How Can Funders Accelerate Gender Equality? Pamela Shifman Responds

I recently took the time to read Lighting the Way, a new report from Shake the Table and The Bridgespan Group. These two entities came together to enhance our understanding of the connections between feminist movements and global philanthropy, and to provide some strategic guidelines on how to expand this work.

Lighting the Way, a report from Shake the Table, The Bridgespan Group, and many feminist leaders, details five steps for improving funding for gender equality worldwide. (Image Credit: Lighting the Way)

In order to formulate these guidelines, the group conducted 43 conversations with high-net-worth individuals, institutional funders, and leaders of feminist movements. Here is a quick summary of the five guidelines they created:

  1. Understand the power structures shaping our lives, and how social systems impact people differently. Women die at 14 times higher rates than men in natural disasters, for example. We have to examine and then change the rules so that women are equally protected and supported at every level of society. By examining power structures and asking ourselves critical questions, we can make more informed decisions and address systemic inequality.
  2. Re-examine risk. Recognize the greatest risk is not investing in the feminist leaders. If we don’t invest in feminist leaders, the right-wing opposition will continue to grow more powerful and continue to reduce rights for women and girls further, as is already happening.
  3. Fund feminist funds. The report discusses a number of feminist funds that are a great place increase funding, and estimates that most funds could manage ten times the funding they are currently managing.
  4. Shift your practices. Fund all different-sized organizations. Provide multi-year and general operating support.
  5. Measure what matters to movements. Work with grantees to figure out how to measure what they are doing, and change things accordingly, should you need to redefine success or change the criteria for evaluating impact.

The report also urges much more philanthropic investment in feminist movements. $6 billion — an additional 1.5 billion a year from now until 2026 — is the exact figure the group suggests.  

We thought it would be helpful to hear from Pamela Shifman, former Executive Director of the Novo Foundation, and recently appointed (September, 2021) President of the Democracy Alliance, to discuss this report with us in a little more depth.

As many readers probably know, with Pamela Shifman’s leadership, NoVo Foundation did some of the most groundbreaking funding to address intersectional oppression and gender-based violence. Particularly over the past decade, NoVo Foundation provided an estimated 96% of all nonprofit funding for work on preventing gender-based violence.

Here are Pamela Shifman’s responses to three questions we posed to her about the Lighting the Way report and about the overlap of philanthropy and social movements.

1. What life experiences inform your decision to join with other leaders to form Shake the Table?

Pamela Shifman: I’ve spent nearly all my life working to advance racial, gender and economic justice. My first job was at the Michigan Affiliate of NARAL. Early in my career, I was a Legal Advisor to the ANC Parliamentary Women’s Caucus during South Africa’s first democratic elections. I went on to spend more than 10 years in leadership at the NoVo Foundation, where I was honored to be able to resource hundreds of grassroots feminist organizations. Across the world, I have witnessed these organizations doing powerful, essential work but having to rely on shoestring budgets. 

After leaving the NoVo Foundation, I started Shake the Table (then called Feminist Imaginations) because I believe deeply in the power of social movements, especially those led by women and girls of color, to transform our world. And I wanted to be sure that philanthropists and governments were investing in this potential with the trust, urgency, and scale that they deserve. Today, Shake the Table is demonstrating what is possible when social justice movements, transformative philanthropy, and liberatory leadership come together with a shared purpose: investing in movement leaders like we want them to win. 

2. Some women funders have told me they are no longer taking a philanthropic approach to social change but are rather focusing the majority of their donating on politics. One funder told me they realized over the course of 2020 that the need to invest in political action was urgent. This funder noted that many of their former co-funders and colleagues have likewise moved into a larger definition of what it means to be using money to achieve social purposes. What do you think of this approach?

Pamela Shifman: I am very excited to hear this because it couldn’t be happening at a more urgent time. As Lateefah Simon and I argued recently in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, funding 501(c)(3) work is essential, but it’s only half the equation. Donors on the right have long maxed out on political funding (for example, by funding 501 (c)(4) organizations). Progressive donors have been much slower to the field, and the result is clear to anyone who turns on the news. Our rights and our democracy itself are now at risk. 

Just look at abortion rights. At the state level in particular, the right wing has invested deeply in c-4 political organizations, while pro-abortion rights work has focused most of its spending on traditional, c-3 organizations. The result is that state legislatures have been churning out new restrictive abortion policies across the country, just as the Supreme Court is poised to overturn Roe. 

What donors must realize is that this is deeply connected to broader rollbacks in democracy. Freedom begins with freedom over our own bodies. And rolling back reproductive rights has long been a first move in the autocrat’s playbook. Shortly after Hitler was elected, for example, he declared abortion a crime against the state. 

I’m thrilled to be leading the Democracy Alliance because I get to work with a community of donors who are seeing these connections. We believe that at a time when American democracy is facing so many threats, a strict focus on c-3 organizations — and an avoidance of direct involvement in political campaigns — is nowhere near enough. For the fight of our lives, we must show up with everything we have. There is so much momentum, and a welcome community for many more donors who want to join this work.

3. A recent Bridgespan survey you cite in “Lighting the Way” said that feminist funds believe they could deploy 10 times the capital they deploy currently. If that kind of increase in funding were to happen, how would constituents be assured that these funds were being used for their stated purposes? 

Pamela Shifman: I think it is important to begin by remembering that feminist movements are led by people with lived experience of injustice. In other words, their own freedom depends on this work achieving its stated purpose. They could not be more invested in its success. And one of the most important things a donor can bring to the relationship is deep trust.

More specifically, one of the report’s five core recommendations is focused on measuring impact in meaningful ways. Here again, feminist movements are lighting the way. The report offers examples of donors who are working collaboratively with grantee partners to co-create metrics of impact, such as the number of constituents organized. Knowing that feminist movements advance change in many ways, it also describes the importance of using many metrics, such as: securing access to services, training with religious leaders to shift norms, and advocating to local governments to shift laws. With trust and collaboration at the core, we can go well beyond ensuring that funds are being used for stated purposes. We can promote genuine learning and discovery that can power other organizations across the movement.

Read the full Lighting the Way report here.


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Author: Kiersten Marek

Kiersten Marek, LICSW, is the founder of Philanthropy Women. She practices clinical social work and writes about how women donors and their allies are advancing social change.

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