In June 2021, the Equality Fund embarked on a journey to reimagine traditional competitive grantmaking models. The impetus was the design of a new funding program—Activate—which flows resources to feminist funds, supporting their capacities to move money to their own networks of partners.
As a feminist fund, the Equality Fund considers itself a proud part of this diverse community. We are peers of different sizes and trajectories, working in different geographies, at multiple levels and collectively organizing in different configurations and networks, including Prospera – International Network of Women’s Funds. For the design of the Activate program, instead of replicating old grantmaking models rooted in scarcity and competition, we engaged with this vibrant community of peers to co-design a new approach. Together, we set out to build a non-competitive grantmaking model with feminist values of collaboration, solidarity, and community at the core. We called this model Step Up/Step Back.
During the process, the feminist funds successfully considered the community’s resourcing needs and priorities as they decided whether to step up for funding or to step back and wait for future rounds. In the end, 23 funds stepped up to receive a total of $14 million CAD in flexible multi-year grants, while close to 50 percent of eligible funds decided to step back.
This report uncovers the lessons behind this journey. It details the process and co-development of Step Up/Step Back, shares the experiences of the funds that participated, and discusses some of the points of tension that arose in the process.
Through it all, a set of key learnings emerge:
- A different way of making funding decisions is possible: Nearly half of the eligible funds decided to step back from funding, after self assessing their position in the context of the broader community’s resourcing needs and priorities.
- 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 – International Network of Women’s Funds and others in the feminist funding ecosystem.
- Working with a trusted interlocutor is critical to success: We greatly benefited from having a program lead that was a known and trusted member of the feminist funds community. The notion of voluntarily stepping back from funding may not have been met with as much openness without her deep ties and credibility in the community.
- Ownership is a process and outcome: Engagement of the feminist funds community from the onset and throughout the participatory process reinforced solidarity amongst the funds.
- Collective power in decision-making results in outcomes that are representative of diversity in the community: Taking a collective approach to deciding funding priorities ultimately led to a diversity of funds receiving resources, including 10 national funds and seven funds founded less than five years ago.
- Pushing the boundaries of existing funding parameters is key: Our community continues to advocate for government funding that accommodates participatory grantmaking models and better meets the needs and realities of feminist movements globally.
- 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 expand risk analysis frameworks and focus on understanding the risk of not being able to fund key feminist agents of change.