To Grow Women’s Rights Globally, We Must Invest in Women Locally

Editor’s Note: The following essay is by By Dr. Susan M. Blaustein, Founder and Executive Director, WomenStrong International.

As someone who has funded and worked with women’s organizations to advance gender justice, human rights, and global development, I learned long ago that women always know what they and their families and communities need, in order to thrive; they simply lack the financial and technical resources needed to put their solutions into practice. 

 Partners working together at WomenStrong International’s Girls’ Education and Empowerment Retreat. (Image credit: WomenStrong International)

That’s why I celebrate the recent high-profile donor efforts to invest in women’s priorities. Yet, even with these bold commitments, the total philanthropic support for women’s organizations remains a paltry fraction – 1.6 percent — of U.S. grantmaking, according to the Women’s Philanthropy Institute’s latest Women and Girls Index, published by the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. If we hope to improve the lives of and opportunities for women and girls worldwide, those percentages must rise dramatically. 

But increased philanthropic financing, however essential and long overdue, is only the beginning. 

The emerging wisdom from trust-based grantmakers is that the best approach to advancing women’s solutions is to give unrestricted funds and get out of the way. I agree – in part. Flexible funding for women’s organizations is necessary, but far from sufficient.

How else, then, can we strengthen women-led organizations and amplify their impact?

I want to see innovative women leaders supported in sharing their solutions broadly, with like-minded organizations that can benefit from their peers’ experience. Without such support, progress will remain stymied, concentrated in isolated pockets of successful program implementation, with valuable lessons needing to be learned over and over again.

Funders must also invest in technical and organizational strengthening that responds to the needs and aspirations identified by nonprofit leaders themselves. It is our responsibility to engender a trusting, open exchange where women leaders can request the support they believe will help their staff grow and their organizations to become more efficacious. In offering flexible, responsive technical assistance, funders have the opportunity to help women leaders design, implement, and evaluate their programs and, on the basis of their experience, to advocate more broadly for policy reform and systems change.

At the grantmaking organization I founded, WomenStrong International, we have embraced this approach as part of our journey toward becoming a truly feminist funder. This means moving both money and power into the hands of local women leaders who can then determine their own priorities, test and refine promising solutions to improve their effectiveness, and share those solutions widely.

Over the course of our first six years of operation, WomenStrong has funded 24 impressive local women-focused organizations in 18 countries, from Cambodia to Afghanistan to Madagascar to Mexico to the U.S., all of them working to prevent violence against women and girls or to advance girls’ education, women’s health, or economic security and opportunity. We offer organizational strengthening and technical assistance along with our grants, and we convene our grantee partners in a Learning Lab, where they are actively sharing with each other and building a growing global community of learners and leaders.

The capacity-strengthening work can be led by WomenStrong staff, by one or more of our subject matter consultants, or by sister nonprofits, as each grantee prefers and as the topic requires. Grantee partners and others offering technical expertise are compensated for doing so.

So far, our approach is bearing fruit: our partners have told external evaluators that they value the trust-based funding and responsive capacity-strengthening they have received and that they are eager to learn from and collaborate with their fellow Learning Lab partners, across their vast differences in context and culture.

Our original convictions have been borne out in real time. Specifically, in case after case, we are confirming that — 

  • Responding to women leaders who tell us what they and their communities need has proven to be a compelling grantmaking strategy, resulting in strong and effective programming, including the freedom to take risks, as warranted;
  • Investing in strengthening our partners in areas they have prioritized has deepened their expertise and their confidence in their ability to carry out their work;
  • Funding and fostering a cohort of impressive women-led organizations focused on peer learning and sharing has seeded the growth of a mutually nourishing and supportive community; 
  • Supporting our grantees’ presentations, articles, and other public dissemination of their findings can be effective in amplifying their learnings and getting them out to other civil society organizations, international development agencies, and funders. 

In sum, flexible, trust-based funding is critical. But as funders, we often have other assets we can share, to help shift power: technical expertise, both ours, and that of our grantees; broader platforms, where our partners can share their learnings with peer organizations and be introduced to other donors; and the opportunity to help nurture a strong community among like-minded women-led nonprofits, to build knowledge and momentum across geographies.

Without such an expanded definition of “support,” even brilliantly conceived and deployed programs yielding stunning gains among local women, girls, and communities risk not being replicated, adapted, and implemented more widely, where they stand the chance of realizing far greater equity, at scale. 


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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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