Then and now

Alliance magazine

How much has changed since Mama Cash, a women’s fund based in the Netherlands, was set up 20 years ago? Founder Marjan Sax talks about why she felt a women’s fund was needed and why she decided to put her own money into founding Mama Cash. Ellen Sprenger, executive director of Mama Cash from 2001 until April this year, clearly feels that not much has changed. But a ‘made over’ Mama Cash is ready for the challenges.


From 1969 on, I was deeply engaged in the feminist movement. It was an active and exciting time, and we started up all kinds of new groups and activities. For all women who were active in the feminist movement at that time, it was clear that there was not enough money for women. Women’s rights, the fight for women’s equality, women’s radical ideas about how to change the world – all these were underfunded or not funded at all, because mainstream funding organizations did not consider ‘women’ as a category worth paying attention to.

In the 1970s I inherited a considerable sum of money, 3 million guilders (about US$2 million at that time). To me, it was a logical step to use that money for women. I lent 2.5 million guilders to Mama Cash for ten years and gave away the income, and that’s how Mama Cash started. Deciding to use that money not for myself but for the women’s movement was not such a big step. I was heavily influenced by the Marxist thinking that was predominant in the student movement of that time. People with money were ‘capitalists’, their wealth acquired by oppressing their workers, so I felt guilty about inheriting such a lot of money without having done anything to deserve it.

The idea of a women’s fund

The idea of a women’s fund grew gradually. I contacted some women who I knew had expertise in the women’s movement and who could handle the responsibility of making decisions about money. We brainstormed together, set up a foundation, and formed the first board of Mama Cash in 1983. None of the five of us had any specific financial knowledge, but we soon found out that the world of finance is not as complicated as we had been led to believe and that we could easily demystify the terms bankers and financial advisers use. It was a big relief to me to be able to share the responsibility for deciding how to invest and spend the money. For all of us it was the entry to a new and fascinating world, where you use money to create something you believe in.

Our idea was to create an independent money circuit for women, where the money was part of the women’s movement and could support feminist strategies for change. We had big ideas: we wanted to change existing structures, not just to support women’s rights. The multinationals were all making profits by exploiting people in developing countries, so designating part of our budget for women in the South and so giving back a little of that profit seemed logical.

So that’s how Mama Cash started in 1983 – with a yearly income of about $125,000 and three broad fields of support: women’s radical initiatives in the Netherlands (including art and culture), women’s businesses in the Netherlands, and women’s projects in the developing world.

A new way of working

It was not difficult to get funding requests. We worked mainly through word of mouth.
In the beginning we discussed all proposals together at length, to develop criteria. Did a project have a radical analysis of society or were its activities mainly supporting the status quo? Was it run by women? Were the women aware of the need for racial and sexual diversity?

To find projects in the South we talked to women who were working at the mainstream funding agencies and asked them what was difficult for them to fund. Their answer was simple: feminism! For their organizations, activities run by women in the South in areas such as women’s rights, women’s health or political influence were luxuries they did not want to support.

An important issue for feminism is to change existing organizational structures. Hierarchy and leadership were considered ‘male’, so women had to find new, non-hierarchical ways to organize. As a matter of principle, Mama Cash considered the groups that asked for funding as equals: women know best what they need and what they want to do. As long as their budget was well thought through, we accepted their proposals without interfering with their plans. That was a new way of working, because most of the mainstream funding agencies push their own agenda at the expense of the grantees.

The new women’s funds in the South

Very early on we started to discuss the inequality of the distribution of wealth and control between the North and the global South. The fact that we in the North decide what is good for women in the South goes against all principles of feminism. Our ideal was to support women in the South to set up their own funds and so have control over their own money. That ideal is now a reality. To me, the emergence of the southern women’s funds is one of the most exciting developments of the last decade, because it is still revolutionary for women’s groups to have independent control over money.

I don’t think the role of women’s funds should be to compete with existing funding agencies. I see their role as being a vanguard, showing what issues women themselves consider important. Women’s funds should be the watchdogs and the conscience of the mainstream funds.

