The funding landscape for women-oriented programs appears to be getting curiouser and curiouser.
I read lots of declarations about forming strategic partnerships, but find little understanding of the non-linear and often lengthy process of producing actual “outcomes” and “impact.” Development work in poor countries – and even in poor neighborhoods of rich countries – encounters a minefield of incompatible attitudes between intended beneficiaries and donors. From the former: The internalized inferiority that is the sticky legacy of colonialism and slavery, the sense of entitlement related to welfare’ systems, and the destructive mindset of long-term poverty. From the latter: A persistent delusion about the capacity for sustainable improvements when too little short-term money is brought to the table.
Where’s the Money?
Women’s funding networks grow by gathering lots of moneyed individuals and organizations as members. Try finding a way to access that money – or at least begin a discussion about it – and you’ll find that many network members pointedly note: “We do not accept uninvited proposals.” It begs the question: “How does one get invited?” An online gallery where organizations could post information for interested funders would be a huge step forward in making critical connections.
While networks crow about teaming up to amass money for women’s and girls’ programs, less is said or done to help implementing partners access that growing wealth. Much could be accomplished by streamlining, perhaps standardizing, the application procedures. Response time – often four to eight months – or no response at all simply betrays any stated commitment to the importance of the work.
Corporations often have social responsibility departments or foundations; seldom do they have a clear line of communication to those in charge. Seeking connection involves running a gauntlet of product sales pitches.
Foundations each have specific focus areas. Most of the time, their funding is project-based rather than for operating support. Generally they limit or even disallow overhead costs in a budget, as if important work can be accomplished without office space, connectivity, or administrative support.
Which Women’s Movement?
In an excellent article “Philanthropy for the Women’s Movement, Not Just ‘Empowerment’” in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Francoise Girard states: “ The philanthropic community’s preoccupation with impact and the short-term projects that deliver measurable outcomes can distract us from what really works. Abundant data shows that the most effective way for philanthropists to advance women’s rights worldwide is to directly invest in the women’s movement.”
I believe there are many and diverse Women’s Movements. My personal experience working with impoverished women through Women’s Center International, a Movement on the rise, argues that large groups of women surviving on the margins seldom are inclined to take to the streets in protest of patriarchal oppression. Their priority is to find the tools that will enable them to feed, shelter, and educate themselves and their children.
Ms. Girard further states: “By investing in the individual, the burden remains on women to lift themselves and their children out of poverty, while leaving in place the systems of oppression that cause or contribute to this poverty in this first place.“
Indeed, each individual has to lift herself. The traumas of poverty present a considerable burden that each woman can learn to unload as she acquires the tools to improve her life. Providing those tools ultimately prepares her for activism – but only after the long journey to confidence and an ability to sustain herself. Advocacy movements need to be grounded in a solid connection with women working their way to self-empowerment. The goals are not mutually exclusive.
Ms. Girard also says: “[Philanthropic investment] means the provision of long-term, general operating support to women’s rights organizations that work collaboratively to transform social, legal, and political systems of patriarchal oppression.”
Amen to long-term, general operating support! This must to be directed both to the grassroots organizations helping individuals lift themselves, and to those already equipped to fight for rights within the systems that oppress them.
Small organizations working at the community level are important elements of a vast women’s movement. They can achieve enormous progress. Their major limiting factor will always be money. To achieve durable results, funders have to be in for the long haul. They must work for a clearer understanding of how much is at stake – for both the individual woman and for the wider movements to achieve full human rights for all women. And they must respond with all the clarity and speed they require of their grantees. It’s business, and women’s lives hang in the balance.
Susan Burgess-Lent, Executive Director www.WomensCentersIntl.org
Speaker and Author www.SusanBurgessLent.com