Reaching beyond the comfort zone – the challenge for grantmakers

Kavita Ramdas

In every country, women and girls are among the poorest of the poor, the most marginalized and disempowered sections of society; they face repeated violations of their basic human rights. Often women are the backbone of grassroots efforts to respond to problems at the level of local communities. The challenge for international philanthropy is how best to channel support to these initiatives. The Global Fund for Women’s answer is to use a vast network of formal and informal advisers to help them make small, flexible grants.

In the past 13 years, the Global Fund for Women has given over $16 million to seed, strengthen and link over 1,600 women’s groups in 150 countries.

Difficulties for grassroots groups

The difficulties faced by these community-based organizations are many. The vast majority are located in very poor communities. For the most part, they are volunteer-led and sustained by in-kind contributions and the minimal resources that individual women in local communities have been able to piece together. Few local groups can afford to have professional staff. Because of the physical distance between groups, activists often take on difficult issues on their own rather than working in collaboration with others. While most groups recognize the importance of building coalitions, few have access to email and the internet. Fewer still can afford to travel even within their country, much less across national borders.

Lack of access to donors is a particular problem. Few grassroots groups have members or volunteers who speak English or French, the languages of most international donor agencies. Few have experience in fundraising or proposal-writing. Many women’s rights organizations are not formally registered, making them even less likely to obtain funding support. For groups that address controversial issues like honour killings, female genital mutilation or lesbian rights, the problem is even greater because mainstream donors’ definitions of ‘women’s development’ rarely extend beyond income generation, poverty alleviation and maternal and child health programmes.

Difficulties for grantmakers

Traditionally, most bilateral and multilateral funding agencies have provided development aid directly to governments. Nor have large private foundations tended to see small and emerging women’s groups as part of their constituency. Even progressive donors like the Ford Foundation, with a strong commitment to women’s rights and empowerment and country offices in many developing countries, are not equipped to make the small, flexible grants such groups most need.

Since the Cairo and Beijing UN conferences in 1994-95, a greater proportion of public development aid has gone to NGOs. Unfortunately, donor-imposed conditions have often restricted their independence and creativity, turning many of them into contract-based service providers that simply do as they are told.

The barriers faced by private international philanthropy include a genuine difficulty in identifying, from among the thousands of NGOs and community-based organizations that have sprung up around the globe, those that are most worth supporting. Many foundations are reluctant to invest in groups that are new and about whom they know very little, and few have the local presence or understanding of regional issues to feel informed enough to make good decisions. Donors new to the field of international grantmaking may also be daunted by the overly bureaucratic legal requirements of their home countries. Finally, while the level of funding required by many grassroots organizations is small, the due diligence required in the grantmaking process is often costly and time-consuming.

It is important to point out that these barriers apply both in domestic and overseas funding. In both instances, it is always more likely that a major foundation will support a larger established organization rather than a small citizens’ group.

A new approach

Over the years, creative individuals and visionary institutions have experimented with ways of increasing private philanthropy’s ability to reach and serve the needs of smaller grassroots groups. In the United States, the women’s movement of the 1970s prompted the creation of a new kind of donor institution. Publicly supported women’s funds, as exemplified by the Ms Foundation, used the ideology of women’s empowerment to strengthen community organizations by raising funds both from larger foundations and from individual women donors. The participation of women donors succeeded in expanding the image of women beyond that of victims of discrimination or beneficiaries of charity.

Mama Cash, a women’s fund in the Netherlands, was one of the first to support women’s groups in Europe and the Global South. In 1987, the Global Fund for Women (GFW) was established as the first, and still the only, US foundation dedicated exclusively to supporting women’s organizations overseas. GFW provides small, flexible grants directly to women’s groups in every part of the world. In addition, it actively promotes women’s funds in other countries.

How is it done?

GFW has pioneered a radical new approach to international giving. It accepts grant requests in any language and format, minimizing bureaucratic requirements.
Its unique grantmaking style relies on a worldwide network of local advisers and experts who provide critical information about groups and the broader context within which grants are to be made in any given country or region.

