Bending the rules of philanthropy


Mariela Puga


Mariela Puga

A couple of weeks ago I received an email from one of our young fundraisers saying ‘I am very frustrated… I think this donor wanted to support us, but now she cannot because the group does not have a title deed for its building’.

She was referring to a European philanthropist who had expressed interest in supporting an initiative led by a rural women’s group in Argentina by making a grant through the Fondo de Mujeres del Sur. Several members of this group are Indigenous and all live in a rural area of northwestern Argentina where they have no running water, experience severe droughts, lack sanitation and cooking gas, and have no healthcare services.

The philanthropist wanted to make a difference in the lives of these marginalized people living in poverty, but experience had led her to request ‘guarantees’ to ensure the sustainability of the projects she supports.

In this case, she was considering supporting the group of women to refurbish a community hall they had built themselves so they could use it as a space for their various activities, like holding meetings to address organizational issues, engaging in collective reflection and capacity building, hosting a community radio programme, opening the space up to healthcare providers to provide their services, and welcoming community members.

In the past, this donor has seen projects derailed when expropriation of property made it impossible for work or activities to continue. As a result, she created a rule to fund only groups in possession of title deeds to property they use, deeming this adequate assurance of the project’s security. This is a good practice in certain contexts, but gets complicated when applied to rural women in this region of Argentina.

Many groups in rural areas of Argentina are struggling to achieve legal ownership of their lands and to encourage a stronger state presence. To decline support to these women because they lack what they are fighting for – legal recognition of their land ownership – is a contradiction in terms.

While these women have lived in this region for generations, their formal ownership of the land is precarious. Corporations are buying up a lot of the land for lucrative soy production, which also poses a threat to Indigenous communities’ use of this land. This is particularly the case in areas such as northwestern Argentina where the state does not operate programs or provide services, nor recognize Indigenous systems of land tenure. Indigenous communities’ poverty, lack of literacy skills and isolation also make them vulnerable; illegal expulsions and evictions and violent conflicts are common in the area.

The existence of women’s organizations and organized Indigenous/peasant communities are helping to make people living in this area less vulnerable. Close to half (44%) of women living in rural areas in Latin America do not have an income of their own. As such, this group’s lack of a title deed is an indicator of the vast gender inequalities among the most impoverished groups in the region. But it is not an indication of the instability of this particular initiative.

Living just 500 kilometres away from this particular women’s group and having known and worked with them for five years, we at the Fondo de Mujeres del Sur trust their vision and their ability to deliver on their goals. Their organization has existed for 15 years in a rural area that is very isolated from the surrounding cities. These women have become political leaders in the rural and Indigenous movements, and they have managed to provide ongoing reproductive health services for women in their community. They have never ceased strengthening themselves and their community. One of their ambitions for the new building, in fact, is to have a place where they can run a radio programme so they can reach out to women in even more isolated communities.

After discussing this issue with our team, our young fundraiser realized that this is where our work as a women’s fund really begins. As activist-funders, we have to reframe this frustration as a challenge, and as a turning point. We are here to look for ways to encourage a reconsideration of so-called ‘rules’ in philanthropy; rules that are made with good intentions but are not fully gender-sensitive or responsive to people living in the most marginalized contexts.

As we understand the philanthropist’s need for a reasonable assurance that her support will be used well and that her investment is sustainable, our fundraiser wrote back to her with more details about this particular situation. We asked whether it was possible to reconsider her risk assessment and instead to evaluate the significant impact that her support can have on reducing the risks these women face.

The Fondo de Mujeres del Sur offered to step in and share a double progress report for the first year of support – one produced by the beneficiary group and another written by our fund. We would write this report after our annual visit to the group, and after consultation with other women’s groups working in the surrounding areas. As we write this article, the final decision is still pending.

This example shows that women’s funds enjoy a privileged role as an intermediary in the relationship between those who have the power of philanthropic resources and those who have the power of making a difference on the ground. This is not a traditional role that follows fixed rules. It is a role that allows us – and indeed calls upon us – to create new moments for reflection and new connections that encourage horizon-broadening philanthropic experimentation.

Engaging in this experimentation requires that we understand donors, their ‘rules’ and their concerns. And we have to know our beneficiaries and assist them in accessing donors. But we also have to be personally and institutionally committed to using our knowledge to make philanthropy gender-sensitive and responsive to the very diverse challenges posed in marginalized contexts. This rule-bending is one way in which a women’s fund can play a role in ensuring that vital resources, like money, get to places that it often does not reach.

Mariela Puga is executive director of Fondo de Mujeres del Sur, a grantee-partner of Mama Cash. 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.

Further articles from Alliance magazine related to these subjects:

Tagged in: Empowering women Gender funding Indigenous people Latin America Risk Rules of philanthropy

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