Interview – Kavita Ramdas

What is feminist philanthropy, Caroline Hartnell asked Kavita Ramdas, President and CEO of the US-based Global Fund for Women. Feminist philanthropy, says Ramdas, must be willing to challenge the status quo, which underpins philanthropy as we know it and the patriarchy that underpins our societies.

There is an emerging global movement, she says, but it has a long way to go: people still tend to see ‘women’s rights’ as peripheral to mainstream human rights, and funders of women’s organizations are few and far between. Even the name ‘feminist philanthropy’ is threatening.

Is there a global feminist philanthropy movement that the Global Fund for Women is part of?

Yes, but it’s still in its emerging stages. The current model of philanthropy comes out of the economic systems in the West, particularly in the US. With the gross levels of wealth accumulation by a small section of the population that are possible in the West, philanthropy has come to be the way in which certain basic unmet needs are addressed. An organization like the Global Fund seeking to advance feminist philanthropy should question whether that model is sustainable and worth replicating. I think the answer on both counts is no, so we need to explore an alternative vision of philanthropy. We are talking about different ways to provide global resources for women’s rights, for gender equality and for social justice.

In the short term, though, I assume you’d like to see these gross accumulations of wealth tapped into to support the causes you believe in?

Absolutely, but any philanthropy that is truly about social change has to be willing to fund the very things that might make it impossible in 10 or 20 or 30 years for any one individual to amass the wealth of a Bill Gates or a George Soros. At the very least, it has to be involved in creating more public accountability for that kind of world.

So you’re saying that there’s no point in tapping into this money unless you can use it in ways that genuinely aim to achieve change?

Exactly. And in the developing world, people who have been kept out of power and wealth and privilege are now refusing to accept that as the prevailing economic logic. For some, this is a matter of opposing globalization; for others, of finding a more ethical face for it. I think there is a real question about whether unbridled free market capitalism is the best economic system for the world. We have to come up with an alternative that is not communism – we can see that that doesn’t work – but that combines entrepreneurialism with a strong commitment to the public good and to basic human dignity.

For example, as we fund women’s economic opportunities, we need to question whether it is enough simply to want women to have equal wages with men. If we’re asking for women to have the right to create industries that produce as much pollution and are as destructive of human welfare as those created by men, we’re not talking about social change. That’s why we need to be willing to look hard at the traditional definitions of philanthropy and at what we are funding.

You’re talking about a feminist philanthropy, but your donors are presumably men as well?

Absolutely. Feminism, as Rebecca West said, is the radical notion that men and women are equal – not the same, but equal – and should be treated with equal respect and equal dignity. I think both men and women can care about that as a philosophy and can use their philanthropic activity to move us collectively towards that goal.

This is a really important issue. People ask why is it the Global Fund for Women? Don’t you support men? What we’re talking about is a strategy for achieving social change. Women’s funds, particularly those that have identified themselves as engaged in feminist philanthropy, believe that one of the most effective strategies for changing the world for the better is to invest in women. We now have enough evidence from the development field to suggest that investing in women’s health, education and improved status will result in improvements in children’s health and nutrition and in the overall economic well-being of the family. And the experience of Afghanistan has helped us understand that women’s participation is critical to ensuring democracy. So it isn’t as though choosing to make investments in women’s organizations is excluding the rest of the community, quite the reverse.

Given the weight of evidence in the development literature, why do you think there isn’t more interest in funding for women?

I think there is this underlying assumption that a small amount of money for women’s issues, whatever those are, is quite enough. We had a disturbing experience recently when a major foundation decided to stop funding us and re-deployed those resources to fund a sister fund, Mama Cash, based in the Netherlands. Their decision did not reflect concern about the effectiveness of our work, but rather their own philosophy, which is that when there is an organization in Europe that does the same work as one in the US, they prefer to strengthen the European organization. However, given that there are so few funds that make grants directly to women’s groups worldwide, this decision did not increase the overall resources available for women’s rights organizations across the world.

Human rights is still regarded as something different from ‘women’s issues’. Recently a new fund was created in the US for the support of global human rights. Some of the founding donors claimed there was no international fund supporting human rights. So we asked them what they thought the Global Fund was funding. Their answer was that ‘we support women’s issues, whereas this would be a fund for human rights’. I thought we’d been over this ten years ago in Beijing, when we were struggling to say that women’s rights are human rights. Yet people can still talk as if the two were separate, and as if human rights are only a narrowly defined set of civil, political and legal rights.

Are you talking about issues like violence against women and rape?

