Shifting Power and Redefining Philanthropy: Launching the Principles for Feminist Funding

Written by Beth Woroniuk

In a recent Guardian article “How Philanthropy Benefits the Super-Rich”, author Paul Vallely argues that the “common assumption that philanthropy automatically results in a redistribution of money is wrong.” He outlines how many powerful philanthropists avoid taxes and work in anti-democratic ways. Against this backdrop, we must ask: is a different practice of philanthropy, a more feminist practice, possible?

Philanthropy is in the headlines. The WE controversy has raised questions about how charitable organizations operate in Canada. The COVID-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement raise questions about how philanthropic organizations respond to crises and opportunities. Over the last year, Mackenzie Scott, the ex-wife of Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, contributed over US$1.7 billion to racial justice, LGBTIQ+ and public health organizations. As with everything, philanthropy is political.

COVID-19 is having a dramatic impact on women and feminist organizations, in Canada and around the world. Just one statistic: The United Nations estimates that by 2021, for every 100 men aged 25 to 34 living in extreme poverty, there will be 118 women, a gap that is expected to increase to 121 women per 100 men by 2030.

Now is a great time to ask: Can philanthropy be mobilized to support feminist futures? Are there philanthropists willing to bet on feminist organizations?

The Equality Fund believes yes.

We are working to build new and better philanthropic practices. Practices rooted in feminist values. Practices that support and nurture feminist change. We believe it is possible to move progressive donors beyond funding initiatives that aim to “benefit women and girls” to supporting the organizations leading movements and collective action.

And we’re not alone. We gain inspiration and are learning from so many building new visions of philanthropy.

At the global level, our sister women’s funds in the Prospera, the international network of women’s funds share good practices and lessons in feminist grantmaking. We were particularly inspired by the work of the Astraea Foundation for Lesbian Justice and their path breaking work on feminist funding principles. Foundations in Philanthropy Advancing Women’s Human Rights (PAWHR) mentor us and provide support in so many ways.

Our recent consultations with feminist activists, coordinated by the Association for Women’s Rights in International Development (AWID) had valuable insights on feminist philanthropy and excellent advice. And, of course, our relationships with our grantee partners are building blocks in constructing our practices as feminist funders.

We have learned the centrality of trust in building our own relationships, so the broader discussions of trust-based philanthropy inform and inspire.

Here in Canada, we are proud to partner with the Canadian Women’s Foundation (CWF) and Community Foundations of Canada (CFC), including one of its members, the Toronto Foundation.

For more than two years, we have worked with colleagues at CFC and CWF. Both organizations played important roles in the establishment of the Equality Fund. We continue to learn from their grantmaking, programming, and advocacy in Canada. Our new joint publication, Principles for Feminist Funding, is the latest product in this partnership.

Each organization brought its experience and dreams to the joint effort. Together we built a common language and found ways to bridge the differences in our starting points through our common visions for feminist futures.

This Principles document outlines our vision of feminist donors, donors that aim to ‘undo’ patriarchal and colonial structures and build new relationships and movements. It also sets out the type of funding that we aim to provide to our grantee partners: core, flexible, and predictable support that respects their time and well-being.

Power is inherent in philanthropic relationships. Philanthropists have money. Activists are making change but tend to work on shoestring budgets. By striving to live up to these feminist principles, we hope to ensure that these power dynamics are made explicit and that—together—we build relationships that transform rather than entrench inequalities. We also aim to make our movements stronger, more resilient, and more effective.

COVID-19 has highlighted the interlinkages of women’s rights issues in Canada and around the world. Discussions on how philanthropy can address women’s rights and gender equality at home and abroad offer bridging opportunities, bringing discussions of global development to new Canadian audiences.

Our Principles document is evergreen. We will add examples of what these principles look like in practice. For all three organizations this is a learning journey and we’re excited about the next chapter. Together we will refine these principles, sharing what we’re learning, and how we are transforming the philanthropy landscape.

The philanthropic world faces challenges. Returning to the Guardian piece mentioned above, Vallely argues that philanthropy can be compatible with justice, that progressive funders need to step up and work for social and political change. Feminist philanthropists can lead the way. For my part, I’m looking forward to seeing how our three organizations continue to build our common vision and improve our philanthropic and grantmaking practices. I’m excited to have activists in dialogue with philanthropists. And I’m excited to see how we can change how we talk about wealth, solidarity, power, decolonization, and gender justice in our new (and challenging) COVID-19 reality.

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