How are they doing?

Andrew Milner

Kavita Ramdas paints a picture of an emergent but embattled global movement of feminist philanthropy. How much progress have individual women’s funds around the world made and what are their future prospects? Alliance talked to representatives of eight women’s funds, all located in developing or transitional countries, to find out what they are up against in their own countries.

All of the funds we spoke to, all of which are members of the International Network of Women’s Funds, echoed what Kavita Ramdas says about the movement generally: they are all working with grassroots women’s organizations operating in the area of women’s human rights. They provide financial and other support, and generally, as Lucero Gonzalez Montes, founder of Semillas in Mexico, puts it, act ‘as a bridge between the world of finance and women’s groups’.

They are also trying to put women’s human rights on to the mainstream development agenda in their countries. All of this involves them in a much wider range of activities than grantmaking, as we will see. Another significant thing: they are invariably the only organizations in their country that are mobilizing resources for this area of work.

Needs, great: resources, few

So far, so good, but in developing countries, in which resources are limited and where the position of women has characteristically been the subject of entrenched conservative attitudes, a bald statement of activities and objectives hardly begins to describe the problems they face. In many of the countries in which they operate, the need the women’s funds are attempting to meet is colossal. In Nepal, where Tewa operates, 93 per cent of women are in agriculture, working 18 hours a day and with little access to education and health. Fifty-eight per cent are illiterate. In Brazil, says Renata Couto of the Angela Borba Fund, 25 per cent of homes are headed by women, 50 per cent of whom survive on less than $20 a month and 19 per cent of whom are illiterate.

Multi-purpose organizations

Many of the women’s funds also offer other kinds of support apart from money to grassroots and often fledgling women’s groups in their countries. The Central American Women’s Fund (CAWF), according to Millie Brobston and Ana Criquillion, ‘provides technical assistance and training in management skills such as fundraising, budgeting, project design and evaluation’. It has this year hosted a training workshop for five young women’s organizations on developing a project, writing a proposal and evaluating the results. The Ukrainian Women’s Fund (UWF) has created and administers the Ukrainian Women’s Portal, an electronic information resource which provides a database of women’s NGOs, a directory of donor organizations, and information on pertinent legislation. According to Olesya Bondar, it sees itself as generally a ‘catalyst for the women’s movement’ in the Ukraine where that movement is not ‘strong or united’.

Perhaps most crucially of all, these groups seek to raise funds, both inside and outside their countries, an aspect of their work which will be discussed below. Because of the demanding climate in which they work, they all have to be multi-purpose agencies.

Finding and meeting the demand

If the scale of need women’s funds are facing is great, it can also be initially difficult to get at. The kinds of groups that the funds want to work with are often scarcely visible. As Deepak Dewan of Tewa points out: ‘Mainstream funds do not reach women, either owing to their own structural gaps (bureaucracy, being top-down, lack of perception, etc) or owing to the lack of mobility, visibility and voice of grassroots workers.’ For him, this highlights the importance of women’s funds to women’s organizations, particularly in the South.

Once they are reached, however, demand can be overwhelming. ‘With limited publicity, we have received many requests for assistance,’ say Millie Brobston and Ana Criquillion at CAWF. This created an immediate problem of selection. Having few resources, CAWF realized the need for a narrower focus, and this was a main reason behind their decision to concentrate on young women.

Drop in overseas aid and suspicion of ‘radical’ agenda

It’s well known that overseas funding to many developing countries, whether from governments or from foundations, is diminishing and that local resource mobilization is becoming increasingly important. That’s true for all NGOs, but it’s especially true for women’s organizations. Not only do they have little visibility for larger international organizations; they are often regarded as working on ‘controversial issues’. As Siu Yuet of HER Fund Hong Kong puts it, ‘Women’s organizations that promote women’s autonomy and self-determination are perceived to be radical.’

This problem is present in a possibly still more acute form in Chile. As Sara Mandujano of the Alquimia Fund remarks, since many international donors are leaving Chile,[1] virtually the only alternative is government funding and this is only available for organizations which fit with government policy. Such domestic foundations as there are have what she terms ‘a strictly “charity” approach. Virtually the only issues that qualify for financial support from these … are the arts, anti-drug programmes, anti-crime programmes, the environment and sports.’ This is a point worth stressing. If anything highlights the need for women’s funds, it is this: in the countries where they operate, there are virtually no other sources of funding for grassroots women’s organizations working on women’s human rights issues, and often not for social change more generally either. As Emilienne de Leon succinctly puts it, ‘We needed a women’s fund to bring funds to women’s rights issues.’

Even where local funding is potentially available, entrenched social attitudes can limit support for women’s organizations. Hong Kong, where HER Fund operates, is ‘economically very advanced, but still conservative when it comes to women’s rights as human rights’, says Siu Yuet. A particular problem in the Ukraine which affects philanthropy in general is the lack of an enabling legal framework. Giving is not tax-deductible.

