Did you know that feminist groups are the single most important factor in advancing women’s rights? Yes, that’s right. This isn’t my opinion, but a fact based on extensive research carried out around the world.
Take for example the 2012 study by Professors Mala Htun and S. Laurel Weldon on why governments take action to stop violence against women. Htun and Weldon analyzed data from 70 countries over 40 years—a huge data set—to understand what exactly had catalyzed government action. And they found that it was, without a doubt, the existence and activity of an autonomous feminist movement in the country. Other factors that might have been expected to be crucial, like women in government or a progressive or left-wing government, while sometimes helpful, were not the key driver. Similarly, a 2018 study by Professors Alice J. Kang and Aili Mari Tripp analyzing data from 50 African countries found that gender quotas in politics and government were driven by local women’s coalitions, not by international aid or the global women’s movement.
Professor Weldon and her research team have gone on to create The Feminist Mobilization Index, a tool that gives a more complete picture of the impact of feminist activism from 1975 to 2016 across 126 countries. The Index shows that, over the last 50 years, women’s movements have not only spurred action to end violence against women, but have also contributed to closing the gender wage gap, thereby improving women’s economic livelihoods. Feminist mobilization also decreased child marriage and increased support for women’s participation in politics.
Yet, despite this clear and mounting evidence, very little funding has gone to feminist groups and women’s movements. How little? Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy tracks US-based charitable giving by individuals, foundations, and corporations across all sectors. In 2016, only 1.6 percent or $7.1 billion of all donations went to women’s and girls’ groups, according to their Women and Girls Index. But you might say, that’s a lot of money in absolute terms! Actually, it’s not. When you compare it to the $129 billion going annually from US donors to religious institutions (and yes, several of these institutions are actively working to curtail women’s rights) or the $99 billion Americans spent on their pets in 2020, you can see how little funding goes to women’s rights.
Outside the US, the picture is even bleaker. According to research by AWID (Association for Women’s Rights in Development), in 2017, only 0.13% of Overseas Development Assistance (funding by governments) and 0.42% of foundation grants went to women’s and girls’ groups in the global South. That’s $198 million in ODA, and $422.3 million in foundation grants—much less than what is given in the US. Yet some of these same donors are, on paper, committed to advancing gender equality. They simply don’t fund the most effective actors. As a result, according to AWID, women’s groups in the global South still report a median annual budget of $30,000.
Given the dire impact of the COVID and climate crises on women’s lives worldwide, the rise of misogynistic, “anti-gender” authoritarian leaders, the impact of war on women and children, and the growing attacks on women’s bodily autonomy from the US to Iran, this situation needs to change urgently. It would be fantastic if every person who can afford it gave feminist groups as much as they give to their church, mosque or temple; if we had $129 billion a year to fight for women’s rights. Imagine what we could do with that! But since that’s not an imminent prospect, let’s take a look at other new sources of funding for feminist groups.
The large gifts by MacKenzie Scott are one such source. Scott was previously married to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, and received $36 billion in her 2019 divorce settlement. Since 2020, she has given $12 billion to 1,257 groups. And even after granting those significant sums, Scott is still reportedly worth about $33 billion today, so more grants are likely to come. (How billionaires have thrived over the last few years, and whether billionaire philanthropy is a good thing, are topics for another newsletter.)
Scott’s gifts have gone to progressive causes, foremost among them youth and education. There is no application process, and The Bridgespan Group (a US-based “social impact” offshoot of the Bain & Company management consultancy) appears to be involved in making recommendations. Scott leaves it to the groups to disclose the amount they receive, although she has promised to set up a website with better information. More transparency would be welcome, as well as a clearer sense of how a non-profit can get on Scott’s radar. Panorama Global, a consultancy that tracks Scott’s grants, estimates that of the 1,275 groups she has funded to date, about 44 are women’s groups. Only a handful of theseare in the global South; this needs to increase.
Scott’s gifts are certainly generous and especially well directed. Looking at the list of her grantees, I am impressed by the choices. Among the fabulous feminist groups that have received a large and unexpected gift from Scott: MADRE ($15 million), FRIDA—The Young Feminist Fund ($10 million) and Urgent Action Fund ($20 million). Other great groups, such as TICAH Kenya, Global Fund for Women and African Women’s Development Fund, have acknowledged or reported a Scott gift without disclosing the amount. Planned Parenthood of America and affiliates (not technically women's groups) have received $275 million, and Girl Scouts USA just announced they had received $84.5 million. Based on theavailable data, I would estimate that women’s groups have received a collective $1 billion over two years (if the gifts to Planned Parenthood and Girl Scouts are included). Recipients uniformly describe these large gifts as transformational. But they have also voiced private concerns about the unforeseen consequences of receiving a windfall grant, such as their other donors pulling out, and increased hacking attempts and cyber attacks.
