Women’s funds the world over – the challenge and the potential

Bisi Adeleye - Fayemi

Six years ago an international women’s fund in the Netherlands, known as Mama Cash, hosted a milestone event with their overseas and domestic partners as part of their fifteenth anniversary celebrations. The idea was to develop strategies for building the women’s funding movement globally. During the three days of discussions, it became clear that women’s funds are extremely strategic social change actors, in developing and transitional countries as well as the global North. Six years later, what does the world of women’s funds look like and where is it going?

At that moment in November 1998 only a handful of women’s funds existed. Two were relatively well known internationally: the US-based Global Fund for Women, founded in 1987, and Mama Cash, founded in 1983. Outside of North America and Western Europe, though, there were other women who had managed to pioneer foundations for women and by women. Semillas (meaning ‘seeds’) in Mexico was founded in 1990 by a group of Mexican feminist activists and encouraged and supported by the Global Fund for Women. In 1995, Rita Thapa from Nepal set up Tewa, a women’s fund committed to raising money locally as well as internationally, and to supporting poor women in Nepal. But in 1998 there were many more women’s funds on their way. Nirnaya (India), Angela Borba Fund (Brazil), African Women’s Development Fund, WHEAT Trust and Pitseng (South Africa) were all in various stages of development. For those sitting around the table in Amsterdam, it became evident that a network was needed where these emerging women’s funds could harness each other’s ideas and energy.

In January 2000, in Katmandu, Nepal, some of the women who started the conversation in Amsterdam came together again and established the International Network of Women’s Funds (INWF) (see box on p00). This network, alongside the Women’s Funding Network (WFN), which brings together all the US-based domestic women’s funds as well as women’s funds working around the world, provides a critical space for learning and strategy development. Many INWF members are also members of WFN, working together with the WFN secretariat and benefiting greatly from their fundraising training programme and capacity-building tools (see p44). A key difference between INWF and WFN is that INWF members are all either based in developing and transitional countries or based in the global North with a minimum of two-thirds of their funding allocated to women’s groups in the South.

What is a women’s fund?

For the purposes of this article, a women’s fund is a philanthropic organization committed to mobilizing financial, human and technical resources to support the work of empowering women and girls in marginalized communities. Women’s funds, especially those that are members of INWF, have a number of features in common.

Mobilizing resources
Women’s funds mobilize, leverage and multiply resources for women’s empowerment and women’s rights, now and in the future. They attempt to do so in a sustained way, emphasizing asset-building, the use of social capital and diversification of resources. They are publicly supported institutions, relying on funding and goodwill from donor agencies, corporations and the general public.

The fundraising and communications work that women’s funds do is just as important for building and strengthening women’s movements as their grantmaking. Through their fundraising, they attract increasing numbers of people to the cause and as such create awareness, connect people, build a movement, and accelerate social transformation. Fundraising is thus seen as an investment with big returns.

In addition to mobilizing resources for their own programmes, women’s funds leverage resources for women’s rights in general as well as for women’s organizations directly. By being visible in funding communities and making the case for women’s empowerment and women’s rights, they help create a more responsive community committed to positive social change for women. Increasingly, they use their reputation and networks to introduce women’s organizations that were once small but are now more established to donor agencies interested in making bigger grants.[1]

Grants and other forms of support
Women’s funds are showing that small grants can make a huge impact. In fact, it is with small-scale initiatives that lasting change usually begins. The costs and logistics of finding and funding small groups make small grants impractical for most donors. Women’s funds, through their networks of volunteer advisers, are able to make informed funding decisions but at the same time keep costs as low as possible. These on-the-ground expert advisers identify grantees and provide mentoring and monitoring. In addition, they give their feedback on developments and priorities in the different regions and countries and are actively involved in policy development of the women’s funds.

Mentoring is especially important in the case of start-up groups. General encouragement, a few pointers about fundraising, help in making connections with groups working in similar fields, pointing to useful resource materials – this sort of support can make all the difference. Women’s funds are known for their rather approachable, flexible and open culture. While they insist on funding proposals, checks and balances, contracts and monitoring reports, the fact that the donor-grantee relationship is grounded in a shared passion for women’s rights makes the relationship ‘warmer’ and less of a bureaucratic experience than with most other funders.

Many grantees start small and over the years develop into bigger organizations with the absorption capacity and systems to qualify for bigger grants. The general expectation is that these organizations can find their way in the broader funding community and no longer need funding from women’s funds. When women’s funds do choose to fund more established organizations, they support the kind of work that other donors might not want to fund because it is considered too controversial or too risky or does not fit their priorities. Women’s funds understand that social change rests on innovation and the courage to take risks and are therefore especially keen to support such pioneers.

Women’s funds see every penny spent on grants as an ‘investment’. Because their main concern is trying to figure out how women’s movements in various localities can transform themselves and their communities in the long term, they reject a project-cycle, piecemeal approach and are especially interested in core institutional support. They are increasingly also providing multi-year support.

Values are very important to these women’s funds. Their founders locate themselves firmly within the struggles of social and political movements in their communities and regions, particularly women’s movements. They have all been actively involved in women’s movements as scholars and activists. They therefore understand the various processes and levels of engagement that need to be considered when supporting empowerment programmes for women and girls.

The politics of women’s funds is in many ways explicitly feminist, striving for a peaceful and just world where women and girls are free to make their own choices, including choices relating to their bodies and sexuality, develop their talents and skills, and help shape the future of their societies. The agenda of redefining the field of philanthropy as one that respects women as individuals, and not being afraid to put financial resources into the hands of those tackling difficult or taboo subjects, goes right to the heart of the raison d’être of these funds.

