Interview – Theo Sowa

Theo Sowa

‘We all have power, different types of power. When we don’t acknowledge that power, it’s easier for others to step all over us.’

As both grantmaker and fundraiser, the African Women’s Development Fund (AWDF) has been on both sides of the fence. As a result, Theo Sowa, AWDF CEO and chair of the African Grantmakers Network, has very clear views about the use and abuse of power. Caroline Hartnell asked her what power AWDF has and how it seeks to use it responsibly, and about the importance of African women setting their own agenda.

As an African women’s fund that works ‘towards the empowerment of African women and the promotion and realization of their rights’, AWDF confronts a range of power dynamics. What power does AWDF itself have?

There are so many different types of power. I think being part of women’s rights movements in Africa, but also internationally, gives us significant power. We have a lot of knowledge about what’s going on in African women’s lives and organizations, which gives us power when we’re trying to influence decision-making in national and international spaces. It gives us the power to push for change. For example, we can use our knowledge to steer other foundations towards good investments that support the kinds of social change they want rather than undermining it – which is all too easy to do. The information we have, that closeness to what’s happening in women’s lives, strengthens our legitimacy.

We also have power because we’re a grantmaking organization, and that’s a power you have to be very careful with as it can easily be abused. One of our strengths as an organization is our closeness to the ground. If we abuse our power, we’ll lose those strong relationships.

I can’t think of any other women’s fund that carries that sort of clout. How has AWDF acquired it?

I think that women’s funds have clout but don’t always use it effectively. We don’t ‘own’ our strengths and achievements sufficiently. If people don’t understand what you know, they won’t value what you have to say. Too often we women have underplayed our information, underplayed our strengths.

The other thing is that AWDF was the first continent-wide women’s fund, run by and for African women. That gives us a unique place on the continent and internationally. The three founders developed an ethos ‘as African women we are strong, we have knowledge, we have been fuelling social change for a very long time’ – so everyone at AWDF has learned to own a certain level of power.

As a grantmaker, you have intrinsically unequal relations with your grantees. Does AWDF have ways to offset this?

We recognize the difficulties of the relationship, because we’ve been on the receiving end of unequal power relationships ourselves as we have to fundraise every penny that we give out. Power hasn’t always been well used by some donors and I think that makes us more careful.

We try to handle this with a number of internal policies to make sure that our decisions are fair and transparent, and that if someone was abusing their power it would be picked up elsewhere within the team. We maintain good contact with our grantees, including through site visits, which help our team develop relationships with many of the grantee organizations. I think that makes it harder to abuse power because there’s a face, a voice, and a set of activities we can see whenever we make a decision.

We also set up regular consultations with our grantees. For example, last year we had a convening on governance, peace and security, which involved African women specialists as well as our grantees. We talked about what people were doing, how they were doing it, what the challenges were – and we saw what AWDF needed to change or improve. We’re working through each of our thematic areas in this way. When we created our last strategic plan, we held consultations with a range of different women’s organizations to help us decide priority areas.

We’ve got an amazing board of African women from all over the continent who work in different sectors and help ground us. We have advisers across Africa – women who help us stay abreast of key issues and stay relevant. The idea is to have formal and informal systems to check ourselves with our constituencies – and not just assume we know everything. It’s about taking responsibility for our shortcomings and using those lessons to learn and improve but it’s also about taking ownership of our achievements.

What about your relationship with your own donors?

It’s not always easy. Some donors are wonderful to work with – there’s a clear understanding of the issues and mutuality about the ends that we want to reach. They hold power because they hold the finance, but they wield it lightly.

Others don’t. It’s a fine line that you have to walk. Sometimes, pushing back at donors who are not necessarily abusing power, but are not using it well, is difficult. You are aware that you want those funds and could do very useful things with them, but you don’t want to jump through a million unnecessary hoops. Sometimes that means you have to walk away. We try not to do that, because right now women’s organizations in Africa are struggling financially. There’s a lot of talk internationally about investing in women and girls, about the importance of women in achieving the MDGs and fuelling development, but when you look at where the money’s going, it isn’t going to women’s rights organizations, which have been so successful in promoting change.

Sometimes I think it’s important to make a case and then walk away. If we have to push hard to get a donor to recognize that they should be doing things differently, and that means that they’re not prepared to fund us, I don’t mind – as long as they then go and invest in the Global Fund for Women or Mama Cash or another women’s rights fund so that women’s organizations do get that money. I would prefer that they gave it to us – but I’m happy if they give it to sister funds with similar goals.

Are there different problems with African donors and international donors?

I don’t think it’s as clear cut as African and non-African. There are different personality types across the range and it really depends who you’re dealing with. There are definitely some people who want to push your agenda, tell you what to do. If they’re interested in an area that we want to fund anyway, we can work together. But if someone comes to us and says they want us to do something that we don’t do, we point them in the right direction and move on. When everything is transparent, it’s easy; when it’s less than transparent, it can be difficult. Some donors don’t tell you what they really want, and then it’s like wading through sand.

