Flipping the funding script

Activate re-imagines grantmaking with feminist funds

By Massan d’ALMEIDA, XOESE, le Fonds pour les Femmes Francophones, 
By Anisha Chugh and Sanjana Gaind, Women’s Fund Asia
By Marine-Celeste Kiromera, Equality Fund 

What could grantmaking look like if we put community, trust, transparency, and radical love at the centre?

This was the question on our minds when we first met together around a virtual table about a year ago. We had gathered to discuss the Equality Fund’s second grantmaking stream, Activate, designed to support our community of peers: feminist funds fueling grassroots change in the Global South and beyond. 

Amid an ongoing pandemic and rising threats to women, girls, and trans people everywhere, the urgency and momentum of our shared work was palpable. And the rest of the world was quickly catching on. According to Gendernet: “Supporting women’s funds is one of the most effective ways for donors to get resources to southern women’s rights organisations and movements […]. They are uniquely well-connected with women’s rights organisations at the grassroots level and can reach small and emerging groups that are less able to access larger sources of funding.” Importantly, the support we provide often extends far beyond financial resources to include technical and capacity strengthening support to meet the specific needs of our communities.

The feminist funding ecosystem is large, diverse, thriving and growing! A key component of this ecosystem is the feminist aid architecture (FAA) – an intentional structure very thoughtfully being built by the women’s funds and other feminist funders within the ecosystem to ensure resources flow to the grassroots groups. The resource justice agenda being pushed by the FAA is rooted within the politics of the global south feminist movements, and it challenges north based, colonial and patriarchal values and practices that tend to dominate aid flows and funding discourse

Women’s Fund Asia

With such a powerful ecosystem already in place, our collective mission was simple but radical. We believed it was time to co-design a funding window rooted in our community’s shared feminist values.

A new way forward

Highly competitive and isolating, traditional approaches to grantmaking that don’t go beyond top-down calls for proposals have long been the opposite of feminist. They reinforce patriarchy and colonialism and donor-driven agendas, keep power at the top, and can even pit partners against each other.     

Thanks to the leadership of peer organizations like El Fondo Centroamericano de Mujeres, FRIDA, Mama Cash, and many other feminist funds, we knew that a more participatory approach to grantmaking was possible. 

Together, we decided that Activate would adopt the Step Up/Step Back approach, a grantmaking model that is deeply inspired by Indigenous-led and solidarity movements. Rather than holding information at the top, this approach to grantmaking shares it with everyone, making it possible for individual funds to see how grant decisions would affect everyone else. Upon learning that a sister fund was about to enter a year with big opportunities and little resources, for example, some funds volunteered to step back from funding, and wait for a future round.  

At its core, Step Up/Step Back promotes community-based thinking rather than competition. It is driven by a commitment to transparency, reciprocity, radical love, and intersectionality. 

The result is an emerging story of feminist transformation—of equal parts “what” and “how.” And while we all have much more still to learn, we are excited about the early results.

The what: An energized ecosystem

Activate is now moving $14 million CAD in multi-year grants to 23 partnerships with feminist funds that are national, regional, and global in scope, emerging and well-established, working from Fiji to Brazil to Togo. These funds are as diverse as they are powerful, making up an extraordinary mosaic of brave and determined organizations on the frontlines of resourcing feminist change.

At XOESE, for example, Activate’s multi-year support is allowing the fund to reach a wider range of Francophone women’s groups, while strengthening two key initiatives that connect the entire Francophone women’s movement: the Campaign Femmes Solidarité Sahel and the XOESE 2023 Francophone Forum. The fund has also been able to provide multi-year funding to women’s organizations in order to ensure continuity in their actions and increase their impact within their communities. The support to their grantee partners will also contribute to their financial stability and allow them to continue their strategic planning without the usual anxiety and fear that groups and organizations usually have from not being able to mobilize the necessary resources for the implementation of their planned activities. 

This fact sheet offers an overview of this powerful group of funds, whose work spans an urgent set of themes and types of support to movements, including:

  • Prioritizing the leadership and agenda of particularly marginalized communities, such as sex workers, LGBTQI+ people; adolescent and young women; Indigenous women; and Black and Afro-descendant women.
  • Providing rapid response support for women human rights defenders and activists facing threats for their work, working in crisis contexts, and responding to time sensitive moments and strategic opportunities.
  • Advancing change at critical intersections, such as feminist technology and philanthropy; and prioritizing communities that have limited access to digital technologies but face rising security threats, surveillance, and intimidation in digital spaces.
  • Responding to urgent and non-anticipated needs, some of which have emerged amid the COVID-19 sanitary crisis and/or other crises (including social, economic, and political crises) which pull many already poor, vulnerable, and marginalized groups and populations into increased and extreme poverty and social insecurity.

