Fenomenal Funds started 2020 with a plan to provide core unrestricted funding to build up the institutional infrastructure of women’s funds, with a focus on members of the Prospera International Network of Women’s Funds (INWF). The collaborative understood that if women’s funds are to channel more and better resources to feminist movements, their systems and structures had to be robust and adaptable, and their grantmaking had to remain relevant to their dynamic and shifting contexts.
The plan was to launch a competitive participatory grantmaking process to award the first round of grants to women’s funds.
Then COVID-19 happened.
The global health and economic crisis triggered by COVID-19 exposed and exacerbated existing inequalities that cut across gender, race, class, and sexual identity. As in most emergencies, the impact on women, girls, and LGBTQI communities was particularly hard. As feminist movements mounted a response to a set of intersecting crises, stepping in to address challenges and respond to needs that governments and other agencies ignored, they needed support. Women’s funds had to adapt to the demands of the moment to support that response.
Women’s funds themselves also faced new challenges. The need for core flexible funding for women’s rights organizations and feminist movements could not have been more relevant.
Rooted in Feminist Funding Principles, Fenomenal Funds adapted to these challenges. Instead of continuing with plans developed before the pandemic, the Steering Committee stood in solidarity with women’s funds. We offered core operating support grants to all women’s funds who are members of the Prospera INWF. The only restriction on these grants was that funds had to be used for institutional needs and not for grantmaking.
The application for the grant was streamlined to a simple set of questions. In addition, each of the women’s funds completed a self-administered risk assessment to give better clarity to the challenges that they faced in light of the pandemic.
Women’s funds anticipated that COVID-19 and the related economic downtown would have lasting effects on the funding ecosystem. They had concerns about losing core funding and saw possibilities of government restrictions on financial flows. They also worried about the health and wellbeing of staff, especially with a majority of female staff who would take on increased dependent care responsibilities at the same time that they faced new work demands. Finally, women’s funds also recognized that they were vulnerable when it came to infrastructure and technology as well as digital security. As work shifted to online platforms, women’s funds needed equipment to support staff working remotely and security measures to keep information secure.
The highest priority based on allocation of funds was for people. Women’s funds allocated 32% of funding to salaries and other staff-related costs. Project-based funding often denies organizations enough funding to remunerate people. When women’s funds have access to core support, they prioritize their teams. This was particularly critical as families faced loss of income and countries lacked comprehensive social safety nets.
Another area of significant investment was a 24% allocation toward technical support, which focused on building up internal systems such as strategy, fundraising, knowledge management, and leadership transitions. Building organizational infrastructure supported each women’s fund to adapt to changing conditions and the new demands of their context.
Physical infrastructure and equipment, digital security, and transportation also required additional support. This was necessary to support staff working remotely, within a context where there was increased surveillance and cyberbullying. In light of this, women’s funds also used their resources to build up strategies for collective care and the wellbeing of staff. This was in recognition of the added stress that staff faced in the midst of the pandemic, including growing caregiving responsibilities placed on women.
But women’s funds did not only focus on their immediate needs. They also invested in long-term sustainability by building up financial reserves.
Deciding who to fund and what to fund is an exercise of power. Participatory approaches hold promise for democratizing how decisions are made and who gets to be part of making those decisions. The 2020 Solidarity Grants show how a joint decision shaped by women’s funds, private philanthropy, and the Prospera Secretariat centered the immediate needs of women’s funds while keeping long-term strategy in mind. COVID-19 placed serious demands on the globe and women’s funds were no exception. By taking seriously their individual contexts and wellbeing, women’s funds, along with their decision-making partners, were able to carve out a judicious path forward.