As NoVo Downsizes, What Next for Women and Girls?

A bombshell was dropped today on feminist funding: Marc Gunther reports from the Chronicle of Philanthropy that NoVo Foundation has laid off half its staff, backed out of the Women’s Building project, and is otherwise downsizing its operations in the gender equality funding arena. “It’s about time other people ponied up,” said Peter Buffett in the Chronicle interview.

Novo downsizes what next

Yes, it is about time for others to pony up. If only there were tons of donors standing in line to pony up for women and girls. As it turns out, that’s not quite the case. And certainly no one knows that better than Peter Buffett.

The fact is, most male donors don’t share Peter Buffett’s former sense of enlightenment about the need to fund with a gender lens — not even close. So for one of the few men who truly gets it to be walking away from the table at this particular moment in history, all I can say is, wow. Just wow. Some leaders have a tendency to overpromise and underdeliver. Apparently, Peter Buffett is one of them.

Unsustainable: Feminist Funding is Crumbling Before Our Eyes in the Age of COVID

When Peter Buffett said on the Laura Flanagan show that the revolution would not be funded, it seems he may have also meant that the revolution would not be occurring at all. Instead, we will continue down the path of the Handmaid’s Tale and go back to treating women as second class citizens.

According to Gunther’s article, NoVo Foundation is undergoing a philosophical shift. The nuts and bolts of that shift look like this:

Because of the financial uncertainties, NoVo will make only one-year grants for now. It has laid off half of its staff of about 36 people, including at least half a dozen women of color. It is eliminating a grant-making program called Ending Violence Against Girls and Women, which funded groups to fight sex trafficking and domestic violence, and it plans to spin off an effort called Advancing Adolescent Girls’ Rights into a freestanding nonprofit in hopes that more grant makers will join that work. “It’s about time other people ponied up,” Buffett says. NoVo will continue to support the organization, which will be operated outside the foundation, perhaps at one of its partners, like the Tides Foundation or Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors.

So in case you didn’t get that, they are ELIMINATING the Ending Violence Against Girls and Women program, and hope to spin it off the adolescent girls’ rights work into a nonprofit that other donors will fund.

“Who’s most to blame for @NoVoFoundation cutbacks?” asked David Callahan, Founder of Inside Philanthropy, on Twitter. “Warren Buffett, who should have given away his fortune much faster in recent years, endowing his kids’ foundations. Instead, he stuck them with a vulnerable PAYGO model.”

Ultimately, the funding model for NoVo Foundation was not endowed, but depended on stock dividends from Berkshire Hathaway, which has lost value in recent years. As such, the funding for women and girls through NoVo Foundation was set up on an unsustainable model.

“Buffett chose to remain one of the world’s richest people over putting his wealth to use much faster to improve the world. Bill Gates, by the way, has also gotten twice as rich since the Giving Pledge launched. And these are our models of billionaire philanthropy?” wrote Callahan.

“Even now, after huge market losses, Buffett is worth $67 billion. But instead of using a nano sliver of that to fully fund The NoVo Foundation in this critical period, he’s lettings its work to defend the world’s most vulnerable women and girls get gutted.”

Of the 1.6% of funding that philanthropy overall dedicates to women and girls, a significant chunk of that came out of the NoVo Foundation. In 2016, NoVo pledged to give out $90 million for women and girls of color, and also gave out $80 million to end gender-based violence over the past decade. Who will fill the enormous void in these grantmaking spaces?

It’s an important question for every feminist giver out there to ponder: will you be able to contribute more, or is it time to fix the systems that produce these hoarders of massive amounts of resources, who can turn on a dime and walk away from us at any moment?


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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.

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