Transforming philanthropy with feminist principles


We are living through transformative times. As the Covid-19 pandemic and the climate crisis accentuate systemic economic, racial, and global inequalities, as human rights and democracies are under siege, and as social movements call attention to all of this, the world is waking up. In philanthropy, funders are grappling in new ways with questions of power, equity, and accountability. We see a deepening understanding of the unjust systems that produced and sustain the field of philanthropy, and a growing conviction that we must transform our sector if we’re going to meet the challenges of this moment.

The Urgent Action Funds were founded nearly 25 years ago, setting out to share power by building a network of independent Sister Funds that are accountable to movements in our regions. We are feminist activists ourselves, providing rapid and catalytic support to frontline defenders. Now, in these consequential times, we are proud to share our Feminist Principles of Philanthropy, a distillation of our collective learning and visioning.

Our eight principles are a blueprint for a new way of being and doing in the sector – one that we believe is necessary to bring about the just and equitable world we need. They are:

Practice trust and reshape accountability. We respect the autonomy of our partners, refraining from imposing our own agendas. We challenge the disproportionate demand for monitoring and results, making our grants available with limited reporting. We ground our decision-making in our accountability to movements and the wider ecosystem. We ask ourselves: is this action appropriate for us to take or is it better led by others?

Interrogate and challenge power. We reject the dominant culture of giving that reinforces the donor’s power over the recipient. Instead, we seek to build mutual solidarity, cultures of sharing, and power with each other. Our Sisterhood itself is a site to disrupt and heal unequal power relations: among us, we navigate lines of difference based on race, age, geographic proximity to funders, ease in English, vaccine inequity and more. We hold conversations about power with care and vulnerability.

Navigate risk with care. As feminist funders, risk is inherent to our work. We support defenders who face regular threats to their lives as they challenge state and corporate actors, including in countries where their activism is criminalized. We are careful not to add to the dangers that activists face. We also understand ‘unhealthy’ activist and funding practices as a source of risk. They cause burnout and threaten the sustainability of movements.

Ground in collective care and protection. As they contend with violence, grief, and exhaustion, we support defenders to stay safe and sustain their activism. We go beyond an activist’s access to leisure time to interrogate the roots of collective spiritual, mental, and emotional distress. We change our organizational policies and cultures to incorporate care. We focus on the ways our networks can nurture us. And we question even the most sacred tenets of our movements, challenging them when they lead to disillusionment and burnout.

Challenge dominant narratives on efficiency and time. Our founding impulse – to get urgently needed funds into the hands of women and LBTQI+ defenders quickly and with ease – underscores our commitment to deconstructing traditional notions of efficiency and time. We can turn around a grant in a matter of hours. We have also learned the importance of pausing – of moving slowly, listening carefully, and seeing each other as our whole selves. This is how we build the relationships we will need when it is time to move quickly again.

Build resources with politics and ethics. As we work to transform the politics of resourcing, we leverage our collective strength to address geopolitical inequities in the funding landscape. We strategically assess the ethics of potential funding sources, recognizing that while sometimes we can affect greater change by entering into a relationship with a funder, other times we will have to decline funding in solidarity with defenders. We work to activate philanthropy in our regions, diversifying who gives and shifting who sets the agenda.

Value both interdependence and independence. Our model of international philanthropy upends the paradigm of organizations headquartered in the Global North with branches in the Global South. Each Sister Fund is autonomous, rooting power and decision-making in the regions. We also collaborate closely, building a shared global analysis, speaking with one megaphone on advocacy issues, and learning and innovating together. As many organizations look to build new structures that share power, we are glad to share our experiences.

Learn and evolve. We recognize that learning is about power: the power to define what changes are sought, what data is seen as valid, who shapes the story the data tells us, and what lessons will be acted upon. As we bring a feminist lens to learning, we lift up the regular pauses we take to reflect, integrate, and evolve as a political practice on our part. Some of our most powerful work, from collective care to disability justice, emerged from these reflections.

Living these principles requires daily practice and ongoing reflection. They are an ongoing dance in relation to the urgency of our work and the harried pace of the philanthropic sector. Yet they are core to the feminist transformation that we seek. We believe that as more of us practice these principles, we will build new patterns of power in philanthropy, new ways of resourcing our movements, and new possibilities to build a more just world.

Over the coming months, we will be sharing blogs from voices across the UAF Sisterhood – from UAF Asia & Pacific, UAF-Latin America & Caribbean, UAF-Africa and UAF for Women’s Human Rights – unpacking the principles and sharing our journey as we do the ongoing work of putting them into practice. We hope to hear from you, too. What do these principles evoke in you? Join the conversation at #FeministPhilanthropy and watch this space for more.

Ndana Bofu-Tawamba is the Executive Director of Urgent Action Fund-Africa. Virisila Buadramo is the Co-lead, Partnerships and Resource Mobilisation, of Urgent Action Fund Asia & Pacific. Vinita Sahasranaman is the Co-Lead, Programs and Innovation, of Urgent Action Fund Asia & Pacific. Lorena Medina is the Finance and Administration Coordinator and member of the Colectivo de Dirección, at Urgent Action Fund-Latin America and the Caribbean. Terry de Vries is the Institutional Strengthening Coordinator and member of the Colectivo de Dirección, at Urgent Action Fund-Latin America and the Caribbean. Laura Carvajal is the Programmes Coordinator and member of the Colectivo de Dirección at Urgent Action Fund-Latin America and the Caribbean. Kate Kroeger is the Executive Director of Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights.

Read more from the Urgent Action Funds: The future of feminist philanthropy

Tagged in: UAF Feminist Principles of Philanthropy

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Autumn Golden

They are a constant tango with the fast-paced nature of the nonprofit industry and the critical nature of our work. Still, we can't mario games have the feminist revolution we want without them.

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