What can we learn from a feminist approach to philanthropy?


Funding movements and shifting power to the global south

A recent Alliance magazine event on feminist philanthropy saw an excellent panel discuss a broad range of fascinating questions, such as: What is feminist philanthropy? How does it differ from purely funding women and girls? What role do women’s funds play? And how can we achieve gender equality in the philanthropy sector? Here are some key highlights of what we took away from the discussion.

How to fund?
A topic that emerged strongly throughout the conversation was the issue of how to fund movements; and in particular the need for funders to understand what they fund. A recent study on policy change around tackling domestic violence in 70 countries, for instance, showed that feminist movements are driving gender equality. However, while providing long-term funding for in-country feminist movements seems to be a successful approach, there is currently little money from funders going to feminists in the global south. There were also wider lessons around the effect on funding approaches when choosing to apply a feminist lens to philanthropy.

The strength of women’s funds
Panellists highlighted the strength of women’s funds in developing a structural analysis of the issues they fund – recognising multiple oppressions (‘intersectionality’) and therefore focussing on the need for systems-level change. These funds are often also more willing to take a view of international development from the postcolonial lens, and consider ideas of reparations or transnational solidarity.

The idea of horizontal funding relationships based on trust and mutual solidarity is integral to feminist funding principles. At a time when many are questioning the power dynamics in traditional funder-grantee relationship, and the need to move away from rigid, hierarchical structures that create imbalances between the global north and global south, and between professional expertise and lived experience,  there is potentially a great deal to be learned from the experience of feminist funders.

The ‘how’ is as important as the ‘how much’
A key message was that the ‘how’ is just as important as the ‘how much’ when applying a feminist lens to philanthropy. A move from project-based funding to direct support of women’s movements is important, but is not the whole picture. The feminist approach goes beyond simply focus on investing in individual women (with microloans, entrepreneurship training etc.), as collective action is viewed by many feminists as necessary in order to transform the power relations that engineer and sustain development issues.

‘Who’ funds is also important: while female philanthropy won’t necessarily equate to feminist philanthropy, anxieties around public philanthropy seem to particularly affect women whose visibility in the space could be transformational.

Funders may face a dilemma, when it comes to measurement. They often want data, in order to understand the causes they engage with and how and why they should fund them. But if their demands are too onerous they can create a new burden on grantees that stifles their ability to act.

Funding movements adds yet another dimension, because tracking success in this space often does not align with rigid impact measurement. Supporting movements successfully demands long-term commitment, combined with rapid grant-making to individuals, activists that may be difficult to apply fixed metrics to. Unregistered groups and networks are also likely to feature heavily, and this may be a challenge for many funders who feel more comfortable with traditional civil society structures such as registered charities, and engaging with recognised organisational leaders.

Power imbalances
There can also be power imbalances in the way measurement is designed. Often the impact reporting framework is something that has been decided upfront by organisations from the global north, and quite often driven by white men, so there is a real danger of imposing templates and indicators onto the challenges faced by women in global south that do not reflect their real needs and priorities.

There may be related issues when it comes to ensuring that those on the ground have a voice, and that their contribution is recognised and genuinely valued. When funders decide to bring in those doing the work on the ground to understand the landscape, how can they do this without draining resources from those movements (e.g. because talking to funders can take away capacity)? What can funders do to educate themselves collectively more on an issue? Should the educational labour fall on feminist actors to continue long-standing efforts to render the idea of feminism palatable and sufficiently depoliticised – or does there need to be a role for male allies in taking on the task of educating their peers in the grant making space?

Measuring success
Impact is often the basis for a conversation about ‘proving to us that it works’. Success in funding movements, on the other hand, is more about supporting an ongoing process, dialogue and commitment over long periods of time. Success materialises when funding and engagement is continued beyond the achievement of initial major milestones, until root causes have been really addressed. An example given at the Alliance event was democracy movements where ousting an authoritarian regime is just the starting point of the process of changing a whole system.

Power dynamics were also discussed; in terms of how to see the individuals and groups that are fighting for gender equality, in particular in the global south. Often they are brought in to forums in the global north to provide testimony and “tell their story”, but the danger is that this can just turn people into case studies that confirm a predetermined view in a format that works for funders rather than grantees. Instead those with lived experience should be seen as experts in their own right, and ‘the doers’ telling uncomfortable truths about the realities on the ground.

Shifting the power from funders
There was also talk at the event about the need to deconstruct the false dichotomy between the ‘doing’ and the ‘analysis’, which often serves to keep grassroots actors separated from the decision-making sphere. This could change the dynamic and help to create a space where levelling-up becomes a norm. It would also feed into a process of shifting the power from funders in the global north to civil society organisations in the global south.

A feminist lens on philanthropy clearly helps to understand some of these issues around power and participation that so many funders are beginning to recognise and address, so engaging with in-country feminist movements (with all the challenges that can bring) might be a choice that funders start to explore more if they genuinely want to change the way they work.

Daniel Ferrell-Schweppenstedde is Policy Manager at Charities Aid Foundation

Cleodie Rickard is Policy and Public Affairs Executive at Charities Aid Foundation

This article was originally published on the Charities Aid Foundation Giving Thought blog on 16 December 2019. The original article can be viewed here.

Comments (0)

Leave a Reply

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