How Gender Lens Funding Can Improve COVID Response

How Gender Lens Funding Can Improve COVID Response

The Women’s Funding Network began more than 30 years ago with the belief that by democratizing philanthropy through local funds created by, and for, women, we could dismantle gender inequity region-by-region across the globe. Thirty years later we see that vision in action through the steadfast efforts of our members during this unprecedented crisis. 

gender lens funding
(Photo courtesy of Brian Wangenheim at Unsplash)

As women’s foundations, gender equity funders, and philanthropists, our members have played a critical role in giving a voice, decision-making power, and resources to women and their families. Women’s funds and foundations’ efforts have ensured that a gender lens remains a central focus and priority in our communities amidst this uncertain moment in history. Without their support, women disappear from the conversation, and from the economic equation entirely when it comes to equitable and appropriate allocation of funds and resources. 

Even with the passage of the largest fiscal relief measure in our nation’s history, the $2 trillion coronavirus economic stimulus law still falls short of addressing women’s needs in several ways.

We are disappointed that women and their families will be forced to jump through numerous hoops for a meager cash payment that won’t end up in their pockets for weeks or months. The law also fails to address the challenges faced by low-wage service workers, who are disproportionately women. While deemed essential workers, as they staff grocery and convenience stores, gas stations, food services, and other businesses, these workers often don’t have paid leave or access to childcare outside of school. The relief package also fails to provide relief or protection to people at risk of domestic violence, who predominantly are women and their children. It also fails to protect undocumented workers, many of whom are women in the home and childcare professions. 

Fortunately, women’s funds and foundations are stepping up to help fill the gaps. For decades, they have been the connective tissue among community stakeholders helping to move women and families toward economic security, and they are now mobilizing so that progress in this area does not go backward.

In response to the COVID-19 crisis, we are seeing seven trademarks of our network’s philanthropic principles being deployed with immediate impact across the world: (1) seeking wisdom and solutions directly from the women and communities most impacted by economic challenges; (2) engaging in cutting-edge research with academic and community partners to identify key drivers of women’s economic insecurity and possible solutions; (3) recognizing that gender equity is inherently interconnected with racial, economic, and health equity and justice; (4) supporting multi-faceted approaches, such as policy change, organizing, and systems change efforts; (5) fostering cross-sector collaborations by bringing together diverse stakeholders and sectors for shared learning and strategy development; (6) investing in culture change work by elevating the issues, promising innovations, and the voices of those most impacted through savvy communications strategies and social media; and (7) leveraging impact by investing in community partners and programs over multiple years through grant-making initiatives and trainings.

For example, within weeks, one of our members, the Women’s Fund of Greater Birmingham (WFGB), established The Rapid Operating and Relief (ROAR) for Women Fund; an emergency relief fund for at-risk childcare centers serving essential workers. 

“We took a week and listened to grantees before acting, and then filled the lane that was needed,” Jacob Smith, grants and research director for the organization, told me. “We want our funding to be responsive to the needs of childcare providers, and we will adapt and evolve as we learn and understand more about the current situation.”

In Alabama, which had only seven percent of their childcare centers open after the stay-at-home order, Jacob said that the foundation’s inquiry discovered that childcare providers were confused about the shutdown and what it meant for their businesses. They wondered how they could maintain six-foot distance from toddlers, and as essential workers, would they be provided with the gear and equipment they needed. 

“Our philanthropy has always been about accelerating economic opportunity for women through a two-generation approach,” Jacob said. “The needs of a mom and the needs of a child are not separate. That’s why we invest in them as a family.” 

Further, Sheri Scavone, Executive Director of the Western New York Women’s Foundation, recently shared with me that they were able to mobilize quickly because they spent years creating relationships across sectors. They had already analyzed the data and made the case for women and families to stakeholders. More importantly, they had built trust amongst lawmakers, so that now, those lawmakers called the Foundation to ensure women’s needs were included in the state’s response to the pandemic. 

Alison Friedman Phillips, Director of Programs for the Women’s Foundation of Colorado, also said that she felt her foundation was set up to successfully address their community’s needs amid the COVID-19 crisis, because they had long engaged in policy advocacy to advance systemic change for women. 

“It feels like the issues that we’ve been focused on for our whole existence are now coming to the forefront,” Alison said. “Healthcare, childcare, the system inequities that have impacted women and people of color for generations – COVID-19 cut the sliver of string that was holding everything together.”

Like many of our members, the Women’s Foundation of Colorado’s deep investment – from taking positions on legislation, working with a contract lobbyist, engaging with statewide advocacy, and being identified as a convener and trusted voice for early childcare and education – has enabled them to move the needle even as their countries are reeling. 

“Everyone depends on someone who depends on childcare,” Lisa Christie, Senior Director of Communications at the Women’s Foundation of Colorado, said about the organization’s efforts. “Now, everyone can see that childcare affects all businesses. It is the backbone of the economy. The pandemic has highlighted this in new ways.”

A 2020 survey of our members revealed that the majority deployed their funding with a systems approach. They told us that they believe lasting economic security requires investment in training and career pathways for women, child care access, quality early education, reducing intimate partner violence, peace advocacy, racial justice and healing, leadership advancement, and health. In 2018 alone, 46 of our women’s foundation members invested $50 million to strengthen the combination of interlocking parts that move women and girls from poverty to prosperity. 

While there are bigger players in the gender equity funding field, few have the WFN network infrastructure critical to leveraging collective resources and influence for social change. WFN is a community with members in 37 US states, 11 countries, and 6 continents. We’re a tight knit group of thought leadership and practice, as well as a platform for aligning investment to fuel our movement in good times and bad. 

Despite managing financial loss and COVID-19 illness in their institutions, women’s funds and foundations remain committed to their grant-making, and are rapidly adapting to meet the changing landscape. 

Now is the time for the rest of the philanthropic sector to join us. Investment in women’s funds and foundations from traditional philanthropy and donors is an investment in our shared fight against poverty, illness, and despair. 


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Author: Elizabeth Barajas-Román

Elizabeth Barajas-Román is the President & CEO of the Women’s Funding Network, the largest philanthropic network in the world devoted to gender equity and justice. For more than 20 years she has been a leader in progressive movements, including advocating at the national level for the health and rights of immigrant women and their families. She was previously a manager at The Pew Charitable Trusts, and before that, the Director of Policy at National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health. Elizabeth serves on the national Board of Directors for Emerge and is on the steering committee for the New England Women’s Policy Initiative. She is a member of the External Advisory Board for the University of Massachusetts-Boston Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy, and the Massachusetts Treasurer appointed Elizabeth to serve on the state’s Economic Empowerment Trust Fund Board, and the statewide Advisory Board on Wage Equality.

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