Radically Sensible: Feminist Philanthropy in Global Health

Tiffany Nassiri-Ansari

In Conversation With, the Lancet Commission on Gender and Global Health’s seminar series, returned with a second episode on May 12th. In Radically sensible: Feminist philanthropy in global health, Commissioner Jessica Horn discussed the importance of feminist philanthropy within global health funding with featured speaker Latanya Mapp-Frett, President and CEO of Global Fund for Women. The session was moderated by Tiffany Nassiri-Ansari, a member of the Commission’s Secretariat.

This webinar was co-convened with UNU-IIGH and the Gender & Health Hub. Commissioner Horn and speakers were joined by facilitator and Commission Co-Chair Prof. Pascale Allotey, fellow Commissioners, and livestream audiences on Zoom, Twitter, and YouTube. A recording of the hour-long webinar is publicly available on the Commission’s YouTube channel.

Setting the scene

Allotey opened the session with some reflections on the impact of COVID-19, which has simultaneously highlighted inequities and created opportunities for change. However, she warned that the nature of this change is “politically charged, with significant risk of further exacerbating injustice in the interest of particular types of responses to the pandemic”. The ramifications on funding have been significant, with major funding pulled out from developed programs and poverty reduction. With the pandemic shaping a preference for technological fixes, low- and middle-income countries have been left stranded due to a reluctance to share technological know-how or acknowledge contributions and expertise from “less powerful spaces of influence”. Ultimately, Allotey noted that “financial resources remain a powerful driver and hamper our efforts to flip this narrative”.

The attitudes and values driving the dearth of technological transfer and LMIC engagement are familiar to those working within the Commission, and these realities have shaped the Secretariat’s decolonial feminist approach to public engagement. Drawing upon the decolonial scholarship of Maria Lugones, Boaventura de Sousa Santos, and more, the Secretariat acknowledges that normative ideas of gender, health, and gender and health are undeniably colonial, both in their historical origins and contemporary operationalisations, and seeks to challenge this status quo by seeking out the voices, stories, and successes that are crucial to a better future for gender and health yet continue to be marginalised by the mechanisms of coloniality.

Slide with quotes on decoloniality and decolonial feminism from Boaventura de Sousa Santos and Maria Lugones, respectively.

Nassiri-Ansari presented the Secretariat’s latest engagement initiative, the Changemakers workshop series, which works with youth-led grassroots feminist organisations in sub-Saharan Africa to understand past successes and envision future agendas. The programme’s primary intent is to learn with and from, as well as to co-create meaningful outcomes through equal partnerships. The Secretariat’s decolonial feminist approach included pre-workshop conversations with each partner organisation to better understand their needs and expectations, and it was through these initial conversations that the limits of current funding models became clear.

Despite increasing acknowledgement that ‘universal’ solutions, more often than not designed in the global North, are not an effective route to change and that grassroots actors are best positioned to understand and solve the challenges faced by their communities, this crucial body of work continues to be overlooked and underfunded within the broader landscape of global health funding. This circles back to ideas of (de)coloniality, as current funding mechanisms continue to operate based on colonial notions of what counts as ‘good’ evidence, what expertise looks like, and where success stories can be found.

Given the clear limitations of current funding mechanisms, this session introduced feminist philanthropy as not just an alternative, but a new model for funders. For the Secretariat, both feminist philanthropy and decolonial feminism are an extension of feminist standpoint epistemology/ies, the conviction that every person has valuable knowledge because, not despite of, the fact that their knowledge is uniquely situation to their own contexts and communities. Applied to a funding model, this mindset compels funders to treat valuable knowledge as such and challenges conventional ideas of what and who is worth funding.

Initial reflections on feminist philanthropy

“What does feminist philanthropy mean to you?”

Moving onto the panel discussion, Nassiri-Ansari posed the above question to both speakers to probe their personal understandings and operationalisations of feminist philanthropy. Mapp-Frett drew a connection between the historical and the contemporary, reflecting on childhood memories of watching her grandmothers and other women in her Philadelphia community coming together to raise funds for legal fees, healthcare, education, and entrepreneurship. “This is what women do with money,” she stressed, going on to point out that “the real tragedy is that we are still convincing people that [feminist philanthropy] is the right thing to do”.

Horn added to the historical origins of feminist philanthropy by tracing its roots back to women’s funds such as Mama Cash and Global Fund for Women, which took “a model that has existed in communities for a long time” to a global level, with particular support for work happening in the global South. She framed feminist philanthropy as an exercise in learning from community practices and scaling up “this idea that feminist vision and feminist transformation has always been for the benefit of everybody”.

Quote from Latanya Mapp-Frett: "Feminist funding means shifting power to historically marginalised communities, including women, girls, and gender nonconforming people".

