From Emily: At Imago Dei Fund, we are honored to discover inspiring people with ideas that make cool things happen in the world. One such example is Courtenay Cabot Venton, the author of this post and an economist working in global development, who has spearheaded the development of an app being used around the world through a web of partnerships. This app helps people develop“self help groups” in impoverished places, making use of technology to empower and uplift their members. In many ways, Courtenay’s story of creating this app to empower women shows how the very nature of empowerment is changing.Read More
It’s like the biggest play group ever, but political. On Tuesday, May 2, parents and babies from every state are converging on Capitol Hill and urging Congress to “Think Babies.”
Whenever there is a new initiative for babies, you can be sure there is a lot of woman power behind it. Man power, too, to be sure. But let’s face it: women still change more diapers, read more stories, and attend to more preschool dramas than men.
There is no doubt that women and entire communities benefit when babies are well taken care of. So this should be an important march, with a powerful feminist message: babies matter. Think Babies.
From ZERO TO THREE, the organizing leading families in advocating for policies that support the littlest humans:Read More
Great private wealth is nothing new, but reading David Callahan’s The Givers will convince you that there is a different game at play today, with staggering fortunes and unprecedented elite hubris. Some fortunes are so big, and growing so fast, that even a dedicated philanthropist can’t give the money away fast enough. To cite just one example, Michael Bloomberg was worth around $5 billion when he became mayor of New York in 2002; he’s now worth more than $45 billion. With this figure in mind, the over one billion dollars he has given Johns Hopkins University to date doesn’t seem so big. Still, it’s an astonishing sum for most of us to contemplate. And that’s not all. Bloomberg has also given hundreds of millions to reduce smoking and traffic deaths globally, and combat climate change.Read More
Rajasvini “Vini” Bhansali spoke to me by phone from Mumbai, India, where she was working and visiting family, the trip to her homeland compelled by a family illness.
“We attract donors and ambassadors that are thinking about local and global connections,” says Bhansali, Executive Director of IDEX (soon to be renamed Thousand Currents). Bhansali notes that 60 percent of IDEX’s budget comes from family foundations, 20 percent from individual donors, and 20 percent from earned income. Last year, IDEX recorded a 45 percent increase in new individual donors, and as it morphs into Thousand Currents, the organization has added staff positions, including a grants coordinator, a community engagement manager, and directors of “donor organizing” and “diaspora partnerships.”
Bhansali stresses the importance of IDEX’s mission to fund the underfunded — to grow those innovative grassroots groups that need more support.
Based in Berkeley, California, IDEX’s mission is to support women, youth and indigenous people in the Global South. The main focus of this support is directed at developing sustainable agriculture, building income, and addressing climate change. Essential to these goals is fostering women’s capacities to serve as leaders and agents of change.
IDEX (International Development Exchange) was started in the mid-1980s by returning Peace Corps members. The IDEX name came out of a desire to stress “exchange” as central to the organization’s mission – the idea that development should be collaborative and cooperative, rather than top-down and dictated from afar.
At the time of IDEX’s founding, the notion of an exchange between the rich and poor countries was “revolutionary,” says Bhansali; now, it’s gaining momentum and becoming increasingly mainstream. Regardless, a constant reciprocity of ideas and values with local partners still animates IDEX.
Bhansali describes the decision to change the name from IDEX to Thousand Currents as pragmatic: to avoid confusion with other IDEXs, which include an engineering and manufacturing company, an international diamond exchange, and a weapons conference. In fact, if you google IDEX, the International Development Exchange comes up fourth, so it makes good sense to choose a name that more closely matches the mission. Thousand Currents feels like a better fit for an organization that has funded more than 500 community-led initiatives in Asia, Latin America and Africa.
Born in India, Bhansali lived in various parts of the country before coming to the United States as a scholarship student at the University of California, Berkeley. “I didn’t have a game plan,” admits Bhansali about leaving India at age eighteen for the U.S. While she considered pursuing a scientific career, she had always been interested in the intersection of civil society and development, and upon completing her degree, returned to India and worked in Rajasthan, a state in northwest India bordering Pakistan. Bhansali knows this area well, and it is a particularly difficult one for females, with few educational and economic opportunities, and high rates of female infanticide and domestic violence.
