Happy Women’s History Month. There are only a few days left to this month of focusing on the value of gender equality and the arc of its progression throughout time. I spent a lot of time this month researching and thinking about how women’s funds feed social change. Most of what I learned reinforced the theory that women’s funds represent a unique approach to philanthropy that the rest of the sector would do well to replicate.
My last piece for Women’s history month on this topic is published at Daily Kos, a site dedicated to the larger sphere of progressive political change.
As Philanthropy Opens Up, Women’s Funds Show the Way
Something unusual happened recently in philanthropy: Bill and Melinda Gates opened their annual letter by answering 10 “tough” questions from the public about their philanthropy. The Gates’ Q&A is just one example of philanthropists becoming more responsive to the public. Funders are growing more aware of the value of engaging with the communities they seek to serve. The Fund for Shared Insight (FSI) which is dedicated to bringing more openness to philanthropy, is cultivating this trend; it added five new foundations, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, this past year: Einhorn Family Charitable Trust, James Irvine Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation and Omidyar Network, bringing the number of funding partners in the collaborative to 39.
These new commitments to FSI represent a trend toward participatory grantmaking — a method of listening to and engaging with grantees and community members in the funding process, making the interventions being supported more impactful. It’s a powerful strategy that is gaining momentum, with grantmakers like Wikimedia Foundation increasing the amount of participatory grantmaking into the millions in recent years.
With help from FSI, Women’s Funding Network recently conducted research on the standard openness practices of its members, yielding significant findings about the power of participation.
How Do Women’s Funds Practice Openness?
- Women’s funds recruit community members for several parts of the grantmaking process. Of the women’s funds studied for this research, 79% practiced participatory grantmaking in the form of bringing on grant readers from the communities being served. 74% of women’s funds also had community members participating in funding recommendations and site visits, and 61% engaged community members in evaluating grants.
- Women’s funds use listening tours and other engagement strategies. Listening to the voices of community members is a key strategy that women’s funds practice. 68% of women’s funds in the study engage in listening tours and 88% engage in candid conversation with community members.
- Because women’s funds listen, they do some of the most effective advocacy. 88% of women’s funds engage in advocacy, with 75% engaging at the state level. That advocacy is magnified by 96% of women’s funds engaging in coalition-building — getting other organizations on board when advocating for systems changes.
- Women’s funds prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion. Engagement and listening tours in the community help women’s funds fully appreciate and elevate the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Of the participating women’s funds, 58% have explicit definitions and commitments to diversity, equity, and/or inclusion.
The Women’s Foundation of California, recently introduced three important pieces of legislation through its policy institute that were signed into State law, all of which benefit underserved communities and enhance inclusion and economic equality. In Kansas City, Missouri, the Women’s Foundation was on the forefront of advocating for and enacting new paid family leave policies. And in Chicago, the Chicago Foundation for Women teamed up with other advocacy groups this past year to raise the minimum wage in Cook County to $11.
Bottom Line: Consistently employing participatory grantmaking practices can result in increased resources, knowledge, and self-determination for grassroots movements.
Women’s funds’ standard operating procedure of listening and understanding a community from its perspective, empowers grantmakers and community members to be more effective change agents. Grantees get more opportunities to collaborate with others in the community and participate in advocacy that creates structural change. Grantmakers feel more effective and confident about their connection to the community.
Now more than ever, foundations should fully embrace the participatory grantmaking model that women’s funds have been practicing for decades. By doing so, they will increase their capacity to accelerate the social change they seek.
Kiersten Marek, LICSW, is a clinical social worker and founder of Philanthropy Women. Full disclosure: Women’s Funding Network is the fiscal sponsor for Philanthropy Women.
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