In times of crises, Mapp-Frett and Global Fund for Women believe that it is even more important to support women who have proven themselves to be the most effective agents for change, working on the frontlines and responding to their community’s immediate needs. Despite this track record, however, Mapp-Frett shared that “less than 1% of gender equality funding reaches the grassroots”. Horn pointed out similar findings from “Where is the money for women’s rights?”, a research project started by the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) in 2005 which “created an evidence base for understanding the patterns of funding globally for women’s rights… and the deficit in funding”.

Both speakers emphasised the feminist philanthropic model of flexible and core funding that “centres the leadership of women, gender nonconforming people, and people facing additional marginalisations”, and in so doing supports work that is by and for those most affected by the issues at hand. The gradual adoption of these models and values by larger foundations is particularly heartening for Horn, who spoke on the need for gender equality advocacy and initiatives at all levels, from the local to the global.

Feminist philanthropy as a trust-based model not only provides flexibility in how it funds, but also creates resilience through long-term support and accords respect to community organisations with experience and expertise, something that Horn said “could do with more engagement in the mainstream philanthropy sector”.

Panel discussion: Feminist philanthropy as the way forward

“What are the challenges and shortcomings within current models of funding, and why is the status quo so resistant to change?”

Picking up on Horn’s earlier comments about respect, Mapp-Frett identified silo funding as not only a shortcoming in the current landscape, but “a form of disrespect” in how it reduces women and women’s lives to oversimplified components such as reproductive rights or education. Citing Kimberlé Crenshaw’s work on intersectionality, Mapp-Frett advocated for an approach which acknowledges that women “experience multiple and overlapping sources of oppression” simultaneously and constantly, and shifts priority-setting power from funders to women. In so doing, Global Fund for Women has been able to collaborate with and support partners who demand “that gender justice movements reflect an anti-patriarchal, anti-racial, and decolonial principle all together”.

Approaching the question from a different angle, Horn pointed out that grant-makers are sometimes stuck “between a rock and a hard place” which limits their ability to be part of the change they want to see. Within spaces of bilateral funding in particular, the use of taxpayer money can leave funders beholden and accountable to the scrutiny of the electorate, leading to “very tightly designed and accounted for funding arrangements”. Private philanthropy has a role to play here as they do not face the same constraints, and can lead the charge for a change in this dynamic that gives grassroots organisations more breathing space.

Quote from Jessica Horn: "It's really difficult to solve complex long-term problems with short-term money".

Both speakers identified current grant cycles as a significant challenge to the work of grassroots organisations, which often deal with very complex challenges that cannot be solved within two or three short years. Horn drew on evidence-based prevention of intimate partner violence through norm change as an example of projects which achieve change within a short timeframe, but are not sufficiently resourced to protect these gains against backlash in the long run. The lack of long-term funding is further compounded by the lack of core funding, which together form resource constraints that significantly hamper organisations’ ability to build leadership and resilience. Mapp-Frett underscored the importance of adequate and sustained support, stating that “we really have to invest in this work because it is the only thing that is going to mean lasting social change”.

“How do we mainstream learnings and successes from the grassroots as evidence that the shift to feminist philanthropy is necessary, possible, and needs to be scaled up?”

Mapp-Frett suggested that the onus is on funders to look for actors and successes, rather than waiting for organisations to bring solutions to them. She suggested that the same technology employed for search and advertising algorithms could be put to good use in this regard, by making it easier for funders to identify and connect with emerging gender justice movements around the world. In terms of scaling up, a mindset shift is required to understand that scaling up does not mean taking programs from one context and imposing them upon another; rather, it is about scaling up discourses to create more space for conversation, representation and participation in terms of diverse leadership, and sharing of solutions.

Quote from Latanya Mapp-Frett: "The solutions are out there. They're local, brilliant, and exciting - how do we find and support them?"

Horn identified a range of actors working on feminist transformation alongside grassroots organisations, and crucially pointed out that “the whole ecosystem is generally starved”. If funders rely on knowledge products to identify key actors and learnings, they must acknowledge that these structures, particularly African feminist knowledge production, are more often than not un(der)-resourced. She echoed Prof. Sylvia Tamale’s call to decolonise knowledge production, and pushed funders to rethink their requirements and resources for documentation. Knowledge production happens on the ground despite constraints, but to fund into this “would help create a really fascinating evidence base that could be more widely used”.

Financial support would have to go hand-in-hand with broader reforms of the colonial power dynamics within knowledge production as well, challenging ideas of who is deserving of lead authorship, what counts as expertise worth sharing, and how knowledge products should be formatted. Accessibility to knowledge and affordability of publication are also in need of rethinking, as current knowledge production processes are so restrictive and expensive “that it means very little ends up being part of the global repository of what we consider to be evidence”.

