When the world stops, life keeps going — especially for communities where social isolation and living off of savings are not viable options.
It’s a well-known fact that COVID-19 has made life at the bottom of the social pyramid even harder. Women and girls around the world, particularly in communities of color, are among the hardest hit by the ripple effects of the pandemic. The news reports address loss of income, life, and community, but the lesser-known impacts should not be forgotten.
Access to healthcare, particularly for women, was already a commodity difficult to come by in certain parts of the world. Now, in the wake of the pandemic, women and girls’ access to contraceptives, feminine hygiene products, and maternity care hangs more precariously than ever before.
Maverick Collective, the philanthropic network cofounded by Melinda Gates, is dedicated to elevating the status of women and girls around the world via access to healthcare.
“In Maverick Collective’s international work, we have seen firsthand how COVID-19 can disproportionately impact women and girls, in particular exacerbating barriers to accessing essential sexual and reproductive healthcare (SRH) products and services,” says Rena Greifinger, Managing Director of Maverick Collective. “The reality is—sex doesn’t stop for a pandemic and periods don’t pause, but SRH service provision gets put on hiatus during times of disease outbreaks. These services are often deemed non-essential, especially where healthcare systems are strained even prior to COVID-19.”
As Rena explains, the pandemic exacerbates the uncertainty surrounding women’s healthcare, particularly in underfunded and underserved communities. Where it was already difficult to get access to health services, contraceptives, and critical products, now women and girls face pharmacy and doctors’ office closures, supply-chain delays, stock-outs, and the fear that comes with working our way through a crowded store in the midst of the pandemic.
“Unfortunately, the need for these services and products doesn’t go away,” says Greifinger. “This can cause disastrous results.”
According to the Guttmacher Institute, if low-and middle-income countries see even just a 10% decline in the use of contraceptives due to decreased access to services, that results in an estimated 15 million unintended pregnancies.
“Essentially,” says Greifinger, “a pause in providing women and girls’ access to sexual and reproductive health services due to COVID-19 could upend decades of achievements made in ensuring that women can decide if, when and how they build their families.”
A Much-Needed Pivot
Naturally, this dire situation has led to many changes at Maverick Collective and its parent organization, Population Services International (PSI).
“When COVID-19 began spreading globally, our Members came together within a matter of weeks to raise over $400,000 in to stand up a COVID-19 Rapid Response Team. With a cross- section of experts from around the world, the team developed partnerships, designed communication and marketing, coordinated activities, and crucially, led fundraising efforts with donors like USAID, Unilever, DFID, CDC, and AstraZeneca resulting in over $10 million in funding to date.”
This response team launched new COVID-19 initiatives, like training over 7,000 frontline health workers in COVID-19 detection and management and distributing 3.5 million units of donated cleaning products. Rather than reinventing the wheel, Maverick Collective’s response team also adapted existing projects, like integrating COVID-19 health messages into ongoing sexual and reproductive health outreach programs via social media and mobile apps.
“To date, we have reached over 80 million people and counting with critical information on COVID-19,” says Greifinger. “Going forward, PSI is well positioned to launch communication campaigns to promote the COVID-19 vaccine and dispel myths and misinformation, as well as distribute it through our existing service delivery channels. The early and rapid co-investment from our community of Maverick Collective Members allowed us to respond immediately, and the Members’ trust in PSI to mobilize their investments as we saw fit catalyzed our ability to fundraise from institutional donors, leveraging the best elements of each type of funding to respond to a public health crisis rapidly and strategically.”
Leveraging Experiential and Grassroots Philanthropy
One of Maverick Collective’s newer programs focuses on bridging the gap between younger women and girls and sexual and reproductive health. Adolescent360, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, is a flagship program that brings adolescent girls in Ethiopia, Nigeria, and Tanzania together to co-create “girl-powered” programming based on their own aspirations, rather than basing programming on someone else’s idea of what they should be, do, and work toward.
Greifinger calls the Adolescent360 project “a girl-powered revolution in modern contraceptive access.”
