Through an agreement with UK-based Alliance magazine, PND is pleased to be able to offer a series of articles about global philanthropy.

Window of Opportunity for Women's Funds

Window of Opportunity for Women's Funds

When Melinda Gates made her groundbreaking pledge of $1 billion to address gender equality in the United States last year, she mentioned "a window of opportunity" to grow women's "power and influence." And she credited that opportunity to the efforts of millions of women and the rise of women-driven social movements. Empowered women running for office and advocating for the rights of the marginalized are crucial to advancing gender equality. Gates also pointed out a simple truth — the opportunity to grow women's power and influence has a shelf life and now is the time to seize it. Such fleeting opportunities to create significant social change come along once every few generations. So how do we capitalize on this one?

Up to now, the picture has not been encouraging. The Women & Girls Index, compiled by the Women's Philanthropy Institute (WPI) at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy in 2019, found that organizations dedicated to women and girls received only 1.6 percent of all charitable giving in 2016. Although women's funds do much to fill the gap in giving to women and engage in activities beyond grantmaking aimed at amplifying impact, overlooking and underestimating women has been a failure of philanthropy for decades.

In order to seize the moment, we need feminist philanthropy with women's funds in a leadership role.

Specifically, we must expand the capacity of feminist philanthropy and women's funds through increased support from women donors and larger grantmaking foundations. We must collaborate better in order to build movements across women's funds. We must embrace and expand the use of intersectional feminist approaches to philanthropy. And we must increase knowledge about feminist philanthropy through research — not only on women's funds, but on women as donors and beneficiaries.

Collaboration and solidarity

There are signs of progress. Four foundations recently announced a five-year initiative to invest $20 million in women's funds, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation awarded a $1.69 million grant to the Women's Funding Network (WFN). The purpose of the Gates Foundation grant is to support the formation of a coalition of women's funds focused on advancing the economic mobility of women. Both investments establish these organizations as important anchor institutions with the potential to transform not just the lives of individual women but society and culture more broadly.

Historically, women coming together in solidarity and unity of purpose have succeeded in creating real change. According to WPI's 2019 reports, Women's Foundations and Funds: A Landscape Study and Change Agents: The Goals and Impact of Women's Foundations and Funds, women's funds excel at empowering women and fostering positive change that further benefits children, families, and communities.

In Alliance's special feature on feminist philanthropy last year, Dr. Awino Okech highlighted the invaluable work of African women's funds to promote a "feminist understanding of gender equality" and the need for long-term funding for organizations working toward gender equality in the Global South. Okech further emphasized the advocacy efforts of women's funds to encourage foundations and governments to adapt their policies and funding approaches to reflect the advances made.

The challenge now facing women's funds is how they drive change as a funding movement while maintaining the ability to empower women in their local communities. Spearheading collaboration and coalition-building across multiple funds are women's giving networks such as WFN and Catalist. Greater collaboration and movement building are still needed.

Beyond grantmaking

WPI's research shows that a segment of women's funds are active in the policy realm, and some have achieved policy successes locally and at the state level. The good news is that policy change brought about by the advocacy efforts of feminist philanthropy and women's funds working together on issues such as women's economic mobility could manifest itself in unprecedented ways.

Intersectionality and consciousness-raising define feminism today. WPI's 2019 Change Agents report revealed that women's funds demonstrate intersectional approaches to philanthropy, including the use of research to educate others about the status of women and girls.

Intersectionality is not a widely known or understood concept. Yet intersectional approaches are inclusive, innovative, and have the potential to transform philanthropy. It is incumbent on women's funds and feminist philanthropists to educate others about intersectionality and how to practically apply the concept in organizational settings and as donors.

Future directions for research

In her 2019 book, Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, Caroline Criado-Perez shows how the relative lack of gender-based datasets maintains a culture that suppresses women's voices. Without such data, research on sustainable social change is not possible and while WPI has pioneered knowledge building through ten years of research on women's philanthropy, including women's funds, there is much more to learn about these groups and feminist philanthropy.

New research from WPI has catalyzed our understanding of the goals, practices, and impact of women's funds. Future research must involve the organizations that receive grants — and account for the voices and experiences of the women they support.

Women helping women has always been at the heart of the feminist movement. Today, women's funds embody this practice and will be critical in moving feminist philanthropy and gender equality forward in the twenty-first century.

Elizabeth Gillespie is completing her doctorate at the University of Nebraska. The author wishes to thank Tessa Skidmore for her contribution to this article.