Liveblog – What Donors Can Do About Lack of Funding for Women and Girls of Color

Today marks our third webinar at Philanthropy Women! On Thursday, July 23rd, we gathered for “Lack of Funding for Women and Girls of Color: What Donors Can Do.”

We kicked off our third webinar with a warm welcome to our participants. Kiersten Marek, Editor-in-Chief, began with an overview of the funding issues outlined in Pocket Change, the Ms. Foundation’s report on the funding gap for women and girls of color.

Kiersten pointed out other issues impacting the funding environment for women and girls of color, including the recent announcement of downsizing at the NoVo Foundation, and the potential for funds being redirected to address the COVID crisis. However, there is some encouraging action happening now, as new corporations and foundations have stepped up for intersectional giving.

“There are new forms of intersectional giving all the time, but so much more work needs to be done,” said Kiersten.

Roz Lee, Vice President of Strategy and Programs, Ms. Foundation for Women. (Image Credit: Ms. Foundation)

Roz Lee on Ms. Foundation’s Intersectional Giving

Kiersten introduced Roz Lee to the call. Currently the Vice President of Strategy and Programs at the Ms. Foundation for Women, Lee leads efforts for women and girls of color in her current role and in her rich career.

“We are one of the first feminist funds, so no surprise that we’re always trying to stay on top of what’s happening to support gender and racial justice in a U.S. context.”

She shared that the Pocket Change report is available for free on the Ms. Foundation website, and encouraged everyone to read it.

“Women and girls of color are on the front lines of many of the social movements of our time, and we’re in the midst of one of the most tremendous ones.”

Sharing what her grandmother used to say, Lee added, “The same women and leaders of these organizations are trying to make a dollar out of fifteen cents. Women and girls of color are trying to do more with less.”

“Do More With Less” is Still Not Enough

Of the $66.9 billion organized philanthropy contributes to movements and organizations, a half a percent supports these organizations and leaders. Per woman and girl of color in the US, that’s $5.48.

“Not acceptable, not enough,” said Lee. “Particularly when we talk about the kind of work they’re doing on the front lines, in their communities, for their families, and for the country.”

As an example, she shared a story from a grantee partner: “We’re working toward healthcare for all, but we don’t have healthcare – we can’t afford healthcare and can’t afford to pay salaries to ourselves.”

“Those are numbers we should all be encouraged to do something about,” said Lee. The funding discrepancy here, “doesn’t just tell a story of this thing that is happening, but also the beautiful story of the work that is happening, too. Every issue we’re contending with in our time—healthcare, housing, reproductive justice, safe schools—these are all the types of work these folks are doing.”

What can be done to address this funding gap?

“I’m always ready, folks, with a call to action,” Lee said.

The Ms. Foundation’s call to action is this: Increase it, name it, and track it.

  • Increase it: There simply is not enough money, so more money needs to go to these organizations. We need to change “pocket change” into real change for donors. The Ms. Foundation works with a “grantmaking plus” policy, where they send funds AND train teams — other donors can find huge success in a model like this.
  • Tracking it: Count the dollars that are going to women and girls of color. In doing this research, the Ms. Foundation found that most funders don’t actually say what they’re giving or how they’re supporting these organizations, so it becomes harder to see where these dollars are actually having an effect.
  • Name it: Funders and donors need to say and make obvious that they’re funding women and girls of color. “That’s one of the easiest barriers to bring down,” said Lee. “If gender and racial issues are a priority for you, then say it loud and say it proud. We need to do better.”

“I invite you to be in partnership with the Ms. Foundation, to join us in what I call a crusade,” Lee said. “It’s a crusade around equity and fairness, and how we distribute resources in our sector. We can do so much more together.”

Tessie San Martin, President and CEO, Plan International USA (Image Credit: Plan)

Tessie San Martin on what funders can do to help

Dr. Tessie San Martin is the President and CEO of Plan International USA, a child rights organization focused on gender and equality. The mission is to transform the lives of a hundred million girls around the world.

“The conversation is very timely,” said San Martin. “At the end of the day, this is a conversation about diversity and inclusion. We’re in this big discontinuity: COVID-19 has changed a lot of things for everyone, and created huge challenges that all of us in the nonprofit sector are trying to figure out how to best respond to in a totally changed environment.”

She added, “In order to do our work, we have to be able to rethink how we do our work. Whatever we were doing before is not necessarily going to continue to work going forward. To be able to think differently, you have to bring new voices into the conversation and into the equation.”