This means that women’s funds have to tackle the difficult issues that other funders shy away from. These are for a large part issues around women’s control over their own bodies. Women’s sexuality, in its broadest sense, is a battleground. Through it, women are controlled by state and religious authorities. Whether it is the right to safe abortion, the right to stay single, the right to divorce, or the right to live with another woman, women should have the right to live their lives according to their own choices. Women’s funds should be advocates for these rights.


When I joined Mama Cash in 2001, 17 years after she was founded by Marjan Sax and her friends, I learned that the main challenges the founders had identified still prevailed: there was still not enough money being invested in women’s rights work.

While women globally had made important advances in areas such as access to political decision-making or education, in most countries levels of violence against women had increased and gender equality was still far from a reality. Though the world was definitely more aware of gender inequality, and mainstream funding agencies had developed policies and special budget lines for women, we were starting to see a dwindling of those resources. Mama Cash’s steady growth path had started to level off as well.

Revisiting Mama Cash’s work

So we decided to revisit Mama Cash’s work and do a future-oriented strategic review. As a result we carved out a niche for ourselves. We would mobilize resources and financially support women’s groups that blaze the trail with groundbreaking, taboo-breaking, often risky initiatives – those that other funders tend to shy away from. In many ways we were simply restating what the founders of Mama Cash had started. The new part was that, two decades later, we were going to attract new followers and supporters, turning Mama Cash into the preferred philanthropic choice for women – and men – who do not necessarily see themselves as radicals and feminists.

If we want to mobilize more resources for women’s rights, we have to attract increasing numbers of people to our cause. Mama Cash needs to embody what people need and want: inspiration, friendship, and connection to a community that is part of the solution and which is clearly having fun in the process.

A complete make-over

In order to accomplish this, Mama Cash needed a make-over. This process, which started in the late 1990s, resulted in a new powerful logo with thick, curvaceous letters forming the name Mama Cash – strong and determined while at the same time feminine. The name Mama Cash had always worked well; with the new logo it would work even better.

Secondly, a ‘She’ tagline appeared on all communications. For example, compliments slips say ‘She says hello’ and the annual report says ‘She breaks new ground’. Making Mama Cash ‘human’ in this way strengthens her appeal to women from all walks of life. Importantly, the ‘She concept’ allows for a multi-faceted personality, making Mama Cash what every woman wants to be. She is daring and caring, a provocateur but with a big heart. She is young and old, black, coloured and white, from the Global North and South. She receives money from Mama Cash. She gives money to Mama Cash. She is, in other words, the amazon-like embodiment of all of us, people who in big and small ways make the world a more just, more secure place for women – and for everyone.[1]

Since her make-over Mama Cash has grown considerably, almost doubling her budget from $2.4 million in 2002 to $4.6 million in 2003. Mama Cash’s name and method of communication have made her known in communities where women’s rights perspectives had never threaded before.

The primary responsibility of a women’s fund is to mobilize resources. In order to do this, we need to continuously carve out new markets and deepen existing relationships. One of the most exciting innovations in the women’s movement globally is the growing number of women’s funds all over the world and their ability to raise resources. Overall, we are convinced that there is never a shortage of resources. It is the redistribution of those resources that we are aiming for. The founders of Mama Cash, and Marjan Sax in particular, have showed the world what this might look like in practice.[2]

1 In April 2004, during the annual conference of the Women’s Funding Network, Mama Cash was awarded the WAVE communications award as well as the public’s favourite award. An independent jury, as well as conference participants, considered Mama Cash the most creative and innovative women’s fund in its communications and branding.
2 Starting with the interest on a $1.65 million loan, which in the early years generated an annual working capital of $125,000, Mama Cash succeeded in leveraging $25 million in the first 20 years of her existence.

Marjan Sax founded Mama Cash in 1983. She calls herself a ‘sexactivist’ and works as a philanthropic adviser. She can be contacted at

Ellen Sprenger is a consultant based in Toronto, Canada. She was the Executive Director of Mama Cash from 2001 to 2004. She can be contacted at

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