Bhansali returned to the U.S., this time to Texas where she worked for the City of Austin and the State of Texas, and earned a Master’s degree in Public Affairs, focusing on technology and telecommunications.
Bhansali’s next significant move was transformational: a two-year posting to Kenya serving as a management capacity builder with youth polytechnics. This work on behalf of the international anti-poverty organization Voluntary Service Overseas proved pivotal in solidifying her commitment to social change, self-sufficiency, and economic development among the world’s poorest communities, with a particular focus on women’s role in that struggle.
After her Kenyan appointment ended, Bhansali returned to the Bay Area, and in 2010 assumed the helm of IDEX (after having been the program director for a year). In addition to changing its name, over the last several years, IDEX has engaged in a process of reinvention. Part of this grew out of a post-recession downturn—which, Bhansali notes, affected many U.S. social justice and solidarity organizations—but much of it was about better defining IDEX’s relationship to its global partners.
Typically, a non-profit will itself try to measure whether it is meeting its program objectives and goals, or have a third party conduct such an audit. But IDEX took a different approach. “We had our grantee partners evaluate our effectiveness as an organization,” says Bhansali.
One message that emerged was that partner organizations wanted IDEX to become a more visible and vocal advocate for local influence and control over development initiatives. Alliance-building on the regional and national level is key in this regard. In short, the message from the field was that sharing and communication are important; not just around specific projects, but also to encourage an egalitarian development culture.
IDEX supports locally-rooted groups, movements, and collectives which lack funds. According to Bhansali, too often Western non-profits “are looking for the brand-new thing, instead of seeing what is there already.” New is sexy and commands headlines, but IDEX’s mission is to further develop the capabilities of women and other vulnerable populations by supporting under-recognized organizations employing grassroots-level solutions.
For this reason, IDEX doesn’t fund one-time projects, but establishes ongoing relationships lasting three or more years. One of their senior partners is Chiapas-based DESMI (Social and Economic Development for Indigenous Mexicans, an organization that IDEX has worked with since the early 90s. Another is GRAVIS, which has collaborated with IDEX since 1999 in helping Thar Desert peoples in Rajasthan, India generate their own social, economic and political opportunities.
The empowerment of Rajasthani girls and women is essential to fulfilling this mission, and it includes education and vocational training, as well as developing female leadership. Hands-on projects include drought preparedness for 20 villages, namely the construction of underground water tanks to improve water availability. Women and girls benefit greatly from this effort, as it is typically their job to carry water, often from long distances, to fulfill basic household functions. Other IDEX-sponsored initiatives in Rajasthan include seed banks, and projects to improve food security.
IDEX attempts to put the marginalized and excluded at the heart of development and social change efforts. Its initiatives include cultivating women and girls as leaders and change agents, and strengthening climate resilience, sustainable agriculture, and locally generated economic growth.
Naturally, small groups in poor, underserved and often remote areas don’t have websites, billboards and marketing campaigns alerting potential donors of their existence. “We have regional program directors who keep their ears close to the ground,” says Bhansali. Moreover, IDEX also gets “leads” from already existing partners to help in connecting with needy groups who are typically unknown outside of their immediate communities. “We are often their first international grant maker,” says Bhansali of such budding local organizations.
IDEX is part of a movement seeking to change Western attitudes and approaches toward giving and development in poor countries. The IDEX Academy, a week-long spring gathering at a Sonoma, California ranch, is part of this attitude-adjustment initiative. IDEX’s “Theory of Change” which rests on “Community Self-Determination,” “Organizational Resilience,” “Global Solidarity” and “Social Justice Giving” forms the curriculum of the academy. In addition to the retreat staples of learning, discussion and team-building, the varied attendees and faculty engage in art, performance, physical movement and nature activities. It’s all aimed at furthering a culture of collaboration in aid of global grassroots development and sustainability efforts.