According to the Human Rights Charter, women’s rights includes a variety of things, even the notion of women gaining leadership roles, and what might be called core development issues. One of the groups we work with in Uzbekistan is tracing the connection between the incredible toxicity of the Aral Sea and the reproductive health of women in the region, birth defects, and very high maternal mortality rates. Now, you could argue that that’s not really a human rights issue, or you could argue that it’s actually a massive human rights violation, a violation of the basic right to good health.

I think we have got to the point where violence against women is beginning to be recognized as a human rights issue. But it’s not widely funded, and it is one of the areas where women’s funds do make a significant difference. When the Global Fund first came on the scene, it quickly became one of the leading resources for the domestic violence movement internationally, because there was nobody else willing to support that type of work.

You talk about investing in women. Is it right that Global Fund grants go only to organizations that are led by women?

Yes, but I should make clear what we mean by this. We define women-led organizations as those where women make up a significant majority of the leadership. They don’t have to be all women. Many of the organizations that we support are mixed groups; they may have male employees, male donors and male board members.

We see our grantmaking as achieving two different but related goals. In most of the countries where we support women’s rights, women are seen as essentially lesser human beings and incapable of leadership outside their traditional roles as mothers in the home. So when we fund an organization where the head and at least some of the financial backers are women, it sends a very clear signal to their community that here are women who are capable of leadership – and I think they really feel the impact of that. In fact, many of the women who are now in leadership positions in government across the world got their first experience of leadership working for an NGO, often one funded by the Global Fund.

You said that there are two aspects to your grantmaking …

One is supporting women’s leadership and the other is advancing women’s human rights. We would like to think that by investing in women-led organizations working to advance women’s rights our grants achieve both of those things simultaneously. You might argue that it would be better to fund Amnesty International, which has a massive international campaign on violence against women, or one of the wonderful Indian NGOs that are led by men but are committed in principle to gender equity.

We are concerned both that these kinds of groups get resources much more easily than women-led organizations, and that they tend to reinforce a narrow definition of human rights. Human Rights Watch is a good example. It took well-known activist Dorothy Thomas many years of advocacy to convince her colleagues that there should be a women’s rights division at Human Rights Watch, and it continues to be the most underfunded part of that organization.

How do you see the feminist philanthropy movement developing over the next 15 years?

I think there’s going to be a huge expansion of local women’s funds, and that they will be experimenting with many different iterations of the model. In some countries, they may become conduits for government funding to women’s programmes; in others, they may provide opportunities for the middle classes to invest in women’s organizations. In other countries, they may simply serve as a way to better funnel contributions from the North.

The Nepali women’s fund and the Mexican women’s fund, which are both impressive and mature organizations, are good examples of very different models. The Mexican women’s fund gets 85–90 per cent of its funding from the US. It distributes this wonderfully and quite widely to local women’s organizations, but it hasn’t yet succeeded in tapping the significant elite in Mexico. However, it has initiated an individual donors’ network in order to educate middle-class women as donors (see p39). In contrast, the women’s fund in Nepal raises over 60 per cent of its grants budget from Nepali donors. That’s extraordinary, because Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world, and has a very small entrepreneurial class.

Overall do you see the flow of resources going into women’s funds increasing?

There is certainly growing interest in women’s funds, but I haven’t been overwhelmed by the response of mainstream philanthropy to them, and looking at the US doesn’t give me much hope. The US is a hugely wealthy country and, unlike many parts of the world, women control significant amounts of that wealth. The first women’s fund in the US, the Ms Foundation, was started in 1973. Thirty years on, women’s funds in the US still only give away a very small fraction of the money that is given through private philanthropy each year. So, I wonder whether it is going to be different for international women’s funds.

Right now, particularly since Afghanistan, I do think people are able to make the connection between the status and well-being of women and broader social well-being and progress. That’s encouraging, but I don’t really see it changing the flow of resources very dramatically.

I was at a conference recently where someone from the Rockefeller Foundation said that the single most important thing to do was to invest in women. I followed up in a visit and asked how many women’s organizations they funded. The answer was none. ‘How exactly do you invest in women, then?’ I asked. The response was that their grants to agricultural sciences, to improve the quality of rice, would eventually benefit women farmers.

I do think that women’s funds epitomize the challenge to existing structures of power and control. Gender inequality is so deeply entrenched in societies across the world. As long as you control money and power, you have some control over broader aspects of society. So I am not under any illusion that it’s going to be easy.

This seems like a good point to ask you how the Global Fund’s endowment campaign is going.

