Feminist friendship as method: experiences of re-organising power in philanthropy


Ruby Johnson and Devi Leiper O’Malley


In this series, we explore the significance of friendship in philanthropy and our movements. Lisa M. Tillman-Healy[1] argues the merit of using ‘friendship’ as a method of qualitative inquiry which involves researching with ‘the practices, at the pace, in the natural contexts, and with an ethic of friendship.’ In our first article, we applied this lens to our co-leadership. In this second article, we explore whether a method of friendship can apply in grantee and funder relationships. Can funders and grantee partners be friends? How do power dynamics shape your interactions?

Part II: Recognising and reorganising power 

To apply a lens of friendship in funder-grantee relationships we must acknowledge the relationship’s power imbalance – with a funder invariably holding power over the grantee partner. As two cis-gendered women, one of us White and coming from the Global North, and the other half-White with class advantages, we recognize our inescapable privileges and biases on top of our funder-power when we resource activists. If feminism taught us to recognize and analyze power in multiple and intersectional ways, a feminist friendship could be a pathway to build space for trust and power sharing. Tillman-Healy put it eloquently when she proposed: 

When friendships do cross social groups, the bonds take on political dimensions. Opportunities exist for dual consciousness-raising and for members of dominant groups… to serve as allies for friends in marginalized groups. As a result, those who are “just friends” can become just friends, interpersonal and political allies who seek personal growth, meaningful relationships, and social justice. (emphasis added)[2]

We relate so much of our time at FRIDA to crafting this just friendship. From the outset, we were guided by feminist giants like Ana Criquillon, Angelika Arutyanova, and Lydia Alpizar who told us early on that our role as feminist funders was to be alchemists – turning restricted funding and rigid requirements from funders into gold for activists and movements. At FRIDA we were experimental alchemists, designing liberatory processes, while meeting basic compliance. 

To reflect further, we caught up with two of FRIDA’s first grantee partners: Akudo Oguahhamba, from Women’s Health and Equal Rights Initiative in Nigeria; and Alia Awada formerly from Fe-Male in Lebanon. These conversations were held as part of FRIDA’s 10th Anniversary Celebration last December and Launch of the Pluriverse Report that documents 5 long term FRIDA grantee partners: their stories, the role funding has played in their journey, and the type of support (financial and non-financial) that groups needed to catalyse change in their communities. 

We related easily to each other in that we all experimented in structures of co-leadership and practised collective decision-making. Working together, we were able to share and relate similar challenges as young feminist leaders. Looking back, Akudo shared: ‘The type of relationship we had can’t be quantified. Yes, there was the money to do what we agreed to do, but it was much more about growing and friendship. The way I see the power, it’s powerFULL. Not about individual power but collective power – what we were able to rub off on each other.’ For Fe-Male, this translated into more confidence and power to make more meaningful fundraising choices: ‘The first donor that believed in Fe-Male was FRIDA. Now we don’t apply for grants that have conditions. We believe in our work and approaches, we should work to meet the needs of women and not the agenda of donors.’

Our friendships with grantee partners thrived on a shared intention and accountability to do things differently, and embody systemic change through transformations on an individual and organisational level. Looking at funder-grantee relationships this way, we can be motivated to recognize and reorganize power. This requires both relational and structural conditions; Relational in building relationships on fertile ground of trust and respect and structural in creating policies and practices that decentralize power and decisions and centre solidarity and care for people’s wellbeing. FRIDA creates the structural conditions primarily via its participatory grantmaking model, and grantee partners electing and holding Board positions and also through codifying through numerous guidelines, handbooks, and plans for how to engage with grantee partners with intentions of abundant support and friendship, rather than cost-efficiency and resource competition. 

Transform the value of time and information 

Feminist friendship as method requires us to first build and move through relationships at a natural pace. This usually means a funder must alter their concepts of time and information to build trust. When it comes to time, the first moments of meeting can be fertile ground for a flourishing friendship down the track. At FRIDA, we put in time and love to hold ‘welcome calls’ with new grantee partners. Akudo shares her memories of this first call:

I remember trying to prepare for the first meeting, I was freaking out, thinking about it now. It is like that time you have your first panel, do you remember how you used to feel, sleeping and waking up in the middle of the night and being like ‘OMG I am going to die tomorrow.’ … When we started talking, it started to flow, I figured out these are young people like me doing great stuff. I took a chill pill. I felt like I could be myself totally, speak however I can.  

