The Equality Fund: Imagining a world of abundance for women and girls

By Jess Tomlin and Jess Houssian

The newly-launched Equality Fund is a Canadian-led, international fund designed to support gender equality around the world. We know that funding women’s organizations is the most effective way to create real impact. And we’re not afraid to disrupt the status quo—either in how aid to women is decided or in how we leverage money and investment in completely new ways. We are all about creating abundance for women and long-term change.

Around the world, women are developing solutions to some of the world’s most challenging issues like climate change and natural disasters, while also making much-needed societal, cultural and policy change for gender equality in their communities. Women know what is most needed and are creative and resourceful when it comes to solving problems. This is just as true in Canada as it is in Mexico, Afghanistan and South Sudan.

Yet resources remain scarce everywhere. A recent OECD study noted that Sustainable Development Goal 5—targeting gender equality—is one of the least supported of the SDGs. In developing countries, women-run organizations on shoestring budgets. In North America, women building tech businesses struggle to access the funding they need. Startups founded by all-women teams constituted only 6% of all seed capital and 3% of venture capital dollars, even though women’s ideas generate 12% more revenue than those of men.

What do these women have in common? They live in a system that sustains the status quo. This problem isn’t just about a pay gap—though this is certainly a piece of it. It’s also about dismantling norms that keep women and girls from schools and C-suites and revoking policies that ravage entire communities. Through the Equality Fund, we are unleashing the power of new ideas and solutions to the world’s biggest problems by supporting those most likely to make it happen—women’s organizations and movements.

But the Equality Fund model is about more than sending money to women’s organizations. It’s a disruption in two key ways: 1) recognizing and using the role of capital for advancing gender equality and earning profit at the same time through gender-lens investing, and 2) disrupting the traditional charity model of international development.

Disrupting the charity model

The biggest barrier to supporting women and girl-run organizations is the current charity model system. It tends to be slow-moving and focuses mostly on service or program delivery that doesn’t allow local organizations to determine their own priorities. The funding provided is often project-based and piecemeal, meaning under-resourced organizations underinvest in their people and communities. It creates a cycle of dependence. It’s also expensive—only a fraction of the money trickles down to women-run organizations.

Women’s funds around the world have built a successful model by deploying capital to the organizations on the ground, but it is not enough. We must look to different sectors and use all the tools available to us—from intentionally scouting new ideas to leveraging gender-lens investments to support them—to build a similar model on a much bigger scale, that will last for lifetimes. We need new partners, new expertise, and new commitments. We need to rethink how financial systems and capital markets can also work towards a gender equality agenda.

Making capital work for gender equality

In partnership with the Government of Canada, the Equality Fund is creating stimulus, at scale. Our ambitious goal and initial funding commitment has brought new players—in big finance, investment, venture capital, philanthropy, to name a few—to a field formerly left to international NGOs, some foundations, and governments. We are starting with the substantial Government of Canada contribution and will leverage that with philanthropic dollars, more investment capital and in time our strategy will bring $1.4 billion CAD to the field of gender equality.

With new actors, new money, and new roles come new ways of working. For example, philanthropy can be deployed swiftly, take on more risk, incubate ideas, fund exploration and innovation, while government funding can catalyze and stimulate, lend credibility, and scale. Financial institutions building impact-focused products can shine by building tools to help capital work towards social goals while bringing in more profit.

Creating a world of abundance

We are tired of the slow pace of change, of having to say no to deserving and resourceful women-led organizations because there’s not enough money to go around. It’s time to think bigger. It’s time to make money work for women and girls twice, first by using the capital to influence the way businesses address their needs and then, by using the proceeds of those investments to fund the much-needed work on the ground.

This is what women have always done—mobilize people and resources. But now we have found a way to harness our mobilizing and investing power to fund the work for decades to come. This is both good business and the right thing to do.

The Equality Fund is a totally new model, a multi-sector approach to supporting gender equality through philanthropy, grantmaking, and gender-lens investing, born of women’s funds, investment mavens, and some of the world’s bravest feminist philanthropists. In this way, every dollar works toward supporting women and girls, with the potential to sustainably create a new landscape—based not on scarcity but on abundance.

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