Fenomenal Funds is a feminist funder collaborative using a shared governance model and participatory grantmaking to support the resilience of women’s funds who are members of the Prospera International Network of Women’s Funds.


Lessons in Real Time

Drawing on Emergent Learning in Feminist Philanthropy

by Shama Dossa

When I joined Fenomenal Funds (FF) last year in September 2022 as Feminist Manager Learning and Evaluation I was excited to be tasked with the challenge of how to put together a learning agenda for this unique initiative through a participatory process. FF had already started grantmaking in 2019 and had disbursed two rounds of grants. Now we had to figure out how to learn from what we were doing, share it with our key stakeholders, and integrate the learning and knowledge gained back into our model, while continuing to experiment with different modalities of feminist participatory grantmaking and shared governance.

Just for those of you who have not heard about us – Fenomenal Funds is a feminist funder collaborative that aims to strengthen the ecosystem of women’s funds by supporting them as a collective through partnering with the Prospera International Network of Women’s Funds. In doing so, we hope women’s funds are able to deepen investments in their own organizational strengths and capacity to respond to the needs of the feminist movements they are a part of. Women’s funds have a long track record of knowing where, and more importantly how, to support feminist movements because they are close to the communities they support, and can respond quickly to what is needed most. Women’s funds sustain hundreds of women’s organizations worldwide. They support issues or groups that have difficulty accessing resources (indigenous women, peasants, poor women, lesbians, young women, women with disabilities, etc); provide core/institutional support as well as some travel grants; integrate capacity-building into their grant-making; and many rely on volunteer advisors . 

Our initiative is based on the premise that women’s funds, particularly national women’s funds in the global south are chronically underfunded, yet are also the main source of funding for grassroots feminist movements. Therefore, supporting them is key to strengthening the infrastructure, resilience, and visibility of feminist movements and advancing gender equality worldwide.

Our model explores unique modalities of combining feminist participatory grantmaking and shared governance to support women’s funds. We see our approach as a new way for women’s funds and private philanthropy to collaborate as peers through a system of shared governance based on feminist funding principles

The idea is to look for ways to work together in partnership. Since a lot of what we are attempting to do is unprecedented and there is limited literature on how to do this. Therefore learning from our actions is a core component of our funding model and we need to take an iterative and flexible approach. We also hope to build on the existing knowledge base and share our learning with the border community.

In our initial consultations with women’s funds and funding partners in our steering and advisory committee, we gathered some guidance

  • We don’t want to wait to find out what we have learned in two years or at the end we want to know in real time so we can use the knowledge generated to advocate for the changes needed now.
  • We need an approach that can capture learning given the complexity and the dynamics of the context we work in (this includes the pandemic, closing civic spaces, war & conflict; shift in funding priorities, scope, scale, geographical diversity and size of women’s funds etc. ) 
  • Our focus needs to be on learning from the collaborative processes we are engaged in. 
  • The approach needs to be participatory – we need to be able to share what we are learning with women’s funds, our funding partners and the broader philanthropic community.
  • We need to know how our model of feminist grantmaking and shared governance is making a difference to women’s funds; the Prospera INWF Network & funding partners.
  • Hence we require an approach which will help us to capture and synthesize what we learn and integrate it into our model for it to evolve based on feminist principles.

After reviewing various approaches and deliberation in consultation with our governing bodies we have decided to work with an Emergent Learning Framework under the broader umbrella of feminist learning and evaluation principles. We believe that feminist principles will guide our approach and emergent learning will provide the tools to support sensemaking of the constantly evolving learning from actions taken and loop them back to further actions to improve on our model and achieve our goals.

Feminist Learning & Evaluation 

Drawing from Birsola (2014) and Podems (2018) work on Feminist Evaluations we have adapted some key Feminist Evaluation principles to apply to our learning framework. For us community learning and sharing needs to be framed by the following principles: 

  1. Acknowledge & take into account that learning is a political activity; and personal experiences, perspectives, and characteristics come from and lead to a particular political stance.
  2. Contextualize knowledge as it is culturally, socially and temporally contingent.
  3. Generate and use knowledge as a powerful resource that serves an explicit or implicit purpose.
  4. Respect multiple ways of knowing.
  5. Be cognizant that research methods, institutions and practices are social constructs.
  6. Frame gender inequities are one manifestation of social injustice; discrimination cuts across race, class, and culture and is inextricably linked to all three.
  7. Examine Discrimination based on gender is systematic and structural.
  8. Act on opportunities to create, advocate and support change, which are are considered to be morally and ethically appropriate responses of an engaged learner

Emergent Learning

According to Darling et al. (2016) the field of philanthropy needs tools that expand agency, support rapid experimentation, enable stakeholders dialogue to learn from each other, and make their thinking visible.

The Emergent Learning Framework is:

  • a process for navigating ambiguity & complexity…it creates a strong link between thinking and doing. 
  • it encourages experimentation and cross pollination of ideas through a set of principles, practices and tools – starts with articulating an open-ended framing question 
  • Enables individuals, teams, organizations, and cross-sector collaborations to collectively learn from experience and adapt their strategies in real time

What is interesting is the approach of making tacit thinking visible and posing of forward looking learning questions that hypothesize – in a way testing our theory of change – so for example in our case it could be asking broad overarching learning questions like

“What will it take for the 44 members of the  Prospera INWF to channel more long-term flexible funding to grassroots women’s movements & support women’s movement strengthening?”

 We may think that for this to happen we may need a transformation in the funding ecosystem so we may then have a sub hypothesis like 

If we democratize and decolonize how funding is distributed to women’s funds – then funding decisions center the needs and priorities of women’s movements and women’s funds will have more flexible core funding”. 

In tandem we may also hypothesize 

If funding decisions are democratized then there will be more transparency and accountability to women’s funds and funding decisions will center the needs and priorities of women’s funds”. 

 More practically we may ask more specific questions of our model like 

  1. What will it take to share power in this shared governance model to support decolonization and democratization within the Fenomenal Funds initiative? 
  1. How do we leverage the FF model for core flexible long term funding for women’s funds with targeted stakeholders?

This is followed by collectively looking at our current actions and using evidence drawing on a set of tools to reflect on how we can synergistically improve our actions to achieve our goals and test our hypothesis in real time. 

We are now in the process of working out how to apply this combination feminist learning principles and emergent learning through our learning strategy. More updates soon!

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  • […] have the power to define funding priorities iteratively and in dialogue with funders. We draw on an emergent learning framework to support this process as it allows us to learn and pivot in real time to meet the needs of […]

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