Over the last several weeks, we have been reflecting on how we practice feminist principles of philanthropy in each of the Urgent Action Sister Funds, from how we work to build a culture of sharing and the ingredients of ethical and feminist crisis response, to how funders need to rethink risk and what feminist collective leadership has to offer philanthropy in these times.
In this piece, we want to share a snapshot of our journey to building a strong and united Sisterhood and a philanthropic model where we seek to equitably share power. The journey has required rowing against the tide in a sector that still privileges Global North leadership and too often creates the conditions for competition rather than solidarity. We unpack how we’ve learned to undo harmful power dynamics, craft new ways of working and being together, and collectively build a strong ship that we can co-captain through inevitably stormy waters.
Our Sister Funds model intentionally disrupts the traditional paradigm of organizations headquartered in the Global North with branches in the Global South. Each Fund has its own registration, board, staff, budget, and activist advisors; each is solely responsible for its grantmaking and program strategies. We are rooted in our regions, which brings immeasurable strength to the support we provide to defenders and movements. While we are autonomous funds, we have a shared herstory and set of values – a common feminist DNA. Together, we collaborate on advocacy, learning, and resource mobilization, weaving our regional roots into a global network. We are interdependent and independent as a political choice, committed to new ways of power-sharing.
Achieving this balance hasn’t always been easy. Especially in times when resources were scarce and we were all trying to build our individual funds, things could feel zero-sum. If one of us had a donor meeting and it wasn’t for all of us, there was sometimes anxiety and rivalry. We met each other across multiple lines of difference, carrying the burdens of colonial legacies and other inherited systems of domination and subordination. Despite our shared values, we didn’t always share a political perspective. It took time to build alignment and trust.
But from the beginning, there was always love and care, a willingness to recognize the path that shaped each of us and an effort to respect each other as we were. And we shared a bold vision of co-creating something together, though we didn’t know exactly what it would be. Looking back, one practice that helped us was forging ahead even when the path was not clear. We didn’t say we wouldn’t do anything together because it wouldn’t work. We tried things. We kept trying.
Starting in 2018, aided by a Ford Foundation BUILD grant to invest in our infrastructure, we have been able to take our horizontal collaboration to the next level. We hired our first shared staff and put in place mechanisms for consistent communication. We have a Collective Agreement that provides a blueprint for how we apply our feminist values to our work. But what’s mattered most is nurturing the relationships among us. We meet regularly, rotating meeting times across time zones to share the burden of too-early mornings and too-late nights. We make space for rituals that center care and provide space for friendships to grow. We laugh and drink and pull each other’s legs. We aim for progress, not perfection, and we celebrate our achievements, big and small.
Growing our collective resources has helped us reach a stance of abundance over scarcity. However, funding and donor relations can still cause points of tension. We continue to experience Global North funders assuming that the one Fund based in the North has more decision-making authority or ‘global’-level strategic capacity than the others. It takes concerted internal work to undo those dynamics: practical work to transparently share information and opportunities, and political work to insist on our equity and interdependence. Our feminist politics drive our commitments to disrupting power patterns, transforming harm, calling each other in with care, and practicing our co-responsibility.
Our principle of balancing our interdependence and independence was put to the test when we received our largest infusion of resources, a transformative $20 million gift from MacKenzie Scott. Given the uniqueness of this gift, we knew we wanted to use it to resource our boldest dreams. We met multiple times over six months, drawing on our feminist principles to identify the qualities we wanted to be embodied in how we spent it: creativity, risk-taking, sharing, and regeneration. We considered how we would allocate the resources both as a collective and as individual funds, viewing the gift as an opportunity to deepen our collaborative efforts to better support global feminist movements, while enabling us to strategically invest in each of our organizations and regional work. We came up with a bold plan to invest collectively in strategic initiatives, including a pooled fund to share the gift with under-resourced communities in our regions in the same spirit that it was shared with us, and joint investments to grow the resources for long-term sustainability of our institutions and our movements.
In the end, three Funds chose to move in this way. UAF-Africa decided to spend its portion of the gift separately, allocating funding to the Healing Farm, its endeavour to support the resilience and sustainability of African feminists, and investing in African markets. This decision was grounded in UAF-Africa’s deeply held political commitment to building strong African institutions. This was a difficult but generative moment for the Sisterhood. It helped us grapple with what it means to respect a Fund’s position and autonomy while advancing a collective strategy. Ultimately, we understood UAF-Africa’s decision as a feminist one of reclaiming power. By supporting it as a Sisterhood, we deepened our collective practice of navigating power as well. While these experiences can be uncomfortable, when we use them to question and adapt our practices, they propel us forward.
We learn deeply about ourselves, feminist praxis, and power through our work as a Sisterhood. We also enable some of our most powerful work. Increasingly, the threats that women, trans, and non-binary defenders face have transnational components, requiring responses beyond the borders of a single nation-state or region. As we respond to complex crises in Afghanistan, Iran, Nicaragua, or Ukraine, we notice how we’ve been able to leverage our independence and interdependence alike – drawing on deep insight and networks from local advisors and team members to enable grantmaking in affected areas, while partnering to activate donor resources and collaborate on advocacy. At our best, our shared work is fluid and mutually supportive, all in service of feminist movements.
Our advice to others who want to experiment with power-sharing among organizations like the Sister Funds is, well, to just do it. Start small. Experiment and see what emerges. Take steps together, with care, passion, and vision as your guides. Reflect, learn, and try again. And tell us how it goes.
Ndanatsei Bofu-Tawamba is the CEO of Urgent Action Fund-Africa. Virisila Buadramo is Co-lead of Partnerships and Resource Mobilisation at Urgent Action Fund Asia & Pacific. Terry de Vries is Co-Executive Director for Resource Mobilization and Strategic Communications at Urgent Action Fund-Latin America and the Caribbean. Shalini Eddens is Deputy Executive Director at Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights. Kate Kroeger is Executive Director at Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights. Sofía Marcía is Co-Executive Director of Grantmaking and Programs at Urgent Action Fund-Latin America and the Caribbean. Lorena Medina is Co-Executive Director of Strategic Finances and Institutional Strengthening at Urgent Action Fund-Latin America and the Caribbean. Vinita Sahasranaman is Co-Lead of Programs and Innovation at Urgent Action Fund Asia & Pacific.
This blog is part of a series by the Urgent Action Funds, unpacking how they practice their recently launched Sisterhood Feminist Principles of Philanthropy in their day-to-day work. The Urgent Action Funds are a global consortium of feminist funds that provide rapid and responsive support for women and LBTQI+ human rights defenders in moments of need, sustaining feminist activism by supporting the resistance and resilience of frontline defenders.