Local fundraising

This is why it is crucial for women’s funds to act as catalysts for fundraising rather than simply as providers of funds. ‘Raising funds at the local level, that is the big challenge,’ says Emilienne de Leon of Semillas. For reasons of both policy and pragmatism, mobilizing local resources has become the great quest for NGOs. Women’s groups face particular problems for the reasons outlined above and most of those we spoke to have launched or are about to launch initiatives to try to galvanize local giving (see pp37-39). They have before them the remarkable example of Tewa in Nepal. It has over 1,700 local donors and gets some 60 per cent of its funding locally, in one of the world’s poorest countries.

Meeting the challenge: the story so far

Though women’s funds have so many difficulties to contend with, there is real progress to note, both in respect of raising funds and in putting those funds to use. As Emilienne de Leon says, ‘you have to be creative’. Semillas runs a second-hand clothes shop to raise money from trading income. It also wants to build an endowment and to buy a house which it can then rent out for income. Another possibility is to run fee-paying capacity-building workshops. Semillas’s Women Investing in Women network (see p39), which has grown from a handful of regular investors in 2001 to 220 now, is mirrored by the Alquimia Fund’s Network of Women Trusting Women which, says Sara Mandujano, ‘now has 21 individual monthly donors and also fundraises locally’. Semillas has also developed relationships with the US-based Packard and MacArthur Foundations, which has brought them prestige in the philanthropic world and put women’s funds into the minds of larger North American foundations. They are establishing a niche and a legitimacy for their area of concern which didn’t necessarily exist before.

Angela Borba Fund in Brazil is also attempting to broaden its base of support. Last year, says Renata Couto, ABF ‘made a strong effort in communication and advocacy’ alongside its grantmaking and capacity-building activities, raising awareness and rallying support among the local philanthropic community generally and women entrepreneurs particularly.

Tewa, as we have seen, despite operating in an extremely poor country, raises the bulk of its resources locally. It has the services of 300 volunteers, and has its own land and office space, following the implementation of its Land and Building Development Plan (see p37). HER Fund – which at the moment relies entirely on the voluntary efforts of members – has raised over HK$80,000 (US$10,250) in six months.

There is also real progress in using the funds raised. HER Fund has already made its first six ‘small but meaningful’ grants. Tewa has made over 160 grants, while the WHEAT Trust in South Africa has worked with and supported over 200 organizations and around 1,000 women have taken part in its organizational development training. As well as developing the information portal for women’s groups in the country, the Ukrainian Women’s Fund has made some $108,000-worth of grants to 36 organizations since September 2003.

Following the Tewa model

Still only a year old, the Central American Women’s Fund (CAWF) has also made its first few grants and run its first training event for women’s organizations on proposal writing and project management. It has raised some $150,000 for its first year’s budget and secured a number of commitments for the second. CAWF is also contemplating building an endowment, though this is a longer-term goal. Its main effort over the coming 12 months will be a volunteer fundraising training programme to raise money locally – a programme modelled on one run by Tewa, whose tremendous success in local fundraising we have already seen. This programme is described on page 38. Briefly, its aim is to involve women in fundraising activities among their friends, family and colleagues. This will both raise much-needed funds and make CAWF and the organizations it supports more widely known. The Fund also plans to tap the Central American diaspora, principally those from the region now living in the United States.

Changing the nature of philanthropy

The CAWF programme reveals something which is at the heart of the mission of women’s funds generally, and which has a wider significance for their work than raising money, important though that is. What they are attempting to do is to break the traditional philanthropic mould and create a new form and significance for it. Money is ‘a tool for social change, not just for buying goods and services’, argues Emilienne de Leon, ‘and people need to get used to thinking in this way’.

‘Women have their own money and we should erode our past cultures of giving and develop and sustain a new culture of giving,’ says Tina Thiart of the WHEAT Trust in South Africa. This is a point made forcibly by Kavita Ramdas of the Global Fund for Women (see pp26-29) and which resonates through the interviews with all the other women’s funds we talked to. Semillas’s Women Investing in Women network has some 195 regular contributors, 70 per cent of whom give varying monthly amounts. They are not big amounts – as Emilienne de Leon says, ‘we are not pretending to be a big foundation’. Rather, their significance lies in the fact that, as she says, this is a process of education. These women are not simply giving to charity, they are investing their money (the distinction is an important one) and making their own decisions about where to invest it – and ‘investing it in women’s human rights is very empowering’. Ana Criquillion and Millie Brobston of CAWF agree. A key role of CAWF, for them, is to ‘help women realize the power of their money and begin to use that power collectively to make the desired changes in their communities’. In short, they become, through practising this new brand of philanthropy, agents of social change.

The difficulties of breaking the mould

As always, there are obstacles, and bringing about such a change will not be easy. Natalia Karbowska, chair of the board of the Ukrainian Women’s Fund, spoke of the ‘lack of a culture of philanthropy in the country’, and this is true of many of the countries where women’s funds are based. That’s one difficulty.

At the other end of the scale, there are countries where philanthropy typically takes the very ‘traditional’ form of giving to well-established social causes or the church. ‘People in Brazil do not see philanthropy as social investment,’ says Renata Couto of Angela Borba Fund. Only 17.5 per cent of Brazilians give to social institutions. Around 50 per cent of these donations are for religious institutions, while 87 per cent of social investment made by corporations goes towards issues relating to children. In Nicaragua, too, ‘there is not a culture of philanthropy, with the exception of donations to churches for emergency relief’.

