Shifting power to resist the rights backlash with trust based philanthropy


Rebecca Hanshaw


In a world of populist, ‘punching down’ and divisive politics, trust is a commodity in short supply. A bleak reality, and one with significant consequence for individuals, communities, nations – and philanthropy. Regardless of where we live and who we love, all our interactions – from personal relationships to the global economy – depend on trust. Its role in nurturing mutual respect and tolerance is now clear. As trust has eroded, and the use or misuse of social media has increased, a truth vacuum has emerged. Fuelled by disinformation and misinformation, our disconnect from trust and truth has unleashed and ‘legitimised’ misogyny, racism, homophobia and transphobia, to create a pervasive human rights backlash.

Philanthropy, like all interactions, is not immune to a trust deficit. There is often an inherent power imbalance between funder and grantee, where dynamics associated with historic experiences of ‘charity benevolence’ have become entrenched. This manifests in various ways, from funder blind spots and assumptions, to agenda setting and micro-management. What is clear though, is that a lack of trust perpetuates a transactional and donor led approach, which creates a dysfunctional cycle. This stifles honesty and transparency, inhibits genuine collaboration and partnership, and restricts civil society’s growth and resilience.

To be truly effective and sustainable, we know it’s not just what (and who) you fund, but how you fund. This is why trust based philanthropy is so important to Global Fund for Women. It amplifies the voice and visibility of those often sidelined and silenced, and uses an approach that challenges rather than reinforces structural inequalities. It helps ensure that the most marginalised have a seat at the table to design and drive their own solutions. It returns philanthropy to its original meaning, ‘love of humanity’, and can transform an act of giving to an act of resistance.

For feminist funders like us, this approach is critical to our purpose. To effectively challenge power and oppressive social norms, women’s rights groups can’t work to someone else’s agenda. Their creativity and flexibility can’t be constrained by short term and restricted funding, and their vision can’t be narrowed by the priorities of others. This means we give core, multi-year and crisis funding, receiving applications and streamlined reports in five different languages – trusting those we fund to determine what is needed to realise a shared vision.

This approach is more than a process. It requires a fundamental shift in power, and an understanding that transformative change can’t be delivered or ‘done’ to people. For those interested in human rights and sustainable development, there has never been a more critical time to democratise philanthropy by truly trusting grassroots partners. Here are some of our key lessons on supporting transformational change through trust based philanthropy:

1. Trust with your head and heart
If you don’t trust your partner, or they don’t have the trust of the community they work in, don’t fund them. But if you do and they do, listen to them. Let them be leaders not implementers. Transformative and sustainable change happens when people create their own solutions. Learn from your partners and acknowledge the limits of your knowledge and experience.

For Global Fund for Women, this means being part of the women’s rights ecosystem. This enables us to listen and learn from sister women’s funds; our global network of community-based advisors; and the 5,000 or so women-led groups we’ve worked with over 30 years. We create open and safe spaces for our partners to share their reality and tell us what they need.

2. Nurture a shared vision
Use your assets to support organisations which share your vision by giving unrestricted funding. Project funding is short term and creates instability. It forces organisations to reflect donor interests rather than community realities. This places them in a budgeting straitjacket, unable to rapidly respond to crises or opportunities. Foster collaboration rather than competition, which is distracting and wasteful. Engage your stakeholders in the commitment that social justice is not achieved overnight, that it is not neat or linear, and that often success generates backlash.

Afterall, the much-applauded lift of the ban on women drivers in Saudi Arabia coincided with a widespread crackdown and arrest of several women’s rights activists, including Loujain al-Hathloul. For Global Fund for Women, a shared vision is also a shared understanding that ‘progress’ can be fragile.

3. Be honest, transparent and respectful
Be honest with yourself and your partners, question what you need and when you need it. Ensure your reporting systems are streamlined and respect the capacity of activist groups. Create time for safe and honest conversations, and remember when groups are tangled in a labyrinth of log frames and multi donor reporting, they’re not pushing back against the pushback on women’s rights.

Today, women’s rights organisations and human rights activists are operating in increasingly hostile environments. By giving resources without restriction or control, you stand with, not over those fighting oppression. Ultimately, funding with a trust lens helps philanthropy shift some of its power – to where it can be more effectively used by those defending and demanding human rights.

Rebecca Hanshaw is UK Director at Global Fund for Women UK

Tagged in: Funding practice

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