Quote from Jessica Horn: "There's so many layers to this work, but it has to begin with acknowledging that there is knowledge and expertise in the context that we're talking about."

The continued failure to acknowledge and document learnings from the grassroots feeds into what Horn called “naïve activism”, a misguided idea that activism simply happens without intentional, iterative, and systematic strategising. This dismissal of grassroots expertise could not be further from the reality of successful grassroots organising, and the onus is on the rest of the feminist transformation ecosystem to recognise the expertise that goes into this work by supporting documentation, analysis, and conversation to inform “broader ways of thinking about how change happens and what to do”.

Audience Q&A: In search of good practices

Despite time constraints, the session was able to address two audience questions:

“As a local small-scale NGO catering to a small population, what would be our responsibilities to show the commitment that would get us the attention of the global funders? In short, what are the responsibilities at the recipient’s end?”

Both Horn and Mapp-Frett preached the importance of collaboration and coalitions in response to this question. For Horn, staying on task is the key to finding a good funder match, and aligning funder priorities with existing projects will also help prevent mission drift, which becomes a real risk when organisations are forced to redefine their work to fit funder requirements. In practical terms, she advised presenting a clear understanding of not just the problems, but also the potential solutions.

Mapp-Frett advocated for alliances amongst organisations, and suggested building coalitions to maximise shared resources and pooled funding. Collective strategising through the sharing of ideas and capacity building through the sharing of skills can also aid the resource mobilisation process. In the long run, Mapp-Frett also pointed out that coalitions can create a sense of community to combat the depression and burnout that frequently accompany the endless work of social justice activism.

“Are there any funders who do this particularly well now, who are helping to set the pace and provide a model for donors who may want to do better at this but aren’t quite sure where to start?”

Mapp-Frett noted that Global Fund for Women is in fact part of an international network of women’s funds known as Prospera, which works across six regions through a number of similarly minded partners. She also suggested looking to regional funds in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, in addition to the increasing number of national funds with a feminist approach. Larger NGOs such as Oxfam are also joining the movement, with specialised feminist funds that offer unrestricted core support for women’s organisations. In the mainstream philanthropy arena, even funders such as the Gates Foundation “are starting to see that the voices of these organisations are going to be hugely important in advocacy” and shifting their support accordingly.

Horn highlighted the movement around participatory grantmaking, pioneered by the Central American Women’s Fund, which puts applicants in charge of deciding on the allocation of funds. She named a number of other funders inspired by this model, such as FRIDA and UHAI, and also pointed those interested in more participatory grant-making to the hashtag movement #ShiftThePower. Ultimately, Horn offered a positive outlook: “There’s a lot of spaces in philanthropy that really are looking at these models and looking at how to do it better”.

Final thoughts and moving forward: Why feminist philanthropy?

For her final question, Nassiri-Ansari requested a one-minute elevator pitch for why feminist philanthropy needs to be the next step in global health funding.

Mapp-Frett emphasised that “funding bold, ambitious, and expansive movements… is what’s going to create the change that we really hope for in our lifetimes and beyond”. Ground-up funding that is responsive to the needs of movements is key in these uncertain times we live in, and Global Fund for Women is committed to providing continued and flexible support to their partners in order to build and strengthen the kinds of grassroots leadership that will be essential to driving long-term change.

Horn reiterated the importance of supporting grassroots organisations, pointing out that “activism is going to lead the change because it has led the change”. History shows that active women’s involvement has been key to progressive movements and democratic wins that benefit all of society, and we cannot forget past lessons in our present if we want to “keep building towards equitable futures”.

Screenshot of (in clockwise order) moderator Tiffany Nassiri-Ansari, host Jessica Horn, and guest speaker Latanya Mapp-Frett.

In closing out the session, Horn stressed the need for ecosystemic approaches to gender and health, and pointed out that the nature of public health makes it well positioned to carry out the ‘whole picture’ interventions that will be necessary for effective change. This approach will ensure that funders are resourcing “the full ecosystem of transformation, and that includes feminist activism” – which Horn called essential to solving the challenges that lie at the intersection between gender and health. Feminist philanthropy, through its provision of long-term, flexible, and core funding, is well-suited to supporting this ecosystemic model.

Finally, it is critical to ensure that any and all partnerships with grassroots organisations involve learning with and from, as this conversation has highlighted the historical importance and expertise of women’s movements that mobilise communities to acknowledge and confront the intersectional challenges presented by reality. Moving forward, those working in the space of feminist transformation, be they academics or funders, must acknowledge feminist civil society “as a domain of expertise, and not just of practice”.

About the Author

Tiffany Nassiri-Ansari sits on the Secretariat of the Commission and serves as a Research Assistant at UNU-IIGH.