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Quantity and quality: Part 1 on funding women’s rights

The first international women’s fund explores how funding women and girls translates (or doesn’t) into money for feminist movements. Part 1 of 3, this article defines quality in funding.

This is Part One of a 3-part series. See Part Two and Part Three. 

Mama Cash is an international funder supporting groups, organisations, networks and women’s funds that are led by women, girls and trans people.

The Red Flag Women’s Movement, Sri Lanka. Credit: Mama Cash

Never has there been more awareness or consensus in the international funding community about the importance of including women and girls in efforts to bring about lasting change. Various initiatives focused on women and girls have been launched in the past several years, including from governments and foundations (corporate as well as private).

Central to this consensus is an increasing emphasis on partnership—among donors themselves, but also with regards to their grantees: asking for organisations to work together as a pre-condition to be eligible to access funding. What does partnership—often experienced as collaborative work—mean in terms of the quality of funding available to women’s, girls and trans* rights movements? How are funders supporting movement agendas, and how do we make sure that we as funders don’t get in the way, but instead resource and support movements? 

Here quality funding refers to resources that are flexible and supportive of feminist agendas, moving from project support to core, operating support that can cover the priorities set by feminist groups. Further, quality funding is about more than the types of grants or their duration. It also means critically examining who can access this funding and who can’t—and why; who makes decisions based on what assumptions and criteria; what thresholds are put into place that are exclusionary; and what is counted as meaningful impact. 

It is with this definition in mind that this short series explores the quality of funding for women’s, girls’ and trans* rights organisations currently and whether the demand of donors that women’s organisations formally collaborate has been backed with better quality funding, as well as how the trend towards more donor collaboration has affected the quality of funding more broadly.

The recent election of Donald Trump in the United States, on top of Brexit, and in advance of multiple European elections represent a trend towards nationalism, nativism and populism which are already resulting, or will likely result, in a targeting of feminist and queer organising, a closing of the space for civil society, increasing Islamophobia, and an increase in state-sponsored rhetoric about traditional values and heteronormativity. It prescribes and attempts to enforce traditional patriarchal values, heteronormativity, and national identity. This puts those advancing women’s rights, gender justice, the rights of LGBTQI people, racial justice, the rights of religious and ethnic groups, and others at particular risk—they are on the frontlines and will need even more support. It also means that some of the (especially) government funding that was going to these strategies and populations in the past may be diverted to other priorities.  This is critical for us to address as funders, individually and collectively, as we will need to step up and support – with financial and non-financial resources— organizing led by these communities around the world.

The state of funding for women’s rights

Mama Cash is located in the women’s funding movement as well as the funder community. As a women’s fund we both raise money and give it away in grants. Mama Cash recognises that how we fund, and where we allocate resources as funders, is inherently political. Separate from fundraising for our own work, we seek to shift peer donors’ practice to be more transformative in their giving. As we navigate the funding landscape in our dual role as funder and grantee, we recognise that more funding does not necessarily equate to better funding, and that without the latter, the former may not further feminist movement agendas. What are the trends in the quality of money available for feminist organising? 

The major and oft-quoted report by the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID), Where is the Money? revealed that women’s rights groups are chronically underfunded, with average budgets globally around 20,000 USD. The research showed that the large majority of women’s organisations remain small not by choice, but because they have difficulty accessing resources that would allow them to implement their own programmatic visions and plans. Emily Esplen, at the time Team Leader - Gender Equality and Women's Rights at the OECD's Development Co-operation Directorate, found that just 8% of gender focused aid goes directly to civil society in the Global South—this excludes funding via Northern intermediaries or organisations that subcontract to ‘local partners’. Importantly, in November 2016, the DAC GENDERNET published a study on DAC donor approaches to supporting women’s rights organisations, which will shed further light on these trends.  Recent research by the International Human Rights Funders Group shows that 21% of foundation human rights funding in 2013 focused on women and girls—with the largest percentage (approximately 35%) going to Northern America and the lowest percentage (approximately 0.7%) going to the Caribbean. This research does not show a breakdown of who accesses this funding— are these women-led organisations or generalist organisations working with or for women and girls?

