Women organizing to change the face of philanthropy (6/01)

Worldwide, women are changing the face of philanthropic giving with a collective vision that is global, innovative, and strategic. Personal stories are beginning to transform public policy, and social change is becoming key as women move away from deficiency models of passive grant seeking to power-based, progressive action.The Sociedad Mexicana Pro Derechos de la Mujer (Mexican Society for the Rights of Women), or Semillas (Seeds) as it has come to called, is a perfect example. Founded in 1990 by Mexican feminists with support from the California-based Global Fund for Women, Semillas was one of four recipients of this year’s “Changing the Face of Philanthropy Award,” given by the US-based Women’s Funding Network at their 17th annual conference in Philadelphia. 

Semillas is the only women’s fund in Mexico. Last year, it distributed over $150,000 to 21 organizations throughout the country. Grantees have included sex worker organizations, lesbian groups, and the marginalized women of Chiapas.  The Women’s Funding Network award recognizes its efforts to build a culture of cooperation throughout Mexico. 

“We are about social change,” says Semillas executive director Emilienne de Leon, “about transforming the lives of women. We want to create a new culture of giving, not as charity, but as woman to woman. We are building a network of women who are investing in other women, regardless of class and race. This network is more systematic and integrated than networks have been in the past. It is the first of its kind, and we think we can change the idea of philanthropy so that it is more cooperative and proactive.”

The model for social change through philanthropy that Semillas envisions is one in which people are connected to each other regardless of traditional barriers. The challenge, says de Leon, is to help donors understand that you don’t have to tell people how to do something. “It is not about creating opportunities, or building more shelters. It’s about changing the system to be more transformative in ways that are equitable, ways that provide justice and human rights.”

De Leon sees the challenge as both concrete and abstract. On one hand, concrete action is necessary to show women’s power; on the other, governments and other decision-makers must realize that “their way doesn’t work anymore.”

Bisi Adeleye Fayemi, founder and director of the African Women’s Development Fund in Ghana, agrees completely. “After Beijing, there is no denying women as a powerful social force. And women are clear about their issues, actions, and strategies. But they don’t have the necessary resources. We have to mobilize those resources.”

The African Women’s Development Fund (AWDF) focuses on five priority areas identified by women on that continent: women’s human rights, political participation, peace building, health and reproductive rights, and economic empowerment.   

About 44 percent of Africa’s population, the majority of whom are women, still live below the poverty line of $39 per month. These women lack access to resources such as land, capital, technology, water, and adequate food. Africa’s literacy rate of 50 percent, the lowest in the world, affects mainly women. Its maternal and infant mortality rates are the world’s highest, and the HIV/AIDS pandemic has had a devastating impact. In addition, at least two million Africans have died as a result of war and genocide over the past six years.  Many more are refugees.

The toll on women is incalculable. Still, the African women’s movement has made significant gains. But continuing resources are vital if these gains are to be sustained. The AWDF, launched last year “to sustain the energies of the African Women’s Movement,” will award its first grants to at least 35 organizations in September 2001.

In Nepal, a national women’s fund (TEWA) was founded in 1996 to empower women economically and foster their independence. “The fund involves the resourceful people of Nepal so that we can become less reliant on foreign assistance,” says director Kanchan Rana. The fund has trained a cadre of 175 women who seek internal support. Their efforts have paid off. With a solid endowment in place, TEWA made 120 grants and dispersed $40,000 last year.

Rana supports Semillas and the AWDF in their calls for social change through women’s philanthropy. “We must integrate the conceptual and the practical challenges,” she says. “Power and control over resources are universal issues. But I think women in the developing world must be the priority for social change.”

Women like de Leon, Fayemi, and Rana have joined together with women of the northern industrialized countries in an international women’s funding network that meets annually. Together, they engage in dialogue to foster healthy north/south relationships and share ideas, experiences, and strategies. The discussion continues between meetings via the Internet and listservs.

“The challenge is to go on but also not to go back,” says de Leon. “Our meetings are inspiring. They help us to direct our efforts toward real change.”

That change speaks to a new ethic of cooperation, action, and cutting edge grantmaking on a global scale. “We are connecting the dots,” says one US women’s fund director. “We are turning personal stories into public policy initiatives. And when someone tells us, ‘it can’t be done,’ we just turn around and say, ‘We’ll do it, anyway.’ There is no denying that we are a collective force for social change.”