"Everything is Not Fine." Inside a New Funding Push on Girls and Young Women of Color

Pamela Shifman, NoVo Foundation (Photo Credit: Lynn Savarese)Over recent years, a number of initiatives have emerged to support boys and young men of color, with some two dozen foundations involved. But there have been few new efforts aimed at improving the lives of girls and young women of color.

"There's a myth out there that for girls and women of color, everything is fine," said NoVo Foundation Executive Director Pamela Shifman, who assumed that role in 2014 after six years as NoVo's Director of Initiatives for Girls and Women. "But everything is not fine. Here at NoVo, we recognize that there is a huge need to focus on support for girls of color. "

Historically, Shifman explained, NoVo has always had a focus on adolescent girls. Until recently, that focus was directed toward work in the Global South, which the foundation plans to continue, Shifman stressed.

But the foundation's newer work on women and girls of color in the United States, which is culminating now in the formation of Grantmakers for Girls of Color, grew out of an awareness of the overwhelming evidence that women and girls of color in the U.S. face many disadvantages, including poverty, high rates of sexual abuse and domestic violence, and big gaps in education opportunities.  

In fact, Shifman and other experts argue, if you are a young woman or girl of color, the odds are often stacked against you twofold and threefold in different situations. As an example, Shifman pointed to studies showing that girls of color are six times more likely to be punished in school, but, she noted, "there is almost no attention or discussion of things like this."

Related:Where is this New Funders Partnership for Young Women and Girls of Color Headed?

Before getting more into NoVo's new focus on women and girls of color, Shifman offered a panorama of the key values that drive the foundation, which was created in 2006 by Jennifer and Peter Buffett, and greatly boosted in recent years through infusions of Berkshire Hathaway stock from Warren Buffett. In 2013 alone, NoVo received assets from Peter's father valued at $140 million. Its growth has continued since then.

Shifman described six key values that guide the work of NoVo. Number one is love and compassion. While that may sound like a lot of rainbows and unicorns, when Shifman spoke about the foundation's key commitment, here, it actually gave me goosebumps. "We place a very high priority on a compassionate view of the world and coming back to the definition of philanthropy—for the love of human beings." Peter and Jennifer Buffett laid out some of their ideas on this score back in February, in a column for the Chronicle of Philanthropy

Next up for NoVo's values is focusing on the people most impacted by society's problems and letting those people guide solutions. "We avoid top-down solutions," the foundation says. More on that when we get to their plans for the new partnership.

NoVo also places high value on long-term partnerships, and believes there's not enough of those between foundations and nonprofits. "We do at least three-year grants," said Shifman, "and often longer than that."

Another biggie for NoVo is paying attention to the intersection of racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression, and recognizing that a person's identity shapes how he or she experiences injustice. Identifying how problems intersect for girls and women of color—and tailoring solutions with an appreciation for this intersection—is key. Shifman cited the example of a domestic violence survivor who is also an immigrant—a situation with special complications that require special solutions.

A fifth guiding principle for the NoVo foundation is working toward long-term change and addressing the root causes of problems. NoVo does not want to be a Band-Aid foundation. It wants to advance systemic change.

And the final, broad principle guiding the foundation's work, in Shifman's words, is this: "We believe in the power of community, of interdependence, and the sacredness of both human and natural worlds. When we live in balance with each other and the world around us, that is essential for creating a just and meaningful future for everyone."

All of these values play a role in guiding Grantmakers for Girls of Color, whose key stakeholders, so far, are the NoVo Foundation, the Foundation for a Just SocietyMs. Foundation for Women, and the New York Women’s Foundation. These are all important players in this emerging group of funders who want to make more of an impact with women and girls of color, and some of them have worked together before, so they know how to get things done collaboratively. Between 2009 and 2014, for example, the NoVo Foundation worked with the Ms. Foundation to establish a network of leaders and organizations working to end child sexual abuse, and to develop new ideas and resources around this challenge. That work led to the Just Beginnings Collaborative, an independent project funded by NoVo that focuses on social justice work on child sexual abuse. 

NoVo has also sponsored other innovative grantmaking for women and girls, such as supporting A Long Walk Home in Chicago, which has done pioneering healing arts work to support women and girls recovering from sexual assault. In supporting this and other initiatives for girls in the U.S., the foundation's awareness has grown about the number of young women and girls of color impacted by sexual trauma.

As well, NoVo has invested heavily in Girls for Gender Equity in Brooklyn, New York, for its Sisters in Strength program, a paid community organizing internship for high school women of color, ages 16 to 19, who receive advocacy training to act as peer mentors and tutors to middle school students. Again, this work has helped NoVo to hear the stories of young women and girls of color.

The near-term future of NoVo's work on Grantmakers for Girls of Color will involve holding a funders conference in 2016, where they hope to rally as many foundations to the cause as possible. "We want to bring together a diverse range of funders to look at the research on what girls of color need, and talk with girls of color at the conference to strategize and grow the momentum and resources for this movement," said Shifman.

Shifman and the project's partners are hoping to create a space for many different kinds of initiatives and collaborations among many different kinds of funders, with partners drawing on each other's unique strengths and expertise. To summarize the trajectory of this effort, Shifman put it this way: "We want to go from invisibility to investment with this population."

A notable feature of the partnership's plan is to have young women and girls of color set the agenda. "Girls have lived their problems, and they are the experts on their own solutions," said Shifman. "This is the starting point for every aspect of our work. The voices and lived experiences of girls—including trans and genderfluid girls of color—combined with data, will point us towards the most critical areas of change."

We don't see this kind of approach every day. In fact, it's worth contrasting the bottom-up aspirations of this new partnership with the top-down way that funders came together in early 2013, through the Executives' Alliance, to tackle issues related to young boys and men of color. 

Overall, Shifman and the partners are looking to build a bigger, stronger field for addressing the needs of women and girls of color. "Together, we can support incredible girl-serving community-based organizations while also making high-impact grants to institutions and agencies that will drive systems-level change to girls."

This emerging group of funders also wants to empower activists to educate and push for policy solutions for women and girls of color. Said Shifman:

All over the country, activists of all ages in this arena are asking for a much stronger infrastructure to connect, learn from, and be inspired by each other. They seek a strengthened network to promote a shared narrative about the power of girls, while incubating new ideas to disrupt structures based on race and gender injustice. This work includes efforts to ensure that intergenerational leadership in the movement has what’s needed to push the agenda for girls and young women of color.

The thinking here goes against the grain of much philanthropy right now. As we noted recently, many funders shy away from the long-term work of building social movements, and are, instead, infatuated with social entrepreneurs—particularly ones touting market-based solutions. 

Related: Is TooMuchFunding Going to SocialEntrepreneurs—And TooLittle to Social Movements?

NoVo and the partners behind Grantmakers for Girls of Color are among those foundations that think differently about how change happens. It will be interesting to see how many other funders they can draw to this important effort.