Shifting the (funding) power to sex workers – my years at Mama Cash


Nicky McIntyre


It’s my last day today as the Executive Director of Foundation Mama Cash and I’m at the European Foundation Centre’s conference in Warsaw, huddled with my colleague in a drafty corner of a hotel lobby preparing for her session. The session is on: participatory grantmaking—exploring current practices of making philanthropy more inclusive.

A foundation colleague has just interrupted us to wish me good luck in my next endeavours. “What has been the biggest highlight of your last ten years?” Well, funny you should ask…

For me, it is the collaboration of sex workers and donors that established the Red Umbrella Fund—a truly pioneering participatory fund that puts sex workers in the driver’s seat on deciding where funding goes. Mama Cash has had the pleasure to host RUF for the last five years.

This fund has taught me so much about what collaboration really means and takes, and has been a remarkable lesson in humility and in letting go, giving up control.

Since our inception, Mama Cash has funded sex workers’ organizations. We realized that sex work was inaccurately conflated with human trafficking, that the human rights of sex workers around the world were routinely violated, and that sex workers’ organizations had very limited access to resources – particularly resources that allowed them to determine their own priorities and engage in human rights advocacy.

Recognising this gap and the need to address it led Mama Cash in 2009 to get involved in facilitating conversations between funders and activists.

In that same year Mama Cash and the Open Society Foundation’s Sexual Health and Rights (SHARP) Project, hosted a meeting called the Donor Collaboration to Advance the Health and Human Rights of Sex Workers. The meeting was intended to define issues and areas where donor atten­tion and collaboration were needed, and to determine next steps for collaboration between donors. While sex workers were invited to share with donors their perspectives on what the donor collaborative should do, donors were most definitely in the driver’s seat.

By the time of the second meeting in 2010, sex workers had organized and were clear on what they wanted out of the process: nothing about us without us.

Sex workers demanded that the collaboration no longer just be for donors but rather a genuine collaboration between donors and sex workers, one that would put the priorities of sex workers in the lead. They demanded that the focus of any funding should be on good funding (core, organizational support that is accessible to a range of groups, especially small organizations) and that it go to sex worker led groups, not NGOs working on sex worker rights.

They demanded that sex workers have control over how the money would be spent and that whatever emerged would contribute to building a global movement of sex workers. They were not satisfied with only being participants in the process—they demanded to be in the driver’s seat. Wow! It was impressive, humbling, scary and exciting.

The outcome was the creation and launch in 2012 of the Red Umbrella Fund (hosted by Mama Cash), a fund that gives sex workers a majority control on the International Steering Committee and an 80 [per cent control on the Program Advisory Committee. The Fund’s grantmaking has grown from €425,000 in 2012 to €725,000 in 2016 (an increase of 70 per cent), has supported over 103 organisations and networks globally, and has influenced the philanthropic sector to be more responsive to sex workers.

The story is outlined in this hot off the press report celebrating the creation of the Red Umbrella Fund. Rarely do we take time to capture our history and honestly reflect on lessons learned—so this is also groundbreaking.

We’d be lying if we said it was easy. Meetings were at times intense and difficult. I remember the donors being rightly (and routinely) chastised by sex workers about the acronyms we threw around. The donors too were not familiar with the language of activists.

Subsequently, we needed to allow time to build trust, listen to each other, and to understand each other’s worlds. Many sex worker groups had had bad experiences with donors, had felt misunderstood by them—their work was assumed to be about violence and trafficking.

Likewise some donors felt intimidated by the sex workers, did not have all the information they needed, and were afraid to ask. It was critical to have spaces only for sex workers to talk and the same for donors, as well as moments to come together and hash it out.

But in the end, it was really about donors surrendering control and about consciously choosing to trust and have faith in sex workers to pull this off. Together, they did. My hat is off to both!

Nicky McIntyre is the Executive Director of Mama Cash.

Click here for more coverage from the 2017 EFC annual conference.

Tagged in: EFC AGA 2017

Comments (1)

Paola Gianturco

Thank you for the important work you did at Mama Cash, Nicky---and best wishes on your new chapter!

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