The how: Putting feminist values at the centre

With feminists at the table, the “how” is always as important as the “what”—and Activate is a vivid example.

This new report from the Equality Fund captures the process and co-development of Step Up/ Step Back approach, shares the experiences of the many funds that participated, and discusses some of the lessons and points of tensions along the way.

As the report makes clear, some key lessons have already emerged.

First, and foremost: A different way of making funding decisions is possible: Close to 50 percent of eligible funds decided to step back from funding, after self assessing their position in the context of other funds’ needs and priorities. This is tangible evidence that an approach grounded in mutual trust and collaboration can produce different and more impactful results for the achievement of our common goals.

Building on existing networks is essential for trust and collaboration: The Step Up/ Step Back model was possible thanks to years of community-building work led by Prospera, our  International Network of Women’s Funds and many others in the feminist funding ecosystem. Without our peers’ leadership, example, and willingness to innovate, efforts such as this first round of Activate funding—which stretch us and harness our collective power—would not have been possible.

Working with a trusted interlocutor is critical to success: We greatly benefited from having an Equality Fund program lead, Fadekemi (Kemi) Akinfaderin, who was a known and trusted member of the feminist fund community. The vulnerability that comes with ‘stepping back’ may have been met with less openness without her deep ties and credibility in the community. Leaders with trust and integrity make real change possible.

Ownership is a process and outcome: Engagement of the feminist funds community from the onset and throughout the participatory process built solidarity amongst the funds and ultimately led to a diversity of funds receiving resources, including ten national funds and seven funds founded less than five years ago. Transforming ownership from a buzzword to a practice requires consistent commitment and intention.

We must push the boundaries of existing funding parameters to facilitate innovation in grantmaking: We must continue to advocate to ensure that funding from governments’ international assistance programs accommodates participatory grantmaking models and better meets the needs and realities of feminist movements globally. Over the long term, this means governments must adopt funding policies and practices that unleash feminist values, rather than work against them. A critical component of this is investing directly in southern based organizations led by women, girls, and trans people, as this ensures that resources are placed in the hands of those driving the change agendas. This is a long journey that many sister funds have already embarked on and it requires the kind of flexible funding that is made available through Activate.

Traditional definitions of risk are obstacles to feminist funding: In order to robustly fund new and/or under-resourced feminist movements working in restrictive socio-political contexts, we need to re-evaluate risk analysis frameworks and focus on understanding the risk of not being able to fund key feminist agents of change. Risk assessments are deeply rooted in power; if we want to shift power we must also shift the very definition of risk from the beginning.

Sister funds that decided to step up and received funding through Activate also highlight learnings and reflections from the process. 

Grounding ourselves within a Feminist Relfexive Praxis: We must aim to move away from traditional practices of monitoring, evaluation, and learning (MEL) which are not only extractive but also work around problematic concepts of “value for money.” In order to work towards truly transformative change agendas, we need to be listening to and learning from the movements we support. We must understand intersectionality, multiple levels of power dynamics, complexity and non-linearity of change, vibrancy of voices, and differences in perspectives. And this needs to be a cyclical process, so that what we learn from the field is implemented in our programmes around grantmaking. This is in fact a unique selling point of the women’s funds and the feminist funding that we undertake. 

It’s about accountability: Feminist values of transparency and accountability are critical values that must guide our work. Accountability to each other and to the movements we support is key. Resources are a political issue and as women’s funds we hold these resources on behalf of the movements and for the movements. Hence the process of grantmaking needs to center the experiences, voices, and leadership of the feminist movements. The participatory method that we implement is not about “majoritarianism”—it’s about ensuring the most marginalized experiences are centered and their leadership recognized. At the same, as feminist funds advocating for resource justice, we constantly reflect on multiple levels of power and the ways it is manifested. For us it is about power with and not power over!

Looking ahead

From its conception to its funding, Activate is a testament to the integrity and power of all 44 funds who participated in our shared process. Whether stepping up or stepping back, each fund is an undeniable force for feminist change. 

Together we have been on a transformative learning journey on the power of community, collective decision making, and what is possible when we place our feminist values at the heart of a design process.

We are energized and ready to unleash—and sustain—a wave of resources for feminist activists whose vision and leadership are key to a just and joyful future.

We are excited to continue learning, growing, and collaborating in the years ahead.

At XOESE, we are very happy and thankful to all the sister Funds who step back to allow us to access Activate grant. Thanks to this support, we have been able to recruit and retain senior staff with increased experience which enable us to mobilize more resources and improve the quality and quantity of our support to women’s groups in Francophone countries.

XOESE, le Fonds pour les Femmes Francophones

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