Bhansali, who is also a board member at Greenpeace USA and the Agroecology Fund, and a member of the Advisory Circle on behalf of New York’s Women’s Building, says she feels a continual push and pull regarding her native India. This tension is perhaps not such a bad thing; after all, it is a continual dialogue, a back-and-forth with a spirit of collaboration that fuels IDEX’s (soon to be Thousand Currents!) ongoing identity development as an organization, as well as its ripple effects for communities in Asia, Africa and Latin America.Read More
With gender-based violence still a major barrier to women’s equality and empowerment, funders are starting to put more money toward prevention internationally.
The World Bank Group recently announced, in partnership with the Sexual Violence Research Initiative (SVRI), ten awards of up to $150,000 each to organizations who will prevent and respond to gender-based violence worldwide. World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim, in announcing the grants, said another $3.5 million will also be invested in the cause of ending physical and sexual violence against women.
An estimated 35 percent of women worldwide have experienced physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, a staggering statistic that speaks to the pervasiveness of the problem. “Gender-based violence thrives on secrecy and indifference with devastating consequences,” World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim said upon announcing the grants. “We cannot stand by while so many women suffer harm that’s completely preventable.”Read More
Ever wonder why progress for gender equity remains incremental, and constantly faces regression? Well, it might have something to do with our institutions being so entrenched in patriarchy that they aren’t able to effectively carry out a gender equality agenda.
That appears to be the argument of an open letter from the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) and 25 MENA Women Civil Society Organizations, sent to UN Secretary-General António Guterres. The letter cites a of a growing lack of trust in the Security Council throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). To counter this lack of credibility and action, the group of women’s civil society NGO’s is proposing bold measures “to advance women’s rights and set the UN back on track as an Organization that works for the common interests of our shared humanity.”Read More
“Today, there are more than 40 million smartphones in Iran and a million more are added every month,” said Firuzeh Mahmoudi, executive director of United for Iran (U4I). Today, Mahmoudi announced that he and his organization are planning to make those smartphones into powerful tools of self-agency for marginalized women. “Given all of these regressive efforts by Iran’s rulers to limit the rights of women, they still fail to understand that technology and social media apps will continue to expand the boundaries of what is socially acceptable in Iranian society. This is why Toranj has the potential to be such a vital tool for Iranian women.”
Today, United for Iran, a Bay-Area NGO working to promote civil liberties and civil society in Iran, and NetFreedom Pioneers, a nonprofit committed to expanding information accessibility, announced the launch of Toranj, an app to increase safety for domestic violence survivors and help them access legal and health services.Read More
On a bright April Thursday morning in New York City, David Callahan and Emmett Carson took each other on in a “spirited debate” about the future of philanthropy. In particular, they differed in opinion about whether there are dangers to the lack of transparency and accountability for the new billionaire class.
Discussion time was given to some very rich (no pun intended) topics, including the influence of philanthropy on health care. Callahan discussed a section from his book that shows how right-wing billionaires have essentially used philanthropy to ensure that they win court battles, such as the court battle which allowed states to opt out of Obamacare. This is the kind of civic inequality that Callahan calls out in The Givers as a dangerous new way philanthropy can be used for political gain.
“Thousands of people died because of that court decision. And people are still dying. That’s the hard edge of political philanthropy today,” said Callahan. Callahan also referenced the rising size of right wing billionaire money arsenals to carry out civic agendas, such as the Koch brothers fortune, which has grown to over $80 billion, and the Waltons fortune, which is now estimated at $150 billion.
Carson opened with a more personal approach to discussing the topic. He referenced a changing dynamic in the donor-grantee relationship, where donors want to be partners with the organizations they fund, infusing their knowledge on a topic into the philanthropy strategy. He compared the old way of donors and grantees relating to his step-daughter having a health issue and being prescribed a remedy by the doctor and his wife being told, “Call me if she turns purple.” He suggested that today, people like his wife take a much more partnering approach to medicine, questioning the doctor and choosing which medication to accept. Similarly in philanthropy, Carson suggested, donors now expect to have more input into how problems are treated.