San Martin encouraged donors to take a closer look at the leadership structures of their grantees. “Donors have a special responsibility to get much more involved and engaged in your grantee’s programming and how they’re doing it – who is making decisions? How are those decisions being made?”

COVID-19 shows the gendered impact of funding

“Our work has never been more important, because there are specific gendered effects of this pandemic,” said San Martin. “The COVID-19 pandemic has put us in a crossroads. Between the travel restrictions and economic displacements, it has illustrated the model for how we work. We’ve got all of the experts in the global north, and they travel to the global south to deliver their expertise. Well, guess what? Nobody’s traveling anywhere.”

She explained that travel restrictions have impacted Plan’s model for work. Now, the people who matter most are the small, local entities at the community level.

“We’ve been talking for decades about the need to localize, the importance of favoring local design and new partners or organizations with people who are truly part of the community… Unless we figure out how to partner differently and fund differently, the work is simply not going to get done.”

“It’s become increasingly apparent that business as usual is not going to work. We have to transform our entire organizations, and that transformation is very closely linked to the issue of gender and diversity in our sector.”

The need for change: Diversity and inclusion in nonprofits

“Are we ready and willing to change? We pride ourselves on being diverse and inclusive, but in reality, we’re none of those things.”

San Martin pointed out the homogeneity of the nonprofit sector: “The lack of diversity in how we’re structured and staffed represents a giant blind spot in our operations. Our lack of diversity encourages groupthink and reduces innovation and impact.”

“We cannot solve the relevance problem until, in my view, we solve the racial diversity and equity problems in our sector.”

San Martin used the example of the world’s response to Ebola. “You had all these experts giving advice on how to stop the spread of a truly deadly disease, and we were finding that women and girls did not have the same uptake. They didn’t take the advice in a timely manner, and were still at risk when others weren’t. We should have been designing the response with a much more robust gender lenses, and with more diverse voices in the design and execution teams. Hopefully we’ve learned what the lessons are, but if we don’t change, we’re not going to be able to tackle the problems of the day.”

What does this all mean for donors?

“Funding decisions about what organizations to support are really important,” said San Martin. “You as donors need to look at more than just ticking a box, or checking the number of minorities on a board or management team, but looking deep and understanding how diversity and inclusion forms a part of everything that an organization does. The time to think differently about these decisions is now.”

Kiersten shared an example from Melinda Gates’s essay in Foreign Affairs, where she recommends that health care providers do more to ensure women’s health is integrated into services and particularly that pregnant women have access to hospital settings, even if they have COVID.

“You have to approach it through a gender lens,” she said. “How can you do more to help women?”

Suzanne Lerner, President of Michael Stars Clothing. (Image Credit: Suzanne Lerner)

Suzanne Lerner on funding WGOC through personal and corporate philanthropy

Suzanne Lerner is a philanthropist, activist, and President of Michael Stars, a clothing company she co-founded with Michael Cohen in 1986.

Looking back on thirty years in philanthropy, Lerner spoke to the social justice and gender lens influence on her work that began as a teenager.

“Women are women. Kids are kids. It doesn’t matter what race or economic level you’re at.”

This concept shaped Lerner’s philanthropy and future work, particularly with her clothing company Michael Stars.

“We started funding GBV organizations, international funding in the developing worlds, philanthropy for advocacy training, and work in Haiti since the earthquake. It’s actually become my second home for many years.”

In a chance meeting with Gloria Steinem, Lerner realized that the Ms. Foundation represented an excellent partnership opportunity.

“My gig forever has been in funding women of color and grassroots organizations,” said Lerner. “If these organizations can’t keep their lights on or have the right staff, there’s a problem.”

She encouraged participants to be more strategic with their funding. “I had to follow my heart and decide what was important,” Lerner said, of shifting her company’s philanthropy to take on a more progressive lens.

Funding women and girls of color through grassroots organizations

“It starts from the bottom up,” said Lerner. “Leadership is really important: They are the mighty undergrowth, and they grow these huge trees. All the leaders we’ve seen in the last four months come from these grassroots organizations.”

Lerner encouraged funders to change their perspective toward funding. By funding women in office, grassroots organizations, and women leaders, she said, we can move toward funding the future.

“When you get to know the people on the ground, it really gives you the idea to grant more.”

