The fast-paced crises of our times have been propelling reflections within the developmental aid sector about its responsibility in reproducing harmful practices. In philanthropy, donors are more leaning towards adapting to grantmaking ways that support communities in resisting emergent challenges. However, more than surviving, we want to thrive.
As two young feminist activists working in Skopje, North Macedonia, we believe that the ‘how’ funds are given isn’t a detail, a matter of formality or bureaucracy. It impacts our ability to do our work, reach our goals and promote lasting change. And, so, co-creating transformational and innovative partnerships should be central on the agendas of every donor committed to social justice.
Our own trajectory tells the story of how vital it is to re-imagine ways of collaborating that respect activists’ and communities’ agencies and autonomy. We are founding members of Tiiiit! Inc., an organization dedicated to affirming and establishing feminist values in society through activism, and to the production of feminist cultural and artistic content. Tiiiit! Inc. was created in 2011 as an informal group – a product of a long-term friendship, grounded in our previous individual experience in activism, art, culture and media. Back then, we were three young women in their twenties who wanted to actively engage in the field of women’s rights by creating a new open, inclusive, safe and creative platform in our hometown.
Nurturing young feminist movements
Our first two initiatives, in 2013, – the establishment of the Matka (Womb) platform, gathering eight local civil society organizations who advocated for free access to safe and legal abortion, and the launching of the only feminist culture festival in Macedonia, ПРВО ПА ЖЕНСКО (Firstborn Girl) – were bold responses to the heteronormative, misogynic, pro-natal and anti-choice culture promoted by the then ruling political and societal elite in the country, which was right-wing, conservative, and nationalist. These projects were possible due to existing ad-hoc grants for non-formal organizations. This experience with ad-hoc funding helped us build skills for project development and fundraising, and allowed us to find donors like FRIDA | The Young Feminist Fund, ensuring the continuity of our initiatives by the access to flexible, sustainable funds since 2015.
At the end of 2014, our group turned out to grow into a non-profit organization. That was the only way that we found to apply for more significant and sustainable financial support. But, as a result, it also burdened our still not enough structured organization, with no office, nor permanent staff, no funds to match, and, most importantly, no portfolio to present to donors.
What we faced in the first years of existence is what young feminists still face nowadays. On one hand, lack of flexible resources available to informal, young, newly established movements. On the other, unreachable possibilities of partnerships and support that serve more to donors’ and partners’ agendas than to address the real needs of women and girls. Basically, if you want to access the few resources available to feminist ground-based work, you have to adapt your initial bold and subversive ideas into the frames of open calls for formal activities.
Support for informal groups is crucial
Over the last decade, we have learned a few lessons on how positive and affirming partnerships could help young feminist organising bloom. The first lesson we learnt from our own experience is that donors willing to support individual activists, grassroots initiatives, informal and newly established organizations are crucial. At least a portion of all donors’ support and partnerships should be dedicated to this type of work.
The second lesson learnt is that the partnership between donors and grantees has to be mutually beneficial. Feminist local organizations like ours need supporters that are sensitive to the specifics of the contexts in which we operate, understand the real challenges and threats we may face, embrace our projects, and share useful information with us. A mutually beneficial relation also embodies care to not burden grantees with unrealistic financial and administrative requirements, and includes a sense of predictability, securing funds that allow us to plan for the short and mid-term futures. Sustainability is key for feminist groups working in challenging contexts – even minor grants, but renewable in a 5-year period, provide a certain sense of stability and predictability for our organizations.
Co-creating transformative partnerships that respect activists and new groups is also about, together with them, assessing their main organizational needs and co-building solutions that allow their growth and development. Since the fight to overcome inequalities and oppression exceeds the local level, donors should facilitate the creation of connections and exchange of experiences between grantees. Meeting with other organizers, especially from a shared reality, is inspiring and can spark other innovative collaborations that are based on solidarity.
Today, thanks to flexible donors, such as FRIDA, Tiiiit! Inc. was able to strengthen its core team, has adequate organizational structure and competence to operate in compliance with the national laws and international donors’ requirements. Of course, this was a result of a long-term process, as in the beginning we were not able to apply for funds with complex bureaucracy. At the moment, we are implementing projects supported by the European Union, Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation, Ministry of Culture of North Macedonia, Civica Mobilitas, FRIDA and others, that focus on feminist intangible cultural heritage, women representation and visibility, and menstrual poverty. We have achieved a position where we ourselves establish partnerships with other local groups. And all we’ve learned about ways of working together along our journey pushes us to constantly reflect whether we practice what we preach, in the same way we expect our supporters to do.
A brand-new chapter for Tiiiit! Inc.
This year, Tiiiit! Inc. will transition out from FRIDA as a natural next step in our relationship. FRIDA’s grants are renewable for 3-5 years. The support we’ve received since 2015 allowed us to implement our initial projects, to respond to emergencies that came up with changes in context, to start diversifying our resources, to strengthen our organizational capacities, and to bond with other activists from different parts of the world, sharing our experiences and learning from theirs. It helped us to set the basis of our work. To ensure a smooth transition out process, we received specific support, through financial and non-financial resources. We are now entering into a new moment, with more structure and experience. However, there is still a lot of feminist organizing to be done in a country struggling with systemic corruption, unemployment and negative stereotypes related to the non-governmental sector. We need to deepen the roots of our work and to stead the ground where we operate.
Our lived experiences led us to a clear understanding that we need and want more partnerships based on feminist principles which, in turn, challenge the dominant power dynamics within the developmental aid sector. Namely, we need partners that centre respect, solidarity, awareness, care, support, commitment, nurturance, cooperation and interconnection.
Feminist activism is part of who we are as young people that one day decided to come together to create real change. We decided that we wouldn’t take any more of the systems of oppression that harm our lives every day. And so, unpacking the multiple ways that partnerships grounded on colonial, patriarchal, capitalist, and racist values harm us is core. Our dreams don’t fit in rigid application forms or formal requirements, and all of us in the sector urgently need to find new and better ways of working together.
Kristina Lelovac is a founding member of Tiiiit! Inc. and part of several activist initiatives. Jana Stardelova is the migration and gender equality expert and one of the co-founders of Tiiiit! Inc.