The Investing in Women campaign is both an endowment campaign and a campaign to establish an immediate crisis fund. Our combined goal is $20 million, which really is peanuts if you think about it in the context of world resources, or even just US philanthropic resources – Stanford University raises $20 million with one gift. Yet, when you consider that the Global Fund is the largest grantmaking organization for women internationally, it seems absurd that we are literally begging for crumbs from the table. The Ford Foundation has been among the very few private foundations to help build the institutional capacity of women¹s funds with endowment gifts, but even those are small! The Ms Foundation, the premier national fund for women in the US, recently received a $5 million gift towards their endowment, and the Ford Foundation is currently considering a $3 million commitment to the Global Fund’s Now or Never Fund.

Is the problem that people refuse to accept that the way society is organized makes it almost impossible for women to improve their status and conditions without real change?

Yes, in fact this was part of the reason why Anne Firth Murray created the Global Fund. She had been working as a population programme officer at the Hewlett Foundation for ten years and simply hitting her head against a wall in her efforts to fund women’s empowerment. In the 1980s, the definitive view on population was that if you had enough contraception, the problem would be solved. Anne was trying to say that women in Africa or India have no control over the use of contraception, so unless you can change the status of women, it is irrelevant whether you provide IUDs and condoms. I think the ICPD (International Conference on Population and Development) in Cairo in 1994 finally broke through that with its declaration that women’s empowerment and girls’ education are the single most effective strategies for reducing population growth.

Even so, since Cairo large amounts of private foundation money have continued to flow into narrowly product-focused strategies for distribution, or medical research and vaccine development, whereas very little has been invested in women’s empowerment. Of course they have to work hand in hand – no one is saying you don’t need condoms and IUDs – but it is striking how little money has gone into strengthening women’s voices and real choices, the kinds of things the Global Fund and the other women’s funds support. I think there remains very significant resistance to the idea, and feminist philanthropy is going to run up against that resistance.

Is it because it’s mainly men controlling funds or are women heading up big foundations equally reluctant to accept the women’s empowerment argument?

The latter, absolutely. Simply putting one or two women in positions of power does not challenge or change patriarchy. We live in the world of Condoleeza Rice, don’t forget! Indira Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto weren’t exactly great campaigners for women’s rights in India and Pakistan. I don’t think having a woman in power, or maybe even significant numbers of women, is the answer, unless it is combined with a real questioning of the underlying assumptions of power and the organization of society. It’s the same at the grassroots level. Often it is older women who are the most resistant to change.

It seems to be unfashionable to talk about patriarchy anymore, but it is very real. Like capitalism, it’s a system of thought. All of us have been conditioned by it. I head the Global Fund for Women and consider myself a feminist, yet it still traumatizes me that I go to the store to buy cupcakes instead of baking cookies for my daughter’s school. The degree to which you internalize that kind of stuff is extraordinary. You talk to working women in the US and they regularly give more to their husbands’ old school than to the school they graduated from. It’s not because they care less about their schools, but that they feel less entitled to the same resources. That’s part of the reason why the Global Fund supports groups of women rather than individuals. As an individual woman, you need support to break out of this cycle and you need to feel that you’re part of a broader movement.

The most striking thing about the international women’s movement is that it isn’t an anti-male movement. We’ve gone beyond asking to be allowed to play the game, because we’ve realized that the game we’re all playing is a terribly unfair one where people get hurt. So women activists are saying, ‘Let’s play a different game.’ We’re asking, ‘What is the world that we want to see for ourselves, women and men, and our children?’ As my husband often says, people don’t realize that when the women’s revolution is complete, both men and women will have more opportunities, free from stereotypical expectations about what they can and cannot do. Of course, that is very scary, because it’s a dramatic departure from what we have right now, but it’s also very exciting.

Kavita N Ramdas is President and CEO of the Global Fund for Women. As a recognized leader in the fields of women’s rights and philanthropy, she has won numerous awards for her vision and advancement of an inclusive philanthropy in which donors and grantees are treated as equal partners. Most recently, the Financial Women’s Association named her the 2004 Woman of the Year for the Public Sector. Earlier this year, Women and Philanthropy gave her the 2004 LEAD (Leadership for Equity and Diversity) Award for her commitment to funding the global human rights of women and girls. Before joining the Global Fund, she was a programme officer at the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation in Chicago. She was born and raised in India. She can be contacted at

The Global Fund for Women is the largest grantmaking foundation in the world that focuses exclusively on advancing women’s rights internationally. Grants made by the Global Fund expand the choices available to women, empowering them to become respected leaders of social change in their communities. Since 1987, the Global Fund has awarded $35.1 million to seed, strengthen and link more than 2,400 groups in 160 countries. Under the leadership of Kavita Ramdas over the past seven years, its assets have grown from $6 million to more than $15 million and annual grantmaking has increased sixfold. More information is available in six languages at

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