Callahan kept his focus on the real changes in trends for philanthropy, noting a recent shift in alumni giving where larger gifts to universities are rising while gifts from middle class alumni have dropped. Carson questioned whether this trend might be partially the result of middle class people see the very rich making the big donations, and figure that their alum school does not need their small donation.
Carson again took a personal approach to discussing the issue and differentiated how he makes his own alumnus donations to maximize impact. As both a graduate of Princeton University and Morehouse College, Carson said he gives a minimal donation to Princeton and the maximum donation he can to Morehouse, because the smaller college needs it more, and its history as a black liberal college is particularly important to him.
Callahan made the case that it is time for a major revisiting of the charitable tax code, noting that it was last revisited in 1969, and “a lot has changed since then. Since then we’ve have seen the rise of massive ideological infrastructure — on the left and right — and fueling this infrastructure is a growing flow of tax deductible dollars,” said Callahan.
“Democracy is tough stuff,” Carson said emphatically, as a prelude to his arguments for why donors still need privacy. He argued that forcing all philanthropic donations to be disclosed could cause many people to opt out of philanthropy, for fear of repercussions from groups that oppose the work they support.
Moderator Ana Oliveira spoke about the need for philanthropy to look more closely at gender issues, and how philanthropy is only just beginning to recognize how the sector itself is impacted by gender inequality.
“There hasn’t been enough shift in purpose of [philanthropic] giving to address issues confining to the lives of women,” said Oliveira, President of the New York Women’s Foundation. Oliveira asked the speakers to comment on philanthropy to invest more in understanding how gender plays a role in reducing opportunity, and to do more strategically to bridge this gender opportunity gap.
David Callahan spoke to the frustration that some women donors in couples feel when their male partner gets all the credit for their hard work. And he briefly discussed the way women are known for being “super networkers,” referencing Women Moving Millions as an example of an extraordinary women’s philanthropy network.Read More
Am I being watched by the government? Am I the kind of activist/writer who might get detained and questioned at the US border? Across the world, activists and social justice leaders are asking themselves scary questions about what the many repressive events of recent days portend for their safety and security, and for political struggle worldwide.
A new report from the Transnational Institute (TNI) in Amsterdam makes the point that civil society may be shrinking in the coming years, as we face increasing barriers to movement-building from government.
The report was created by a group of eight authors, and also several organizations including “Palestine Link, Women Peacemaker Program, Un Ponte Per, AWID, Africans Rising for Justice, and Peace and Development,” as valuable contributors.
The report cites the recent attempts to suppress Black Lives Matter, as well as the “the criminalization of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement” as examples of activism facing repressive action from “states, corporations and the Far Right.”
This report raises important concerns that are central to the cause of gender equality, and to issues related to how and where women fund social movements. In particular, the report cites donors having higher levels of “risk aversion and securitization,” which will result in “limiting or withdrawal of funding available for both grassroots activism and marginalized causes.” Instead, donors will be more inclined to favor larger, less politicized organizations that are seen as “safer.”
From the report:
The current emergency has been a long time in the making. But only recently has it galvanized a concerted response by organized ‘civil society’, which is now mobilizing to understand and counter what is termed ‘shrinking space,’ a metaphor that has been widely embraced as a way of describing a new generation of restrictions on political struggle. The concept of space itself has different definitions depending on who you talk to. Some understand it as limited to space to influence policy (a seat at the table) while others understand its meaning as political space to organize, to operate, to have a legitimate voice, to protest and to dissent. The former tends to depoliticize contestations while the latter is empowering them. These distinctions concerning how ‘space’ is conceived will shape the type of response warranted, with important implications for who engages in that space and how. This paper attempts to deconstruct the ‘shrinking space’ narrative by explaining what it means and unpacks some of the problems inherent in the concept. It also considers who is most affected by ‘shrinking space’, and why; where the trend is headed; how it relates to the other dominant paradigms of the 21st century; and how progressive social movements may respond.