“In direct response to what the girls designed with us, the program does not lead with health but with conversations about what is most important to girls — things like earning money, learning about their bodies and navigating intimate relationships,” Greifinger says. “We curate programming around these goals that girls have, and integrate information about contraception as a first step in achieving those goals. In the three years since A360 started implementation, we’ve reached over 400,000 girls with voluntary modern contraception and livelihoods education.”
Maverick Collective Under the Biden Administration
While Maverick Collective is putting a heavy focus on reactional funding and programming in light of COVID-19, the organization is also preparing for future changes after the power shift in American political leadership.
Maverick Collective is not a political organization — as Greifinger puts it, the organization hopes its members will align with their values and ideals, but it does not have a particular political affiliation as a qualification for membership.
To that end, instead of focusing on political celebrations or consolations after this shift in power, the Maverick Collective team is focusing on the practical considerations.
“Over the last four years, we have seen a number of giving trends emerge that we hope will be sustained,” says Greifinger.
Among these are a focus on funding systemic issues that came into spotlight through the movement for Black lives; a pivot toward fast, flexible funding catalyzed by the urgency of the COVID-19 pandemic; and an increased awareness in the origins of philanthropic capital and the issues of power and privilege that surround wealth and inequality.
“We also witnessed an increase in ‘reactionary giving’ to certain non-profit causes as Americans with opposing political views watched the Trump administration target domestic and international sexual and reproductive health and roll back environmental regulations,” says Greifinger. “Under the incoming Biden administration, we believe we will see renewed ties with the World Health Organization and UNFPA and a focus on ensuring global health. We expect to see an administration that prioritizes women’s health and reproductive health and anticipate the possible roll-back of some Trump-era decisions.”
How Will Shifting Politics Affect Feminist Philanthropy?
On the feminist philanthropy front, however, Greifinger expects the opposite — a potential “dip” in funding as federal philanthropic programs contribute more domestic and foreign aid, taking the pressure off of private funders to pick up the slack we felt during the Trump administration.
“Nonprofits that saw a surge in private support under the Trump administration may have to work hard to maintain this momentum,” Greifinger explains.
There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, though.
“Practically speaking, with the end of election season and political fundraising, philanthropists may have more funds available to direct toward non-political causes,” she says. “Additionally, with the stock-market surge post Biden’s presidential win, this may boost philanthropists’ financial confidence leading to an increase in giving… We are hopeful that president-elect Biden, in his administration, will model some of the core values of feminist giving: ensuring representation of people of color in his administration and in leadership positions; targeting systemic problems at their root causes; supporting legislation that is inclusive and anti-racist; and inspiring grassroots movement building for core issues.”
Looking to the Future
Ultimately, Greifinger has a positive outlook for the future. With Maverick Collective, she plans to strengthen the organization’s approach to experiential philanthropy, bringing members closer to the change they wish to see in the world by providing hands-on learning experiences. These shared experiences will — ideally — lead Maverick Collective members to become more informed, strategic, and bold advocates for change.
“Maverick Collective has a big vision for the future,” says Greifinger. “We want to keep pushing the boundaries of philanthropy to bring about a more gender equitable world, starting with health and reproductive rights for women and girls everywhere.”
“As part of this work, we ask our members to take big risks,” Greifinger adds. “We ask them to put their trust in PSI and our experts on the ground, as well as our consumers. We know that the greater the risk, the greater the reward — and that is what we’re pushing for in our innovative health programming.”
Finally, Maverick Collective also hopes that the next five years bring more partnerships and collaborations to organizations like their own, as well as the collective’s sister organizations, like Women in Global Health.
“We know that alone, the world’s challenges—like a lack of access to quality healthcare—are impossible to tackle as one organization,” says Greifinger. “Together, we can go much further.”
To learn more about Maverick Collective, visit their website at MaverickCollective.org.
About Rena Greifinger: Rena Greifinger is the Managing Director of Maverick Collective, a network of strategic philanthropists cofounded by Melinda Gates that is dedicated to elevating the status of women and girls everywhere through access to healthcare. Rena leads the collective of women who, through their own $1 million investments to test women-centered healthcare concepts, work with experts on the ground to give women and girls the tools to improve their circumstances and make their own life decisions – a high-risk investment for an even bigger return.
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