Sometimes there can be differences in approach. For example, at AWDF we quickly learned that to properly support small and medium-sized women’s organizations, we needed to include capacity building in our grantmaking, looking to strengthen institutional development and leadership as well as programmatic capacity. And advocacy is woven throughout our work because we need strong legislative and rights frameworks to make grantmaking more effective and impact sustainable. Some (not all) fellow African grantmakers have come to similar conclusions.

Another difference is a seeming trend among international donors to make fewer and larger grants for greater impact and efficiency. If not done carefully, this can exclude many effective groups from accessing support. AWDF and like-minded African foundations will continue to invest in smaller, community-based initiatives which provide vital services and enable citizens’ participation in local decision-making – as well as the larger organizations and initiatives that can scale up change.

Do you think there are particular challenges because you’re a women’s fund run by women?

We have a unique niche which sometimes works for us and sometimes against. Sometimes you know donors are funding other organizations to a much greater degree than they are funding you, although there is no difference in outcomes. You just have to work with it. We had one donor who did that and after the first couple of years we were able to push them and say, ‘why is it that you’re only giving us a third of what you’re giving to others?’ And they later increased the amount. Part of what we at AWDF are trying to do is change people’s assumptions, move people away from negative stereotypes. We say to donors, ‘African women and African women’s organizations are doing incredible things.’

Do you think having your own endowment helps your relationship with other donors?

Endowments are notoriously difficult to fundraise for, but they make a huge difference. Many people are interested in funding programmes but not core costs, so having an endowment that funds our core would give stability, and make it much easier to have more equitable partnerships.

We’ve still got a way to go. We’re pleased with the endowment that we’ve raised so far but need to at least quadruple it to fund AWDF’s core costs.

How important is it for women to set their own agenda?

It’s crucial. It’s not about women versus men, but about women setting agendas that meet our interests and our interpretations of community and national interest. Our experience is of other people making decisions that affect African women’s lives, many of which have been short-sighted or irrelevant. I’m not saying that African women will always make the right decisions either, but the voice, the knowledge and the wisdom of African women have been missing in a lot of international decision-making circles, which means that, collectively, we make worse decisions than we should. There was that phrase ‘nothing for us without us’, and it amazes me the extent to which people ignore that when it comes to African women.

There’s a dignity in influencing your own destiny. For so long, people have had negative stereotypes of African women and I think that AWDF is a really important part of turning that stereotype around and saying to people ‘open your eyes and see our strengths’.

Who’s setting the agenda in African philanthropy now?

There are lots of different agendas around philanthropy on the continent. Philanthropy has been strong in Africa for a very long time, but it’s not been properly documented or valued. On the one hand, you have the Ibrahims and the Motsepes, high net worth individuals who set up foundations and give large amounts of money. On the other, we have giving by millions of ordinary Africans that comes from solidarity, not necessarily from surplus, so people with very little will still give. Gerry Salole of the European Foundation Centre has this great line that ‘there is no successful African who has not benefited at some point from another African’s philanthropy’. Philanthropy is ingrained in Africa.

AWDF is a member of the African Grantmakers Network, which showcases the fantastic variety of philanthropic activity on the continent and is trying to promote an enabling environment for giving. There’s a lot of philanthropy in Africa, but we need to make it easier and more effective for people to give.

As a panellist for an AGN session on North-South philanthropy last year, you talked about leveraging solidarity. How do you leverage the solidarity of international aid while still retaining local agency?

You do that by being really clear about your agendas, values and principles before you start raising resources. For AWDF, that means we have to constantly talk to women’s organizations to make sure we’re in touch and we’re really representing what’s going on. We have to be sure we don’t become yet another voice speaking for women instead of with them.

We also have to recognize when others share our visions and values, while being more proactive about promoting our own agendas, about saying, ‘this is what we want you to do, this is the change we want to see.’ It’s difficult, because, to be frank, there are some donors who want to give resources but abuse the power that gives them. They have little idea of what’s happening on the ground but think they can dictate what should happen. I think that’s incredibly wrong. Then you have other donors who are absolutely astounding, who really understand the notions of accompaniment and solidarity. It’s a constant struggle.

Is power always a bad thing?

As women, we’ve often been taught that somehow having power changes you or is wrong. We all have power, different types of power. When we don’t acknowledge that power, it’s easier for others to step all over us. We need to know what power we have and exercise it responsibly. When we don’t do that, it’s disastrous. This isn’t just about grantmaking, it’s about advocacy, it’s about how we bring up our children, it’s about physical power, intellectual power, emotional power. We’re not good at talking about power, and because we don’t talk about it, we don’t learn to use it well.

All of this is about understanding power and how you use it constructively. Grantmakers have to be careful because is it so easy to abuse their power. I’ve seen examples of big foundations going into small communities. People come out and they do a little welcoming song and tell them what’s happening in the village. Yet nobody tells the donor the truth because they’re scared that the money might be taken away.

And for some of the intermediaries, those who mediate the discussions between local groups and external donors, it’s not always in their interest to have local people saying exactly what’s going on or exactly what the challenges are or aren’t. Again, it’s all about not using power well. If the people who wield greater power in certain situations don’t recognize that power and use it appropriately, it ends up damaging them as well as everyone around them.

For more information
Contact Theo Sowa at

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