Why Feminist Philanthropy? For All the Relationship Reasons

Catherine Gill, Executive Vice President of Root Capital.

Editor’s Note: This post was written by Catherine Gill, Executive Vice President at Root Capital, in collaboration with Charlotte Wagner, Principal of the Wagner Foundation. We are publishing it here at Philanthropy Women because we couldn’t agree more with the message. I see the way feminists do philanthropy differently, and to me, it is the critical difference that has the capacity to reshape communities and economies worldwide. From Charlotte Wagner and Catherine Gill: 

Here’s an indisputable fact: The future of philanthropy is female.

A huge amount of wealth is now in women’s hands, and they are ready to invest it where it’s needed most:

  • 73% of donors worldwide are women.
  • Of the impending $41 trillion wealth transfer between generations, 70% will be inherited by women.
  • Women give almost twice as much of their wealth away as men (3.5% vs. 1.8%).

This is good news for women and girls. Only 12 percent of global philanthropy currently goes to gender-related causes—with more women donors we can hope this proportion will grow. And that’s good news for everyone, since supporting women benefits entire communities.

We know this because, for the last seven years, our institutions (the Wagner Foundation and Root Capital) have been working together to build gender inclusion in agricultural businesses across the developing world. We do this not only because it improves the lives of women, but because inclusive businesses create more economic opportunity for all workers and their families.

While the work we’re doing is certainly feminist, we didn’t immediately think about our philanthropic partnership that way. Over time, we’ve come to recognize subtle differences between the traditional donor-grantee relationship and the way that Wagner Foundation and Root Capital work together. Our feminist approach to philanthropy happened organically, built from years of trust, pointed questions, and open minds.

What is feminist philanthropy?

According to Fondo Centroamericano de Mujeres, a women’s organization in Nicaragua: “Feminist philanthropy is not a charitable act or an act of power. It is an act of solidarity and mutual empowerment.”

To us, it’s about three things: collaboration, lack of ego, and intersectionality. We’re calling this “feminist” because social science research shows that women tend to be more cooperative and to seek creative, holistic solutions. But—just like feminism itself—this approach isn’t only for women. Feminist philanthropy can help anyone who wants to innovate their giving and maximize their effectiveness.

Here’s what we’ve learned.

It’s about collaboration.

Traditional philanthropy often reinforces unhealthy power dynamics: Donors impose their priorities onto grantees, who then impose their preferred solutions onto beneficiaries. This structure may result in positive outputs—more children vaccinated, more teachers trained—but it can also result in unintended harm.

Feminist philanthropy means flipping this dynamic on its head. Instead of decision-making power trickling down from the top, we stand side-by-side. Donors roll up their sleeves and collaborate with grantees. Grantees welcome more donor participation. While both come to the table with certain preferences and assumptions, our experience proves it’s possible to approach this as partners, open to learning from each other.

Charlotte Wagner, Principal of the Wagner Foundation

In our case, Root Capital benefits from the lessons Charlotte Wagner draws from 10 years of experience partnering with nonprofits that specialize in healthcare in the developing world. And, in turn, the Wagner Foundation applies what it learns from working with Root Capital to other grants in other sectors, replicating what works well and losing what doesn’t. As Charlotte puts it: “We are leveraging knowledge and positive change across philanthropic sectors by working together.”

More importantly, this collaboration must extend to (and indeed, center on) the people and communities with whom we work. They are the only ones who fully understand the problems, opportunities, and possible solutions. At a recent event announcing the Gates Foundation’s $20 million commitment to strengthen women’s groups worldwide, Melinda Gates hit the nail on the head: “They know their community. They know what needs to get done.”

As part of our joint initiative, Root Capital and the Wagner Foundation deploy Gender Equity Grants: small disbursements that help agricultural businesses build inclusion of women. Rather than prescribe an approach, we ask community members to identify where the money is needed most, be it a childcare center, an internal savings group, or something entirely different. “The Gender Equity Grants complement the economic benefits of the agricultural loans Root Capital is making, and our hope is that the combination of the two will catalyze a more holistic social change in each community,” says Charlotte. While it’s early to gauge results, we firmly believe these locally-driven solutions will be more sustainable and impactful than anything we could have planned on our own.

Bottom line: The collaborative approach at the heart of feminist philanthropy allows us to discover new angles and opportunities, and craft better answers to complex problems.

It’s about putting aside ego.

We’re in this together. Our successes are mutual, and so are our failures. It may seem obvious, but too often this truism gets lost in the imbalanced relationship between those who hold the purse-strings and those who need the money.

