Collaborations: Part 2 on funding women's rights

Mama Cash explores how funding women and girls translates (or doesn’t) into money for feminist movements. The second of three, this article examines the new landscape of feminist collaborations.

Nicky McIntyre Esther Lever
22 February 2017

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


Participants in a Community of Practice meeting in Amsterdam focusing on strengthening girls’ and young women’s activism and leadership. Credit: Mama Cash

How does the shift towards partnership and collaboration fit into the equation of quality funding for feminist movements Collaboration happens for a variety of reasons. Some funders collaborate in recognition of the interconnectedness of problems, recognising that we need multiple perspectives and skills to tackle issues at the scale needed to bring about change. Some aim to shift power dynamics within philanthropy, by centering the people who are most affected by injustice in their decision-making and practices. Some collaborate to be able to get access to funding. Some want to have more impact and they think collaboration will contribute. Some collaborate because of shrinking staffing and, thereby, find themselves needing to distribute funding as efficiently as they can with fewer people.

Funding mechanisms are shifting to encourage collaboration among organisations, funders and other stakeholders, sometimes with an assumption that this involves or creates ‘better’ funding.  It's too soon to tell whether this new tide of collaboration among women’s groups or among donors has led to better quality funding or not. There are positive developments like increased donor coordination with commitments to doing better together, but also challenges, but this has come with a heavy emphasis on bureaucracy in accessing, for example, European government funding. This section reflects on what’s working well. 

What’s working?

We see examples of feminist organisations working well together where funders have needed to catch up. For example, the Mesoamerican Women Human Rights Defenders Initiative (IM Defensoras) organised themselves in 2010 across hundreds of organisations into an effective coalition to support and advance the rights and well-being of women human rights defenders (WHRDS) in Mesoamerica, provide shelter and rapid response funding to ensure the safety of WHRDs, create a register of violations against WHRDs, conduct lobby and advocacy with data from the register with various multilateral bodies, and bring visibility to the attacks on WHRDs through a communications campaign. One member of the coalition was designated as the coordinating entity and received initial funding from the Dutch Postcode Lottery. This funding was shared with other members. After initial significant funding from the Dutch Postcode Lottery ended, other funders were asked to step up and keep the coalition going. They did and the coalition is still active. But instead of being able to coordinate their funding and support one coordinated proposal, the funders had to instead work individually with members of the IM Defensoras because of their respective funding priorities and limitations. What had been a relatively simple administrative process became a much more complicated and onerous one for all involved. 

Emilienne de Leon, the Executive Director of Prospera, the international network of women’s funds, is positive about the emerging trend of women’s funds collaborating with other feminist organisations to jointly access funding especially from government funders. She sees this as an approach to strengthen the women’s funding movement, and feminist movements overall. It moves us away from women’s funds and organisations being seen as implementers or subcontracted parties, but rather as legitimate actors in the advancement of feminist agendas—and cross-movement agenda building. In addition, women’s funds are increasingly seeking to collaborate across movements. 

For example, Mama Cash is part of a consortium that is led by a women’s fund in Central America (Fondo Centroamericano de Mujeres) and includes a Dutch NGO (Both Ends); this consortium, the Global Alliance for Green and Gender Action (GAGGA) is one of the strategic partnerships funded by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs for five years, starting in 2016. GAGGA sets out to build linkages between women’s and environmental movements. Together, the consortium aims to unite and strengthen the capabilities of grassroots organisations and funds, and use the momentum generated by collective power to lobby and advocate for women’s right to water, food security and a clean, healthy and safe environment. Mama Cash entered into this partnership believing that by sharing learning and expertise across movements, for instance by facilitating regional meetings, this partnership will result in not only more, but also better funding. 

IM Defenders (c)JASS_Honduras 20130125_1.jpg

Protesters in Honduras face the police. Credit: Just Associates

Among private funders, the creation of Philanthropy Advancing Women’s Human Rights (PAWHR) is such a promising development. It formed in 2014 as a network and community of private foundations and philanthropic advisors that “mobilises funders to share and leverage knowledge, deepen networks, and expand and drive resources […] to advance women’s human rights in the Global South and North”. PAWHR formed because participants did not have an opportunity to discuss joint challenges and strategies related to women’s human rights. The network seeks to have field-level analysis and insights to inform members’ own funding priorities and practices, and to share lessons learned and successes in order to influence other philanthropic spaces to fund women’s rights. PAWHR is now seeking to develop stronger and more effective information loops, where its members and women’s rights organisations know what the (resource) needs are, gaps in the funding landscape, and trends in the field. PAHWR could act as an umbrella to collect information and have women’s movements share their concerns with a collective of – rather than individual – funders so they can be more responsive.

Participatory funds such as FRIDA | The Young Feminist Fund and the Red Umbrella Fund for sex worker rights, are seizing opportunities and responding to gaps in the broader landscape—channeling resources directly to those most affected by inequalities and discrimination, as well as shifting the practice of philanthropy and grantmaking to become more inclusive and self-led. These funds are participatory in their very nature where those who are most impacted by injustice are making decisions about the strategic direction of the funds, how funding is allocated and to whom. In doing so, these funds are contributing to shifting power dynamics and are increasing the value and quality of that funding. 

Another positive trend is that some governments are recognising the need to scale-up direct funding to civil society in the Global South. Some make it compulsory for grantees in donor countries to fund local partners. Others are reorienting funding towards national offices rather than headquarters. The Dutch Accountability Fund is one mechanism by which funding is made available, via embassies, to directly reach civil society organisations in the Global South. These trends do not mean that feminist organisations are necessarily included or prioritised, with questions being asked about why women’s rights organisations deserve “special treatment”. More work is needed to ensure that these donors understand and value the unique contributions made by women’s organisations and movements. 

The recently launched She Decides – Global Fundraising Initiative, initiated by Dutch Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation, Lilianne Ploumen, is an encouraging sign of governments taking leadership in times of regressive political actions. With the Global Gag Rule reinstated and expanded to include all public health funding, this poses a significant step back and new funding challenge. The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs took action and quickly set up a funding initiative that can be directly supported by individuals, organizations and governments alike.  The Dutch government put in 10 million euros to start with and has set an ambitious fundraising target aiming to address the funding gap of 600 million USD left by the Global Gag Rule. Several governments have agreed to come on board with funding; funding is managed by Rutgers NL, a Dutch International NGO working on sexual and reproductive health and rights. Important to monitor will be where this funding goes—again, who has access and what are the terms for receiving funding? 

Women’s, girls’ and trans* rights groups are finding ways to collaborate to leverage activist power, unite movements and access greater funding – even as the rise of conservatism becomes more visible around the world. While many collaborations are explicit in their aim to channel new and better quality funding to women’s rights groups locally and nationally, the shape and administrative structures that collaborations often entail make for slow progress. It is too soon to tell what the overall impact of the push for collaborations will be.

We also need to be explicit about power in partnerships. Research commissioned by the Global Philanthropy Project emphasised that partnerships require a process where “power dynamics are transparent and equal, and where [civil society organisations] can not only co-design project design and implementation, but also overarching funding policy and strategy.” Without this in place, the trend for collaboration can easily reproduce existing models where agenda setting and decision-making is centered with funders in the Global North, excluding organisations in the Global South and East. 

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