In the #MeToo Era, Here's What Philanthropy Can Learn From Women's Foundations

 photo:  RightFramePhotoVideo/shutterstock

photo:  RightFramePhotoVideo/shutterstock

The #MeToo movement is challenging power structures that long enforced the silence of women who endured sexual harassment, abuse and assault. But while the start of this movement is often traced to revelations last October about Harvey Weinstein, it's important to recognize that there's a much deeper backstory, here—one in which philanthropy has played an important role. 

In key respects, the #MeToo movement was made possible by decades of work by women’s funds and the women’s advocacy groups they patiently supported. These funds, which have come to operate worldwide, invested in community-based efforts to end sexual violence long before the #MeToo uprising. They listened to the experiences of survivors and responded by funding shelters, public awareness campaigns, and advocacy efforts aimed at shifting social policy. The central practice that women’s funds used to cultivate the ground for #MeToo is openness. In recent months, we've witnessed the visible impact of valuing women’s shared experiences, having frank conversations, and collaborating—all critical elements of the kind of movement building long supported by women's funds. 

This history carries larger lessons for philanthropy writ large. Across the sector, funders are growing more aware of the value of openness—of listening to and engaging with the people they seek to serve. The Fund for Shared Insight (FSI), a funder collaborative dedicated to increased openness in philanthropy, is feeding this trend, and added five new foundations this past year, including the Gates Foundation, bringing the number of its funding partners to 39.

These new commitments to FSI come at a time of growing interest in participatory grantmaking—the practice of not just listening to grantees, but engaging them in the grantmaking process to optimize impact. While participatory grantmaking has been gaining momentum lately, many women's funds have long embraced this approach. 

With help from FSI, Women’s Funding Network recently conducted groundbreaking research on its members and the ways their openness practices foster social change movements. With over 100 women’s foundations spanning 21 countries and 6 continents, Women’s Funding Network brings together these powerful community-based funders, helping them advance gender equality. Here are a few strategies that women’s funds use to cultivate openness.

Strategy #1: Bring community members into the grantmaking process.

Of the women’s foundations studied for this research, 79 percent practiced participatory grantmaking. What does this look like? Diverse members of the community, including nonprofit organizations and individuals benefiting from grant funding, are included on their grant review teams. These teams review grants, conduct site visits, deliberate on the slate of proposals recommended for funding and, in some cases, engage in evaluating impact of the grants.

Strategy #2: Conduct listening tours and use other forms of engagement to gain insights about community needs.

Listening to the voices of community members is a key strategy that women’s foundations practice. How? The vast majority conduct community research that is highly participatory and includes listening to, reporting back and engaging constituents in solutions for their community. Women’s funds recognize that real and lasting change requires frank conversations.  

Strategy #3: Engage in advocacy and network with other advocates to seek structural change.

Eighty-eight percent of women’s foundations engage in advocacy—municipal, regional, statewide and national efforts to address the systems that perpetuate gender and racial inequity. Women’s funds work in coalition with other groups to educate, raise awareness, and advance causes in the public square.

Strategy #4:  Be intentional and explicit about diversity, inclusion, and equity.

Explicit definitions and mission statements that value diversity, inclusion and equity are integrated into all aspects of women’s foundation work. This is critical to successful outcomes and impact.

In the movement to end sexual violence, women’s funds have been leading the charge and getting results. For example, the Women’s Foundation of California helped pass a bill that extended public benefits including health insurance and employment resources to victims of sex trafficking, domestic violence and other crimes. In Minnesota, the Women’s Foundation launched a six-year, $6 million campaign to end sex trafficking of girls in the state, and supported the advocacy efforts that provided safe harbor for girls being trafficked. The Women’s Foundation of Minnesota also invested in the creation of the first-ever statewide comprehensive plan to end sex trafficking of minors.

As the #MeToo movement continues to build power both nationally and globally, women’s funds will play a pivotal role. New, larger investments in gender equality, such as the recent announcement by the Gates Foundation of $170 million in funding globally, will feed the expansion of this work.

Kiersten Marek, LICSW, is clinical social worker in private practice and a former Senior Editor for Inside Philanthropy. In January of 2017, she launched Philanthropy Women, which publishes news and information on how women donors are funding progressive social change. Full Disclosure: Women's Funding Network is the fiscal sponsor for Philanthropy Women.