Getting Gender Back in Giving

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Posted Date : November 13, 2013

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I recently received a call from a researcher on a new project. As I understood it, a prominent U.S. foundation had asked them to study how domestic donors deal with gender issues. They were to identify funders with a specific commitment to the gender lens in their funding priorities, and then document how these funders tracked the implementation of the gender analysis through grantmaking and programs.

It sounded like a fascinating project, but one on which I could not shed much light. The truth was, the funders I knew that had a strong, explicit focus on gender—whether that meant disparate impacts on women and families or challenging rigid norms of masculinity and femininity—were almost all international or at least international-facing.

Even a decade ago, Women & Philanthropy in “The Case for Better Philanthropy: The Future of Funding for Women and Girls” noted: “For the better part of the last three decades, international aid agencies have made a concerted effort to use gender in their grantmaking and loan strategies…based on numbers that tell them how effective their grants are.

Indeed, a lot of the energy for promoting the gender lens seems to be coming from or strongly linked to international donors. For instance, consider GrantCraft (which has a European and U.S. focus) and its guide, “Grantmaking with a Gender Lens.” or Mama Cash’s excellent new guide, “Funding for Inclusion: Women and Girls in the Equation.”

Sometimes the split seems very visible. For instance, I was excited to see that the 2013 International Conference on AIDS scheduled an evening panel discussion on gender norms and HIV. However, it turned out to consist of almost entirely international-facing players like PEPFAR, USAID, UNAIDS, Sonke Gender Justice (South Africa), and Promundo (Brazil).

Many of the U.S. program officers I know who are doing innovative grantmaking that engages a strong gender analysis are doing it outside of funding guidelines, often because of deep personal belief in an intersectional model that connects gender and race and class. They understand that when you look at the social determinants of health and wellness, especially in at-risk communities, gender norms and ideals must be part of the mix.

Yet as Loren Harris at Frontline Solutions has noted, foundation staff are often already challenged introducing evidence of racial inequities to justify grantmaking investments: When it comes to Black or Latino communities, promoting an intersectional analysis that simultaneously addresses race, sex, possibly low-income status, and gender may simply seem too daunting.

I suspect one reason international folks find it easier to address gender is that many of them fund in developing countries from a human rights model. It’s almost impossible to try to improve conditions in communities where a woman can’t own property, walk unescorted down the street, select her own husband, or expect to be his sole spouse unless you address cultural codes of masculinity and femininity along with age, race, socio-economic status, and so on. And the human rights model provides an excellent framework for doing just that.

However, things are starting to change. A group of forward-leaning donors are looking for ways to take what has been learned internationally and apply it to domestic philanthropy and reenergizing the gender framework.

As “The Case for Better Philanthropy” noted in 2004, some of these “funders are seeking to escape the restrictions of single-issue grant programs…that do not adequately address the complexity of how people actually live and the ways various forms of oppression intersect for people in marginalized communities.”

As the passion for less fragmented and more intersectional grantmaking grows, we may be beginning to see a deeper embrace of gender transformative philanthropy by domestic donors.

Riki Wilchins is executive director of TrueChild.

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