Funding for feminist groups plays crucial role in creating social change, report finds

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Afghan women and girls take part in a protest outside the Ministry of Education in Kabul on March 26, 2022, demanding the reopening of high schools for girls. Global women’s movements have worked with grassroots groups supporting women in Afghanistan since the Taliban took power in 2021.

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According to a report released last month by the Bridgespan Group, a US-based nonprofit that advises philanthropists around the world, and Shake the Table, a project of the nonprofit Panorama Group, which seeks to make the bridge between social justice movements and philanthropy.

In “Lighting the Way: The Power and Promise of Feminist Movements”, Bridgespan and Shake the Table argue that feminist funds are needed to “hold the ground against the anti-gender movement and gain momentum in power shift”.

“The solution lies in movements – the organisations, networks and leaders that actually do this work within communities, led by people who have faced multiple systems of oppression,” says council leader Nidhi Sahni. American at Bridgespan and co-author of the report. “Because they cross systems, they don’t have the resources at the level they need.”

Feminist funds are proven, effective, on-the-ground resources with a proven track record of creating change, but they lack sufficient funds and unrestricted support to allocate funds where they are needed most, according to the report. Meanwhile, 80% of wealthy donors surveyed by Bridgespan want to support organizations that create social change and tackle racial and economic inequality, Sahni says.

Donors who want to support systemic social change tend to give to specific causes, such as education or health care, the researchers found. But the data shows that gender inequalities are “embedded in every system, every society,” Sahni says.

In natural disasters, including fires, floods and hurricanes, for example, “women are 14 times more likely to die than men,” she says. There are more examples of gender inequality in global health care, education, labor rights, and areas affected by climate change, among others.

The report details how feminist funds – which refer to a range of movements, organizations and donor collaborations – have effectively crossed these silos. The funds include “organisations, leaders and networks working together to change power structures that reinforce gender and other inequalities”, a definition the report’s authors borrowed from Srilatha Batliwala, a women’s rights advocate based in India.

Examples of success include victories for reproductive rights by feminist organizations in Mexico, Argentina and Ireland; states banning non-disclosure agreements in sexual misconduct cases in the United States following the #MeToo movement; and the strengthening of agricultural worker rights by big food companies in response to “decades of organizing” by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a human rights organization based in Immokalee, Florida.

Recently in Afghanistan, several organisations, including the New York-based international women’s rights organization MADRE, the global feminist organization Association for Women’s Rights in Development, and Dublin-based Frontline Defenders, were able to collect and send US donations to feminist organizations provided funds on the ground during the Taliban takeover in 2021.

MADRE, for example, sent donated funds to female-led and women-focused partners in Afghanistan before the takeover to ensure they could survive the initial crisis, and continues to collect and send funds.

Efforts like these could be expanded if feminist organizations received more money, the report says.

“At the end of the day, what we need to do is change societal norms, and the dollars don’t sink,” says Debby Bielak, report co-author and Bridgepsan partner.

To arrive at the figure of $6 billion by 2026, or $1.5 billion a year, the report considered data from the Association for Women’s Rights in Development from 2019, which found that women’s funds give $100 million a year to feminist movements. According to Bridgespan research, collaborative donor funds focused on gender equity have the capacity to deploy 10 times more than that, or an additional $900 million per year, according to the report.

At the same time, philanthropic foundations give $600 million a year to feminist movements. “From what we can observe, these organizations can absorb twice that amount,” Bielak says.

That combined additional annual funding — $900 million from women’s donor collaborations and $600 million from foundations — is a “floor” for what’s possible, she says. “What we know is that there are so many investment opportunities.”

The report gives the example of the international feminist organization Mama Cash, based in Amsterdam, which funds movements of women, girls, trans and intersex people around the world. The group was only able to fund 15 of more than 1,000 applications from new activist groups in 2021.

Given the potential within feminist organizations, Bridgespan and Shake the Table recommend that donors give unrestricted multi-year grants because “the work of transforming systems [and] building the movement is a work of many years,” says Sahni. “The restrictive one-year grants don’t allow them to plan.

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