal developed societies on earth; the wide poverty gap indicates an extremely uneven distribution of wealth between the rich and the poor, and it is clear that this phenomenon is the result of structural inequalities.

To combat power imbalances in policy decision-making and resource distribution, there is a strategic need to fundraise for social change advocacy and activism to improve the lives of those with the fewest resources and those who are the most marginalized. HER Fund, a local women’s fund that raises funds and gives grants to advance women’s human rights, aims to promote philanthropic giving beyond the traditional framework of charity by supporting programs that empower women to advocate for social change.

In Hong Kong, there is plenty of wealth, but it is not necessarily given to support social change. One reason for this is that the culture of giving is predominantly charity-based. According to a survey conducted by Hong Kong University in 2009, ‘Public Survey on Hong Kong People’s Giving Behavior’, out of a thousand respondents who gave to charity, 22% chose to give to relief and rebuilding work (in emergencies); 20% and 16% gave to children and the elderly respectively; 10% to health and medical issues; 1.2% to animal rights; 0.8% to women’s issues and 0.4% to human rights.

This result illustrates that women and human rights issues are not recognized as an important cause by a large majority of donors. This can be attributed to a lack of gender awareness, but also to an internalized welfare mentality in relation to giving.

Another factor is the specific historical and political context that inhibits rights-based philanthropy. Under the governing People’s Republic of China’s regime, some forms of giving have become politicized. Local philanthropy – including institutional, private and high net-worth donors – confers privileges to certain ‘politically correct’ agendas, perspectives and strategies at the expense of others. For instance, promoting ‘a harmonious society’ is seen as more important than ‘defending the rights of the invisible’.

While literally hundreds of millions of dollars are poured into welfare and charity work to provide services to ‘victims’, hardly any money goes to support women’s human rights work or the political empowerment of marginalized women. Women’s NGOs and grassroots women’s organizations that tend to be ‘pro-democracy’ and ‘pro-human rights’ are denied financial and social resources for rights-based programs.

In face of these structural challenges, developing innovative strategies to mobilize resources for women’s human rights work is crucial. Thematic fundraising initiatives that solicit crowdsourcing solutions and developing programs that generate funds can be alternative ways to make a change.

HER Fund initiated a Share Talent membership platform, through which voluntary teachers with a particular talent or skills conduct interesting classes (yoga, dance, etc.), and students give class fees as donations to HER Fund. The platform promotes networking among 500 women members and has become a space for increasing their awareness about women’s rights issues.

At the same time, building an effective communication strategy to raise the visibility of HER Fund and of the issues we address is critical in increasing concern about and support for women’s human rights in our community. This is one way that we can promote giving for change, and as we know, change does not just happen, it comes from persistent collective efforts!

Linda To is executive director of HER Fund in Hong Kong. HER Fund is a registered charitable organization based in Hong Kong, SAR of China, and established in 2004. It believes in the wisdom and capacity of women to determine their needs and aspirations and to create strategies for bringing social changes. The fund’s mission is to mobilize resources and invest in human rights advancement for women and girls through grantmaking. This article is part of a series posted by Mama Cash sharing the perspectives of the local and regional funds that are its grantee-partners.

Tagged in: China Feminist philanthropy Hong Kong Inequality Women's issues

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