Stretched Too Thin? New Fund on Sexual Rights Throws Small Change At a Big Problem

Last week was a busy one in New York, as a blur of new initiatives to save the world were unveiled, so don't feel bad if you missed the event where her Royal Highness Crown Princess Mary of Denmark introduced AmplifyChange, a fund to battle for sexual and reproductive health and rights (or SRHR).  

It's not every day that royalty talks about issues like rape, abortion, and contraception, but Denmark is not like other countries. Along with other northern European nations, it's among the most enlightened societies on Earth when it comes to dealing with human sexuality in a practical way. 

So it makes sense that two of the world's leading private funders of reproductive rights, the Hewlett and Packard Foundations, would team up with Denmark and the Netherlands to fund AmplifyChange, which will engage in grantmaking to support groups advocating for SRHR in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

Managing the fund is MannionDaniels, the international public health consultancy and training group, which is based in the U.K. and got a $500,000 grant from Hewlett back in July for this project. The other groups in the consortium are the Global Fund for Women and the African Women's Development Fund. John Worley, a veteran consultant who's long worked the SRHR beat, is the director of AmplifyChange, leading a small staff which is based at the MannionDaniels office in Bath, U.K. 

The fund will be disbursing about $18 million over the next two years. That sounds like big money until you look at the sprawling agenda of this outfit, which will support groups that work to promote sex education, end child marriage, stop unsafe abortion, reduce sexual violence (including genital mutilation), combat discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation, and increase access to reproductive services for the poorest and most marginalized women.

The fund will pursue these manifold goals through three different grantmaking strategies and will work, as we mentioned, across two vast regions that include dozens of countries and over 2 billion people. 

Oy. Even if you added a zero or two to the fund's budget, this would be a lot to take on. Collaboration is good in theory, but this may be what happens when you get too many cooks in the kitchen. 

Now, granted, we've been on a hobby horse lately here at IP about funders trying to do too much, and so we're on high alert for more examples of overreach. Still, this does seem extreme, and our bet is that whatever the partners have already agreed upon will be narrowed down over time, as reality sets in. 

On the other hand, we could imagine a way the fund could get a handle on such a broad agenda with the right grantmaking strategies. Yes, $18 million is small change if you're throwing it in a direct way at a bunch of gigantic challenges like providing sex education and reproductive services. (Compare that figure to the annual budget of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, which is over $125 million.) But such money could make a difference if it's spent very strategically to build up leaders and key organizations that work across the gamut of SRHR issues, and are developing new ideas, narratives, and advocacy strategies for advancing a global sexual revolution writ large.

And AmplifyChange does say that "building movements" and "nurturing new ideas" are two of the grantmaking strategies it will pursue. Offering core support for groups engaged in policy advocacy is part of another of its strategies. 

So maybe this can work, assuming grants are made with iron discipline and laser-like strategic focus.  

Indeed, we've been struck lately by the creative ways that some funders, like the Compton Foundation, have made limited funds go a long way by backing big picture work that breaks down silos. Such efforts matter because social change rarely happens one issue at a time; often it happens amid a broader change in consciousness, intellectual paradigms, or power arrangements, and then specific-issue changes follow.

Related: Compton Foundation: Grants for Global Security

Certainly, the area of sexual and reproductive health and rights feels on the cusp of some kind of sea change, and you could imagine how working the right leverage points could speed that process along. Just to take one small example: If advocates are using an unpronounceable acronym like SRHR to discuss the most urgent human rights challenge of our time, funders clearly have their work cut out for them.