Lerner also encouraged funders to look at their investments, making sure they have a racial and gender lens.

“It’s important to look at everything generally and holistically, and make decisions about the grants that you’re making.”

“53% of the wealth in this country is owned by women. We have the money to do it – we have to get through the barriers, like a board of all white males, or consciously thinking about what we should do with our money.”

“These small organizations can do more with less, but they can’t work on the money they’re getting.”

Encouraging younger voices through competitive compensation

Lerner also encouraged getting younger people involved, by making sure that the earning opportunities are as high for nonprofits as they are for other sectors.

“When you’re doing your funding, you need to be thinking about that too – people need appropriate salaries. Nonprofits don’t make a profit, but they still need to be able to pay their staff.”

She also encouraged flexible dollars and trust-based giving. “Sometimes you just have to give your grantees something and let them spend it the way they think best.”

Encouraging success through reinvention

Kiersten encouraged the panelists to share their own experiences in funding women and girls of color. “We are looking for ways to mend the gap, and address the funding – and figure out strategies for our funders to come together,” said Kiersten. “The more we communicate with each other and recognize each other’s strengths, the more powerful we can be.”

Lee spoke to her experience as a woman of color who works in philanthropy, and has come from a background of grassroots organizing. “It really does give you a sense of how to resource organizations. We provide support for general operations to organizations, because they should have the ability to get the work done… Our approach is about trust-based philanthropy. We spend a lot of time listening to what organizations say about what they need.”

“We have to be able to support the ideas and the leaders who are charting a different course,” she added. “We know that the methods we have been using have limitations.”

“Let’s not overwhelm them with systems,” Lee said of the grassroots organizations, encouraging funders to do away with excessive tracking systems. “These systems are not necessary to enact the kind of change we want to see in the world.”

“Rethink your procurement processes,” San Martin added. “To get the benefit of having the funding channel to people who aren’t the usual suspects means you have to have procurement processes that welcome these new communities.”

This means no twenty-five page proposals or prescriptive policies, but trust-based giving and support for organizations on an operational level, not a results-based approach.

“This is a time to be reinventing,” San Martin said. “How do we redesign our support systems for these organizations so they can thrive? We don’t want to be killing them by trying to help them.”

“You have to leverage where you’re at and think about where you’re going,” said Lerner. “Make that commitment.”

Lerner reiterated the need to fund grassroots organizations: “If you fund grassroots organizations and women of color, everyone is going to thrive from that.”

Feminist giving as a market proposition: A plus for the future?

As a publisher on women’s philanthropy, Kiersten added that ideas about feminist giving are beginning to have a market value. Information about the strategy of funding is getting so powerful that people will pay money for it.

“That is a very good sign of how we are progressing,” she said. She highlighted the importance of shifting from a paradigm of valuing exploitation of women to one of valuing empowerment of women. “We’re starting to value women’s empowerment as a real thing in the economy.”

“The more that we are having these conversations, the more that we are adding value for feminist giving to develop these new and better systems.”

How can WGOC-led organizations build relationships with funders?

“It’s tough,” said Lerner. She spoke about the value of meeting people through networking and developing a genuine, trust-based relationship with grantees. She encouraged support thought leaders on women and girls of color like the Ms. Foundation and also suggested looking at the boards of these organizations to find intersectional funders that may be open to new grantmaking relationships.

Lee also shared her experiences with the Ms. Foundation. “It’s always important to have partners on the ground who deliver resources to grassroots organizations and leaders. Otherwise, I’d just be making arbitrary decisions about who’s doing the best work and where.”

“Don’t make those organizations and leaders be the ones who have to carry all the water,” she said. “The reason we’re raising resources at the Ms. Foundation is because we know where they need to go, and we know how to get them there.”

She encouraged the participants to act as conduits to help others forge relationships. “I don’t care what kind of business you’re in,” said Lee. “It’s all about the relationships.”

Feminist giving moves online

To wrap up, Kiersten pointed out the new opportunities coming as a result of COVID: online events from organizations like Women Moving Millions and the Ms. Foundation, where it’s much easier to become part of the community.

“The online community gives you more access to that, so let’s maximize it.”


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Author: Maggie May

Maggie May is a small business owner, author, and story-centric content strategist. A Maryland transplant by way of Florida, DC, Ireland, Philadelphia, and -- most recently -- Salt Lake City, she has a passion for finding stories and telling them the way they're meant to be told.

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