Another new source of funding to watch is the Equality Fund, which, in 2019, was selected to receive CA$300 million from the Canadian government to support grantmaking to women’s groups in countries eligible for Official Development Assistance (ODA). In their 2021–2022 annual report, the Equality Fund reported grants of CA$9.1 million to 179 groups in 76 countries. They also have a specific fund for Caribbean women’s and LGBTQ+ groups (CA$4.8 million over five years), which supports 26 groups in the region. Their grantees are splendid—many of them longstanding leaders of the women’s movement in their countries, such as Naripokkho in Bangladesh or Ruta Pacífica de las Mujeres (Women’sRoad to Peace) in Colombia.
An intriguing feature of the Equality Fund is its gender-lens investment (GLI) arm, aimed at ending “artificial scarcity,” and liberating women’s movements from the constant grind of applying for meager funds. The Fund aims to mobilize CA$225 million from public and private sources over the next 15 years, and invest it in women-led and women-focused funds, products and businesses, with a view to ensuring gender equity; the revenue will in turn support its grantmaking to feminist movements, in a kind of virtuous circle. The Fund is in the process of creating a number of investment products to do this, such as The Equality Fund Private Debt Fund.
Gender-lens investing is not without its critics: it is still something of a niche field; it is too focused on women in the C-suite and on boards rather than on broader gender impact; and GLI funds are still primarily invested in North America, although Sub-Saharan Africa is closing in. And, like all investment, GLI relies on mechanisms of capital accumulation and economic production (think unbridled growth, cuts in labor costs) that can be the source of harm to vulnerable populations. Can the Equality Fund sidestep the obvious pitfalls while yielding significant funding for women’s rights? It's clear that women-led companies have better returns on investment . The Fund's focus on choosing the right metrics for social responsibility and true gender impact is worth watching. And now thatthe Equality Fund has thoughtfully and deliberately built up its operations, I hope it will greatly accelerate its giving.
Another groundbreaking contribution by Scott and the Equality Fund to the field of philanthropy rests on the kind of funding they are giving: general support without restrictions, based on trust. This kind of funding is surprisingly rare, and incredibly precious to non-profits. Trust-based grantmaking as a movement is gathering steam. Yet it’s still proving hard for many donors to let go of the illusion of control and to trust activists to do what they’ve already devoted their lives to! Incredibly, many of the foundations that had increased general support and simplified application processes during the COVID pandemic, are now reportedly rolling back some of those changes. For this reason, the example set by Scott and the Equality Fund is all the more significant.
With unrestricted funding, feminist groups can devote their time to advancing women’s rights, rather than file reports to donors. They are accountable to their community, rather than to an American or Canadian donor. They can make the kinds of investments that restricted grants often forbid, such as equipment, rent, accounting software, training, even extra staff. (Yes, restricted grants often forbid or limit any money going to administrative costs—which are precisely the resources and tools groups need to do their work.) If they are an intermediary women’s fund, like the African Women’s Development Fund, they can re-grant unrestricted money to grassroots groups without conditions, instead of being forced to pass on those onerous reporting requirements. (Only 10% of the funding AWDF receives is unrestricted, says its CEO, Françoise Moudouthe.) In a sector starved for sufficient, sustainable and flexible funds, these are important and necessary contributions to women’s rights and gender justice.
The Lilly Women and Girls Index shows that, by 2019, the US annual total giving for women and girls had inched up to $7.9 billion, with additional funds directed mostly to reproductive health organizations. I imagine US giving for abortion rights has continued to go up since 2020, and hopefully not at the expense of other issues the women’s movement is fighting for. The threats to women’s rights and the central role played by women’s movements across the world should motivate donors to increase their giving across the board. What is clear is that we are still a long way from the kind of investment we need, especially in the global South. So, we can’t let up—A luta continua!
If you are based in the US and would like to contribute to feminist movements in the global South as the year comes to an end, please consider the Global Fund for Women. Are you in Canada? You can make a donation to the Equality Fund. If you are in Africa, donate to the African Women’s Development Fund.
In feminist funding solidarity,