‘Doing Philanthropy Differently’

Finding a feminist way forward in the global funding ecosystem

Let’s go behind the jargon. This was the spirit of our gathering on February 8 for a conversation about our role and potential in the global funding ecosystem. And once again, our community did not disappoint. At its core, feminist philanthropy is deeply personal and political. We know it because we live it. At the same time, it takes place within a global, nuanced, and complex system, and some of the terms we use can be intimidating and obscure. We agreed to step back—together—to break it all down, and a clearer understanding of our potential came shining through. 

We are deeply grateful to our guide, Angelika Arutyunova, whose expertise and living commitment to this work made it all possible. We’re sharing our takeaways from the wisdom that emerged, both from Angelika and from our community in return. 

Understanding the feminist funding ecosystem 

From women’s funds to foundations to the private sector and international development institutions, the feminist funding ecosystem is filled with many moving parts and players. And here’s the challenge: currently, all of these different types of funders are working in separation—and most funding never makes it to the feminist movements and women’s rights organizations addressing gender injustice at its roots. The goal is to move toward a more dynamic, accountable, and interactive system—one that reaches feminist movements deeply and sustainably and is shaped by their self-identified needs and priorities.  

Realizing the potential of private philanthropy—and challenging its old rules

Within this ecosystem, private philanthropy brings beautiful and exciting potential. Unlike governments, for example, we don’t have to navigate extensive bureaucratic restrictions. Our funding is not constantly at risk in an upcoming election. In turn, we can take more risks with our funding, absorb some of the risks that movement groups usually must shoulder, and push the boundaries of our ecosystem by challenging outdated notions of risk itself. In the past, for example, new or unregistered groups, especially those led by racialized and marginalized communities, were often deemed too risky for significant support. We can lift up the risk of not supporting many of the most innovative changemakers working today. 

We must also disrupt the deep-seated race for measurable “impact.” Movement-led change takes decades and is never linear or predictable. Feminist philanthropy is, in part, about truly letting go of our own need for “impact” as we see it. It is understanding that we cannot predict the future or know how the movement leaders we support will experiment with and ultimately lead change. It’s a case where unlearning is one of our most important roles.

So how do we DO feminist philanthropy?

Think about how you can channel your resources into movements who need the oxygen, the space, and the trust to sit down and think ‘what’s next for us as a society?’

Angelika Arutyunova
Be clear on your intentions

From “equity” to “equality” to “gender justice” to “women’s rights”, different words are used across the feminist funding ecosystem. While related, they have distinct meanings, and considering them clearly is fundamental to setting goals for your work. Angelika walked us through each term and then how they interact to eventually lead to full equality. “Women’s rights and empowerment”, for example, is often a soft entry point that promotes expansion of choice. When coupled with gender justice–a recognition of the systemic oppression of women and non-binary people, as well as equity–the understanding that we do not, as a result, all start at the “same place,” we are able to dig into the complexities of feminism. These deeper understandings can help guide our role as philanthropists more clearly. 

Use an intersectional lens

An intersectional analysis is a perspective that acknowledges the interaction of gender with other social markers of difference including (but not limited to) age, race, class, caste, religion, ability, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and sex characteristics. An intersectional approach helps to more deeply understand the layered, complex oppressions faced by many women, particularly in the context of heteronormative white supremacy. As philanthropists, this helps us understand where resources are most needed. Moreover, it acknowledges that resources with restrictions from those who have benefited from colonial patriarchy can never fully lead to revolutionary change. 

Analyze your power

As feminists, we know that understanding power is fundamental. And that includes our own. As philanthropists, we must be aware of our power and privilege in our spaces. And we also must recognize that this is nuanced because our power can shift and change as our environments change. With honesty and openness, a power analysis is not about shaming. Instead, it’s a process of noting the reality in which we’re coming to the table, and the biases and opportunities that result. A more effective and authentic role as a philanthropist is the result. 

“Fund movements, not issues!”

The traditional question asked by so many philanthropists—what is the most important issue?—is actually a trap. Because there is no single issue or cause that will transform systemic injustice. Rather, we should be channeling resources into the people and movements who bear the brunt of those systems and have been denied the “oxygen and space” (resources) to dismantle and transform them on their own terms. Instead of chasing a certain issue, we need to fund the organizers and the people who are putting forward ideas and change. That means letting go of a donor-driven outcome. Instead, we are on a learning journey with communities that have been systematically oppressed—and we can channel resources to them and let them lead the way to lasting solutions. 

In your own words

As always, our own conversation during the event sparked both powerful and practical insights. Angelika asked: What does feminist philanthropy mean to us—in our own words? And we loved the answers, so we’re playing them back for all of us to enjoy.

Feminist Philanthropy at the Equality Fund

The good news is that the Equality Fund, alongside so many sister funds and allies, has already been working to incorporate Principles for Feminist Funding into grantmaking in very real and exciting ways. Our Step up/Step Back approach, rooted in learnings from Indigenous-led movements and organizations supporting women’s funds, was one such example. The full report covering how the process was built and what it accomplished can be read here

Looking to learn more? Reach out to our team at [email protected]. Thank you again to every member of our community who joined us for this powerful conversation. We are excited to bring this rich learning to our journey ahead.

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