GFW’s Advisory Council consists of about 120 members around the world. These can be academics, physicians, former grantees, activists, parliamentarians – almost anyone with an interest in and active involvement with women’s issues in the countries concerned. We also include US-based experts with good connections to the field, for example staff members of the Women’s Economic and Development Organization or the International Women’s Health Coalition or Human Rights Watch. Peace Corps and CARE volunteers in other countries often act as advisers. It is a totally volunteer position – though in the last year we have offered a modest stipend to help cover communications costs (about $100 per year).

Our informal advisory network is much broader. It includes all our grantees, who often refer other groups to us, individual donors who are travelling, networks of women’s organizations, other funders (eg the Asia Foundation and the Ford Foundation) who cannot fund the small groups that we do but want to help. The one thing they all share is that they are personally known to the GFW Board or staff and they are active in the field of human rights or women’s development.

Although GFW’S advisory network is a critical component in our outreach, applicant groups do not have to be recommended to us by advisers. Any group anywhere can contact us for support. Local advisers then provide us with direct local endorsements that include answers to the following questions: does the group exist? Do they work with other groups? How are they regarded? Will the approach they are advocating be successful in that community?

While our advisers, formal and informal, give us valuable input on the groups, all decisions are made by our Board. The majority of GFW Board members are in fact former grantees or advisers.

Creating local grantmaking capacity

GFW has actively promoted women’s philanthropy by providing many women’s groups with their first experience as grantmakers. At its fifth and tenth anniversaries, GFW awarded ten Partnership Awards which gave local organizations the opportunity to be ‘donors’ in their own countries. In the process, these grantee partners gained confidence, experienced the responsibilities of grantmaking, reached new groups and expanded local traditions of giving.

As a result, some organizations began to develop women’s funds in their own countries. GFW grants helped to establish two fully functional independent women’s funds in Nepal and Mexico (see pp26-27). Seed grants have also been made to emerging women’s funds in a number of other countries, including Ecuador, Ukraine, South Africa, Guyana, Brazil, Cameroon and Ghana.

GFW also helps these new women’s funds develop the organizational and technical skills to administer funds in their own countries. The Global Fund has supported staff and Board members of women’s funds to spend time at its offices and the offices of Mama Cash in a programme designed to facilitate shared experience. GFW materials are freely shared with women’s funds to assist in designing programme criteria, fundraising strategies and financial management systems. Women’s funds may also apply for grants to visit one another – recently the emerging women’s fund in Brazil invited funds from Mexico and Nepal to advise them on how best to move forward with their plans. Most recently, Mama Cash and GFW co-hosted a meeting with Tewa in Kathmandu that resulted in the creation of an International Network of Women’s Funds, which will meet again in February in Oaxaca, Mexico. Most recently, GFW was awarded a large grant by the Ford Foundation to further strengthen this work with women’s funds by making an increased number of capacity-building grants and capital grants to help them establish their own endowments.

Where does the money come from?

Unlike private foundations, most women’s funds raise their operating costs and grant budgets each year from individuals and foundations. This is a challenging task, even in wealthy countries like the United States. In turn, this changes the dynamic between women’s funds and their grantees, fostering a mutual understanding of the conditions under which groups seek financial support. It also provides a unique opportunity to engage and educate upper-class and wealthy individuals in the developing world to ‘give back’ by supporting local funds. Other US donors such as the Ford Foundation, the Mott Foundation and Synergos have made similar investments in seeding community foundations in other countries.

For other donors seeking new ways to reach out to grassroots organizations, there is one lesson above all to be learned from the experience of GFW and similar pooled funds like the Global Fund for Children and the Global Greengrants Fund: it is always worth listening to and learning from activists working in the field.

Kavita Ramdas is President of the Global Fund for Women. She can be contacted by email at

For more information, contact the Global Fund for Women.
Tel +1 650 853 8305
Fax +1 650 328 0384

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