Feminist philanthropy is about mutual empowerment. In our case, the Wagner Foundation makes a conscious and strategic effort to leverage their connections in order to make Root Capital more effective. That’s because Wagner Foundation deeply believes in Root Capital’s mission of growing prosperity for rural communities. And we both recognize that Root Capital can’t accomplish this mission alone. In fact, we need all the help we can get. So we work together to bring more supporters to the table.

Often, both donors and grantees are too interested in getting credit and acclaim. They want to make sure their logo is prominently placed and their spokesperson gets quoted in the media. We know; we’ve been guilty of this ourselves! But even with the best intentions—more attention can mean more money for your cause—this can get in the way of creating impact. A feminist approach means putting aside ego to focus on bringing in more voices and more ideas. Yes, your logo may get overshadowed; but your cause will be brought into the light.

That doesn’t mean we don’t tout our achievements. We’re proud of our impact and want people to know about it. But it’s in service of the greater goal. Tackling poverty or inequality is something philanthropists—and the organizations they work with—should approach with humility. We need to lift each other up if we have any chance of lifting others.

It’s about intersectionality.

Funding, particularly when it comes to international development, can be myopic. In some cases, interventions are Band-Aids—temporary relief, but without a change to the larger structures and dynamics that perpetuate the problem. To create lasting change, we must think holistically.

Donors can help with this. Since the beginning of our partnership, the Wagner Foundation has pressed Root Capital to look beyond the act of disbursing a loan. In some countries where we work, women aren’t allowed to own land. Most have small children, making it difficult for them to work in formal employment or attend skills trainings.

Feminist philanthropy asks: How do we build better communities? How do we change the power structures that push some people forward while holding others back?

The Wagner Foundation has—gently, but persistently—raised these questions with Root Capital since the early days. Drawing on her past experience, Charlotte encouraged Root Capital to think about public health implications, gender-based violence, and challenges facing indigenous communities in rural areas. “It is often not enough to solely focus on one lever of change—greater impact can be achieved by taking a holistic approach and listening to the community about what is most needed,” says Charlotte. Root Capital believes access to capital is vitally important; but this partnership has pushed us to recognize that we need to consider the political, economic, and social context in order to have a real impact. It’s daunting, but it’s also empowering.

In applying the feminist lens, donors can make space for grantees to both accomplish the work at hand and think through the larger implications. Time for learning, innovation, and risk-taking need to be built into the grant agreement. And donors can push this forward by continuing to ask hard questions about intended and unintended impacts. For Root Capital, these questions have made us more effective and have translated to better services for our clients in rural communities.

What’s next?

We aren’t the only ones getting on board with this approach. Pioneers like Women Moving Millions and Maverick Collective are leading the way on growing the amount that female donors give to women’s causes. Many organizations, donors, and investors carefully monitor the gender impacts of their work.

But we’ll say it again: This isn’t just about women. By confronting and upending power dynamics—both between donor, grantee, and beneficiary and in the broader society—a feminist approach to philanthropy can make us all more effective and impactful. We’ve seen that result firsthand.

And now, in the spirit of collaboration, we want to hear what you think. Tell us in the comments section below: What does feminist philanthropy mean to you?


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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.

One thought on “Why Feminist Philanthropy? For All the Relationship Reasons”

  1. You’re writing about relationships? What about the unequal relationships feminist leaders create between women?

    July 2017 saw the election of a new national president and vice president for the National Organization for Women (NOW). Only NOW members who had the money, transportation, time, and substitute care for children, parents, and/or spouses to attend the national conference had voting rights. Feminist NOW leaders chose Orlando, Florida in the middle of the Florida peninsula for this election conference. Orlando is about as far away from the rest of the country as is possible to get. No absentee voting. No voting through state chapters. One of the candidates for president was a Florida resident. Guess who won.

    Fewer than 500 members had voting rights to elect a president and vice president for an organization with 100,000s of members. The National Organization for Women is THE champion at voter suppression and rigged elections. Vote suppressing Republican politicians should take note.

    NOW’s feminist leader have been creating unequal relationships between women for decades. I used to call myself a feminist, but got tired of the verbal and emotional abuse three local feminist leaders heaped on me. All three of those local feminist leaders plus a fourth heaped verbal and emotional abuse on other women as well. Why not? NOW’s feminist leaders routinely abuse and betray the trust of NOW members.

    You need to reconsider those relationships you write about.

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