We need to uncover this type of data and use it to inform our discussions as and with funders. It is not just about how much money is out there, but also analysing who is getting access to it so that we can deepen our understanding of whether this funding for ‘women and girls’ is contributing to feminist agendas and transformative change or not. 

In pursuit of quality funding

A simple place to start is to continue shifting the focus away from project-specific support and towards long-term flexible funding. This is not a new insight – there are articles illustrating why unrestricted funding matters – but it remains a major challenge in practice. Limitations on the percentage of a project budget that can be spent on overhead costs can mean that a project barely pays for its own administration and the staff who apply for grants. So even organisations that seek to grow their capacities to mobilise resources (so that they can work toward a responsibly resourced model that will allow them to do their core work creatively and flexibly) often cannot, because there is no money available to pay for long-term sustainability. 

The Dutch MDG3 fund was groundbreaking at its time in 2006 and serves as an example of strong, quality funding where women’s rights organisations, networks and funds from the Global South were able to access large amounts of funding that was flexible and responsive to their needs. Theo Sowa, Executive Director of the African Development Women’s Fund said this initiative “helped really tackle inequality and it understood the value of movement building.” Yet, this kind of funding has become increasingly rare, signaling a worrying trend in terms of the quality of funding. We have seen this occur recently with the Dutch FLOW2 fund, whose final awards were limited to coalitions led by large INGOs, mostly in the Global North—with, before appeals, no women’s rights organisations, networks or funds from the Global South accessing this funding directly when the announcement was made in December 2015. The barriers that Flow 2 introduced in the application and review process made it very hard for women’s organisations to succeed—raising questions about accessibility. For example, the minimum application amount increased by two million from FLOW1 to five million euros, and emphasized detailed theories of change. Around 60% of applicants did not pass the threshold criteria, compared to 34% for FLOW 1. This also raises questions about the costs of preparing applications, which may increase as formats and requirements become more complex.  As funders, the question of access is important—how does our approach to due diligence maintain a status quo of unequal access to funding? How can we as funders aim to be more transformative versus merely transactional in our practices? The Bay Area Justice Funders Network has released a “Choir Book” with practical tips to address precisely these questions. 

There are a few positive examples in recent years, including Amplify Change, a new fund for reproductive health and rights advocacy predominantly for Global South organisations. Resourced initially by the Dutch and Danish governments and two private foundations, this fund was awarded to a consortium that includes two women’s funds, enabling the development of a mechanism influenced by women’s rights principles and leading to a more enabling (if not perfect) access for direct funding for feminist organisations. 

Red Nacional de Mujeres de la Madre Tierra strengthens the capacity, advocacy, and leadership skills of women affected by destructive and exploitative impacts of industries in Bolivia on their lands. Credit: Alexandra Meleán Anzoleaga

Nevertheless, shifts in the economic climate, particularly as it relates to austerity measures instituted after the 2008 financial and economic implosion, are resulting in new competition for fewer resources, and impacting the quality of funding available. Funding for international development within the European context is under scrutiny, with budgets being reduced to cover shortfalls, and discourse being framed around the need to show concrete impact and results over short grant periods. Staff in government aid agencies have been reduced, meaning they have fewer people to manage relatively large sums of grant money, resulting in a move to make fewer, but larger grants to organisations that can demonstrate having effective finance and monitoring systems in place—this directly affects the quality of funding available as it sets a high threshold for accessing these resources. 

In the Netherlands, as a result of budget cuts to the foreign aid budget, well-funded organisations, particularly Dutch INGOs, could no longer make their budget and needed to restructure and compete with women’s rights organisations for resources. This trend constitutes a worrying progression away from the quality funding that Mama Cash and our peers advocate for. Even for those of us who can access fewer, larger grants, we are restricted by region, issue-area and sometimes professional criteria in our ability to distribute it to women, girls and trans* rights groups working locally and nationally. In the face of threats and actual harm to women human rights defenders and other girls and trans* activists, their exclusion from funding for social change, community empowerment and security can be literally lethal.


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