Listening, solidarity and respect for women’s choices all help define new ways of approaching donor-grantee relationships. Women’s funds believe in women. They believe in their capacity to make informed decisions that can improve the lives of their communities, so they invest in women’s leadership.

Most women’s funds believe that money alone cannot help build women’s movements. They also encourage a culture of partnerships and collaboration, and provide grants for organizations to network and learn from each other. Technical assistance, capacity-building, exchange programmes and peer learning are critical pillars on which their support to women’s organizations rests.


Although women’s funds have these common features and values, they represent very diverse countries and regions and approaches. As such, they all have their own particular challenges. But there are also several common challenges they face.

Meeting rising demands
Because of the deteriorating conditions of women globally, women’s funds are overwhelmed with rising demands that they are incapable of meeting. This makes it all the more important to support initiatives that get to the drivers of change and address causes of problems rather than effects. A number of women’s funds have therefore become more proactive in identifying breakthrough opportunities for change, for example by investing in advocacy-related programmes.

Finding new fundraising strategies
There are never enough resources for women’s rights, and it sometimes seems that women’s organizations globally are competing for the attention of a very limited group of donor agencies. But with an ever-growing concentration of wealth, the problem is clearly not scarcity of resources but their distribution. Women’s funds are always on the lookout for new fundraising strategies. They are leaders in creating and strengthening cultures of philanthropy. In fact, the biggest opportunities seem to be with individuals, in wealthy, middle-class and even poor communities. While this is especially challenging in contexts where this has never been done before, or where people are more comfortable giving to more traditional charitable causes, there are many success stories to tell, and this issue of Alliance looks at some of them.

Raising money for asset-building
Another challenge is to raise money specifically for asset-building, for example endowments. Without a permanent asset base, most of the women’s funds have to raise operating budgets year in year out, which means they have no secure resources for the future. They therefore need to focus more, and get better at, raising money for asset-building.

Perceived high ‘operating costs’
Occasionally, the funders who support the work of women’s funds question what they perceive to be high ‘operating costs’. Most of the time these costs vary between 30 and 40 per cent of total expenses. While women’s funds do everything to keep costs as low as possible, for example by working with volunteers, keeping salaries relatively low or making internal systems and processes more efficient, the truth is that building and strengthening communities of individual donors, securing a diversified donor base, identifying and funding suitable programmes in remote areas or faraway countries, measuring and communicating impact, and developing a modern, agile and friendly organization, cannot be accomplished without an adequate investment of resources. Simply put, this is not work that can be expected to be done ‘cheaply’, and terms such as ‘expensive’ or ‘costly’ should be used with caution in these contexts. As women’s funds go through their different growth stages, and succeed in strengthening their asset base, this ratio will change and a larger share will go out in grants. Women’s funds usually urge larger donors to view these costs as an investment, critical for building and strengthening philanthropic institutions that are sustainable in the long term.

The future

One of the most exiting innovations in women’s movements globally is the growing number of women’s funds and their ability to raise and multiply resources. They are bona fide philanthropic institutions capable of building a substantial resource base to ensure the sustainability of women’s initiatives and solutions in many parts of the world.

While almost all started out as an idea with no money to back it up,[2] the women’s funds that are members of INWF had a combined operating income of around $20 million in 2003 – a great achievement. But this isn’t enough. We live at a time of great insecurity. This is reflected in a weak global economy, a tense geopolitical situation with growing investments in militarization, degradation of the natural environment, an ever-growing gap between rich and poor, and in general a rise of conservatism in religion and politics. These interconnected forces result in the reassertion of values, practices and social norms that maintain or reinforce gender hierarchies or directly contribute to new forms of structural and systemic violence against women.

To get ahead of the game, and truly have an impact on these trends and developments, we need accelerated learning, even more proactive and thought-provoking strategies and activities, and greater successes in fundraising. Building a stronger global movement of women’s funds, and developing alliances with others who share our goals and values, is a vital part of this.

While women’s funds work together in many different ways, for example by exchanging information about developments in the different regions, or conferring about funding decisions, there is certainly room for other forms of collaboration. For example, different women’s funds could consider specializing in specific theme areas or regions. While they are already linking their networks of on-the-ground advisers, one could imagine one global network where local advisers service all women’s funds looking to make grants in a specific region or country. Or a brilliant fundraising campaign to collectively raise a billion dollars in one year. Could we get a million women to donate $1,000 each for an endowment in support of women’s empowerment and women’s rights the world over?[3]

There are many challenges ahead, but one thing we know for sure. As Margaret Mead once said: ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.’ Women’s funds are a case in point, and this is just the beginning.

1 An example is Mama Cash, who in 2003 played an active role in leveraging around $500,000 from donors for different women’s organizations.

2 Mama Cash is the one exception to this. For the first years of its existence its working capital was the interest on a loan of 3 million guilders (about US$2 million at that time) provided by one of its founders, Marjan Sax.

3 This idea is the brainchild of Joanne Sandler, who works with the United Nations Development Program for Women (UNIFEM).

Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi is co-founder and Executive Director of the African Women’s Development Fund. She was previously Executive Director of Akina Mama wa Afrika, based in the UK. She can be contacted at bisi@awdf.org

Ellen Sprenger is a consultant based in Toronto, Canada, specializing in social change fundraising, future-oriented strategic planning and overall organizational change management. She was the Executive Director of Mama Cash from 2001 to 2004. She can be contacted at ellensprenger@yahoo.com

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