Besides this, as Renata Couto points out, ‘there are other factors which create obstacles to developing philanthropy, such as poverty. About 46 per cent of Brazilians live on less than one dollar a day.’ Most of the funds of the Network are operating in poor countries and are therefore trying to mobilize resources which are scarce to begin with. Neither are ‘individual donors allowed to debit their donations from income tax’ in Brazil. We have already seen that the lack of favourable fiscal legislation is an obstacle in the Ukraine, too.

More of the same

For the future, all the funds are aware of the need to extend their activities and to continue to campaign on a number of fronts: fundraising, grantmaking, researching and generally raising awareness of the kinds of work women’s organizations do and of the need for it – CAWF’s plan for volunteer fundraising training is a case in point, as is Ukrainian Women’s Fund’s plan to make a short documentary on the state of philanthropy in the Ukraine. HER Fund would like to formalize its operation ‘by hiring a development officer and by securing our own office premises’, says Siu Yuet. She also wants to take a leaf out of Semillas’s and Alquimia’s books, by encouraging people ‘to make regular, eg monthly or yearly, donations to the Fund’. Alquimia, for its part, would like to extend its support to individual women who contribute to the women’s movement in Chile. The WHEAT Trust, says Tina Thiart, wants to see ‘a hundred community-based organization get the necessary training to provide support to women living in abusive relationships’.

If some of the progress achieved and the aims set out seem modest in comparison with the scale of the task at hand, it’s worth keeping in mind that many of these funds are still relatively new and the attitudes that they are trying to change are deeply rooted. As Renata Couto says ‘we know that it will be a long-term process’ before gender and social investment takes its place on the national agenda. It’s also worth bearing in mind a remark of Deepak Dewan of Tewa: ‘We are trying rather than doing nothing in the face of the odds that we are dealing with.’

On the importance of networking

All the funds we spoke to see their membership of the International Network of Women’s Funds (see p37) as extremely valuable to them. There are the obvious benefits of a network such as technical and moral support and the capacity to bring greater leverage to bear than any one organization would be able to do. In addition, the problems of isolation faced by the women’s organizations the funds work with are mirrored more acutely for the funds themselves. They are all except one the only organizations of their kind working in their respective countries.[1] As Tina Thiart says, the network made her realize that ‘there are funds in the world like us who face the same issues – not so alone’. It adds, says Deepak Dewan, ‘a global perspective to Tewa’s work’, while Emilienne de Leon describes it as a network of ‘philanthropic activists for women’, providing ‘a space for building our own identity’.

Another crucial aspect is revealed in a remark by Maria Elena Martínez, coordinator of the network: ‘I think a very important, and even unique aspect of the network, is that entities from the North and the South want to work together in a horizontal, democratic framework.’ This is central to its operation, not a happy coincidence. It is enshrined in the network’s by-laws.

What it also does is to provide a school for new and developing women’s funds. ‘In many ways,’ say Millie Brobston and Ana Criquillion of CAWF, the network ‘enabled us to launch a programme so quickly and effectively because we have learned from the other funds’. Tina Thiart agrees: ‘With the support of the network, I don’t have to spend as much time learning.’

There is an added benefit as far as the Latin American funds are concerned, reckons Emilienne de Leon. The network ‘allows the possibility of developing a regional strategy, where problems are likely to be similar’. In fact, the Latin America-based funds are now developing a regional strategy for fundraising.

A long way to go

Money is tight, need is great, women’s human rights is scarcely even an ‘Any other business’ item on the philanthropic agenda, and the funds that support this area are only just beginning to find their feet. They are lone voices in their countries and the message they are bringing meets some powerful resistance. However, if they succeed in changing the nature of philanthropy so that there is, in each country, an army of small-scale philanthropists who are deciding upon and bringing about social change, they will have effected a revolution. Perhaps we ought to recall that revolutions are often made by small, determined groups. If they succeed in making women’s human rights a major item on the development agenda and significantly improving the position of women in their countries, they will have taken a great step forward – not just for women, as Kavita Ramdas points out, but for all of us.

1 For a discussion of this, see the interview with Gonzalo de la Maza, Alliance, June 2004.

2 South Africa has both the WHEAT Trust and the Pitseng Trust.

Alliance would like to thank the following for taking part in the interviews on which this article is based:
Sara Mandujano Alquimia Fund, Chile
Renata Couto Angela Borba Fund for Women, Brazil
Millie Brobston and Ana Criquillion Central American Women’s Fund, Nicaragua
Siu Yuet HER Fund, Hong Kong
Lucero Gonzalez Montes and Emilienne de Leon Semillas, Mexico
Deepak Dewan Tewa, Nepal
Olesya Bondar and Natalia Karbowska Ukrainian Women’s Fund, Ukraine
Tina Thiart WHEAT Trust, South Africa

Andrew Milner is Associate Editor of Alliance. He can be contacted at

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