The irony is that as new funders, we were also freaked out before our first calls with grantee partners. We were always aware of how our words and actions would signal our intentions to disrupt the status quo. While we recognized our power as funders, we respected the power of grantee partners to give us legitimacy and relevance.

Secondly, if knowledge is power, then being transparent and forthcoming with information is a straightforward way to share power. We learned the importance of this through interactions with our own funders. For example, when a Program Officer is forthcoming about how internal decisions are made about grants, it gives us the ability to plan and craft when and how to ask a funder for more – especially in times of need. Another example is when funders were open and candid about ‘intel’ and leveraged their own power to create conditions for negotiating with less flexible funders. These conversations provided the right balance of personal, political, and professional information, and left us with the feeling that we had just finished speaking with a close friend.

Making mistakes and taking risks

No friendship is free from arguments, missteps, and forgiveness. In our own learning as funders, there were many mistakes and early on we experienced risky situations, such as holding a convening that was infiltrated by secret forces. These moments were not easy and we still hold deep responsibility for them. The culture we created enabled partners to call us out quickly, giving us the opportunity to course-correct and build better collective, digital, and physical security strategies. We do not have all the answers or methods for overcoming conflict and mistakes, but we commit to approaching them with the ethics of friendship: compassion, humility, and loyalty.

When it comes to risk, taking on risk with and for activists is an act of what Amina Doherty and Jessica Horn have called ‘revolutionary love’. Choosing not to engage or running away out of fear can lead to deep cuts in friendship – and it can be so with funder and grantee partners. This means moving money in ways that actually work for activists, funding unregistered and informal groups, and formalizing flexibility and care across organisations. Reevaluating risk is critical, but let us turn risk on its head and weigh up the risk of not funding these groups, and how the risks funders take internally are minuscule next to life-threatening risks activists face.

We recognise that many funds are not set up to experiment like we were able to do at FRIDA. In many cases, it is often up to individuals within institutions to push for risk-taking and rule-bending. As we walk through Arundhati Roy’s ‘Pandemic portal, a gateway between one world and the next’ in the context of philanthropy, we see some hopeful trends. Funders rethinking their appetite for risk, or interrogating how power and decision making flows; a thriving Community of Practice on participatory grantmaking, and critical work of Trust Based Philanthropy. As part of these positive shifts, using a method of friendship to focus on ‘understanding’ rather than ‘control’ can lead to stronger funding ecosystems rather than philanthropic industries.[3]

Funding a future of friendship?

The friendships we have created with groups we are fortunate to have funded and to know, are built on a shared intention to reimagine and support alternative systems, solidarity economies and relationships based on love and abundance. 

In a recent episode on Emergent Strategy podcast, Philanthropy: A Necessary Death With Javier Torres-Campos, Torres-Campos shared poignant perspectives that remind us of the reality that: ‘Philanthropy is itself an outgrowth of white supremacy and a reinforcing system of the diminishing returns of the capitalist systems we live in. Philanthropy would not need to exist if we didn’t allow the capitalist system to give individuals the power to exploit land and people…’ Furthermore, Torres-Campos shares, towards the end of the podcast, that even after ‘capitalism eats itself’, the origins of the concept of philanthropy and some of the values may remain, of ‘beloved community, of connecting and sharing’. 

In our philanthropic journey, feminist friendships have been the vessel for growth and transformation. We believe in the need to nurture them with all we have. 

We want to thank Akudo Oguahhamba, Hayat Mirshad, and Alia Awada who supported us in creating this article, taking time to join generative conversations. We are so grateful for your friendship and your ground breaking work. To learn more about WHER and Fe-Male, check out their videos from FRIDA’s Pluriverse report.

Ruby Johnson, is a feminist activist, practitioner and strategist, working to redistribute resources and power to intergenerational feminist movements. She is the former Co-Executive Director at FRIDA. Devi Leiper O’Malley is a social justice advisor and strategist, supporting funders and feminists to redistribute resources. Most recently, she was Co-Executive Director of FRIDA.

Tagged in: Feminist friendship


  1. ^ Tillmann-Healy, Lisa M. “Friendship as Method” In Qualitative Inquiry, Volume 9 Issue 5, October 2003.
  2. ^ Tillmann, Lisa M. “Friendship as Method.” In In Solidarity: Friendship, Family, and Activism Beyond Gay and Straight, by Lisa M. Tillmann, 287-319. New York: Routledge, 2015.
  3. ^ The point about focusing on understanding rather than control in friendship is also taken from Tillmann-Healy, 2015.

Comments (0)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *