Gender transformative philanthropy? International Women's Day inspiration

March 8, 2017

Gender justice is one of the things that gets me out of bed in the morning. So is harnessing the power of financial resources for social change. On International Women’s Day, I’m reflecting on how the two can be woven together through well-informed philanthropy.


A key question for foundations interested in girls’ and women’s advancement is what organizations to invest in. Part of due diligence must be understanding if the leadership and governance of grantees reflects the communities they are supposed to serve. Who is informing and creating their strategies and programs and do they reflect communities’ priorities? Have communities empowered them to undertake their work?


I am reminded of the importance of this criterion each time there is a widely celebrated donation intended to address inequality, but funds flow to organizations whose community relevance and representation is questionable (just yesterday a philanthropic investment was announced to support Indigenous people’s advancement, yet how many of the recipient organizations actually have Indigenous leadership and governance?). Of course, the problem is rarely what gets funded, but what gets left out. I know of (and I’m sure you do too) so many community-led initiatives and priorities that are under-resourced but hold promise for deep change.


Some of the most subtle yet practical resources for donors on advancing gender justice through giving come from TrueChild, including “Gender Transformative Philanthropy: A Case for More Effective Giving”. Simply giving more to initiatives that have “women” or “girls” in them will not likely bring about they change we seek. Instead we have to look deeper and aim higher, understanding how gender norms operate and supporting initiatives that question them. Here’s how they explain the difference, based on the example of a massive international funder, the World Bank:


“After investing hundreds of millions of dollars in loans, grants, and other aid to improve equality for women and girls, the Bank found ... in matters of personal agency—education, reproductive health, women’s voice, and partner violence—little had changed. It was like there was a “ceiling” on making further gains. To investigate, they commissioned an extraordinary study that interviewed 4,000 people in 200 communities across two dozen countries. The results are striking: that ceiling was cultural gender norms. In every culture, deeply-embedded traditions of masculinity and femininity moved power and decision-making away from women and girls. The Bank concluded that the only way to generate new progress was to begin challenging gender norms. As one senior manager at the World Bank manager put it, ‘We’re not doing this because it’s trendy or politically correct—after all we’re data-driven economists— we’re doing it because the numbers show it works better.’”


Final shout out to FRIDA, The Young Feminist Fund. I love watching how this youth-led internationally-staffed fund is evolving, and encourage you to check them out for inspiration on #socialjusticephilanthropy 



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