Leap of Faith: Oxfam Studies Funders for Women and Girls

Oxfam did the world another service recently by producing a report called A Leap of Faith: Conversations with Funders of Women’s Organizations. The report, which was written by I.G. Advisors, tells the story of how the funding landscape for women and girls feels close up — the ways that these funders struggle with trusting their grantees while also finding useful metrics to measure their work.

Oxfam has produced a new report studying how funders for women and girls approach their work. (PHOTO CREDIT: Nana Kofi Acquah / Oxfam)

Dr. Fenella Porter of Oxfam introduces the report by examining the profound power imbalances that exist between grantees and grantmakers across the board. She suggests that one form of power that grantees have is the power inherent in being the information collectors — the bringers of knowledge. “Knowledge is certainly power,” Porter continues, “but we must also recognize the many other power imbalances” that exist in philanthropy.

The power differential in philanthropy is a central topic that is gaining more recognition than ever in our culture. Writers like Anand Giridharadas and Kathryn Moeller are pulling back the wizard’s curtain on the rich in new and powerful ways, and we are beginning to see a dynamic between givers and receivers of charity that is fraught with imbalance from its inception. One simple way to put it is that grantees need philanthropists, but philanthropists don’t really need grantees — they can choose to keep them or discard them at any time. Therein lies one of the central problems in the relationship.

In this context of imbalance, though, funders focused on women and girls are taking important steps to improve the power balance between grantees and funders. The existing research tells us that funders for women and girls recognize the added value of multi-year and core funding (general operating support) and that funders are attuned to such issues as intersectionality, the need for connection to larger systems and movements, and recognition of issues like self-care.

The enhanced recognition of power imbalance is something that is more pronounced in funders for women and girls, according to the report. But these funders don’t often feel like there is much they can actually do about that imbalance. “Many spoke of deeply entrenched structural inequalities present in society. In some situations, they felt that as an individual they identified strongly as feminist, but that the funding institutions – including INGOs – and funding landscape in which they operate were reflecting or reproducing a patriarchal system that prevented them from giving in the way they wanted to and reaching their desired gender justice goals.”

Therein lies the deep conundrum of women’s giving. Essentially, the grantmaking relationship when reduced to its bare bones is more like an employment relationship than most people realize, where the rich are the owners of the means of production, and the grantees are the laborers, at the mercy of a “survival of the fittest” market competing for grant dollars. This competition produces healthy, and unhealthy, side effects and results.

So What’s To Be Done?

The report discusses a number of ways that funders for women and girls try to mitigate the power imbalance of their relationship with grantees. “We try and bring girls’ voices wherever we go,” said one funder, referring to sharing at conferences. Others discussed taking an inclusive approach to grantmaking so that the grantee was part of the decision-making process. Others talked innovations like including grantee perspectives in the design of their application forms.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons that givers like Melinda Gates are beginning to split their money between venture capital investing and philanthropic investing. While philanthropy is one tool to enhance gender equality movements, it may be true that seeding women entrepreneurs and supporting feminist-led business is also just as powerful if not more powerful.

Where is the Proof of Effectiveness?

In a trusting relationship, which many women funders say they want to have with their grantees, is there room for proof? The report also addresses the age-old question of how grantees prove their effectiveness to their funders.

Some funders for women and girls appear to be reconciling with the fact that the issues of gender equality are complex and long-term, and trying to track the results of your work with metrics may not be fruitful, particularly early on. Hence, they are beginning to track progress more qualitatively. A quote from one funder seems to capture this approach: “We don’t have specific KPIs around impact or number of participants reached, number of organizations reached. For us, impact means that we know the organizations are thriving in their communities. We know that they are being part of global conversations. We see the young leaders taking on stages on global conferences, making their case, accessing additional funding. This is the kind of impact that we want to see.”

For those of us committed to a more gender equal world, Oxfam’s new report, which also includes grantee perspectives, is a must-read. Both funders and grantees can gain valuable insights from reading the report, and experience validation of the issues they confront every day as they pursue their work. They can also get new ideas for how to shift the grantmaking relationship further in the direction of power balance, and consider new options for how to make that shift happen in real life.


Philanthropy Women covers funding for gender equity in all sectors of society. We want to significantly shift public discourse, particularly in philanthropy, toward increased action for gender equality. You can support our work and access unlimited and premium content with one of our subscriptions

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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