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I.M.O.W. Team

Women's Funds Redefine the "Pie"

How Women Are Changing the Concept of Philanthropy

In the current culture of charitable giving, especially during the 2008-2009 global economic crisis, both donors and funding seekers tend to assume there is a finite and shrinking "pie" of resources available. This means that women's groups must compete against other worthy "causes" for money. Through the unique vehicle of women's funds--pools of money dedicated to helping women and girls--women's advocates are tapping new sources of support and challenging the idea that there is only so much to go around. In the process, they are expanding the pie for everyone and ensuring that resources are distributed more equitably.

Women’s Funds: A Different Kind of Investment

Worldwide, less than 7% of all philanthropic funds go towards organizations focusing on women and girls. In fact, the share of overall foundation giving that goes directly to women and girls has been below 7.5% for the last fifteen years (1).

In 1972, the Ms. Foundation--the first exclusively dedicated women’s fund--was born in the United States. Women’s funds are groups that pool and raise money to give to organizations that are led by and provide support for women and girls.

The creation of these funds ensures that dedicated resources go to women and girls, rather than them having to compete against other "causes," such as the environment and education. Because many of the donors to these funds are women, these funds also allow more women to see themselves as philanthropists and built shared assets that women grow and control--creating new financial power within a population historically left out of opportunities to build wealth and make decisions about money.

Today, nearly 150 women’s funds exist, operating in more than 30 countries across six continents.  They have over $465 million in collective working assets and invest over $60 million per year in community-based organizations serving women and girls (2).

Unique Approaches to Problem Solving

Investing in the leadership and empowerment of women and girls is a guiding principle of most women’s funds. For example, the Indigenous Women’s Fund of the International Indigenous Women’s Forum raises grant money for indigenous women’s groups and provides support for training and skills development. The programs it funds help women--who are multiply marginalized in their communities for being women, indigenous and poor--see themselves as leaders and become better advocates for their own needs. 

Most women’s funds are also dedicated to addressing the root causes of social problems and transforming underlying systems, attitudes and social norms.  For example, the African Women’s Development Fund aims to help women’s organizations throughout the continent make significant and lasting contributions to peace building, eradicate the HIV/AIDS pandemic and bring about sustainable economic empowerment for women.

Women’s funds have a different way of working, often blurring the lines between those who give and those who receive, and broadening resources to include not only money but wisdom, longstanding community relationships and problem-solving know-how.  They seek to re-imagine charitable giving "as a collaborative relationship of trusted equals, organized around core shared values, involving donors at every giving level and promoting diversity in their staffing and decision-making structures" (3).

This emphasis on collaboration sets women’s funds apart from more traditional models of charitable giving, where wealthy individuals "save" the downtrodden poor, who are usually cast as victims in need and not agents with know-how. 

Women’s funds raise awareness about women’s issues among the general public, create dialogue between community members and organizations, and bring together key players to strategize about how to garner more resources and use them most effectively to support women.

Growing Resources and Building Bridges

Most women’s funds seek backing from private foundations, individual donors, and agencies that work internationally.  In this way, women’s funds help channel resources from large agencies, often in other countries, to local organizations, particularly those in the developing world (4). Because many women’s funds are community based and have relationships with local grassroots organizations, they serve as the eyes and ears for international foundations and agencies, who often don’t have in-country staff to help them understand the best ways to tackle  issues on the ground. 

For instance, the Reconstruction Women’s Fund in Serbia (RWF) has raised money from international donors to support their initiatives for Roma women.  Roma women in Serbia have little access to resources and are “off the radar” of most international funders.  The RWF not only re-grants to Roma women’s associations but also helps integrate them into the larger women’s movement in Serbia and raise their visibility. 

Some funds based in developing countries, such as Tewa in Nepal, are adopting a different approach to building their assets. Rather than rely solely on international supporters, Tewa is reaching out to wealthy individuals and major businesses within Nepal to generate more local support. For example, Tewa receives a portion of ticket sales from the national Nepali airline.  One of Tewa’s primary goals is to be financially self-sufficient so that it can make decisions based solely on the needs of women in Nepal rather than the "outside" agendas of foreign donors.

Seeding and Building Movements

Generally, women’s funds give small grants to many organizations rather than a few grants to larger, more established organizations. This means they play a crucial role in supporting organizations that are trying to get on their feet and make inroads on particular issues.

Women’s funds frequently grant start-up funding for new organizations--something most donors are reluctant to do. In many cases, they support organizations for a number of years until those groups can raise funds from other sources and "stand on their own feet." For example, the Ukrainian Women's Fund has enabled women’s organizations to exist in a region where women’s movements themselves are shaky and continuously under attack. 

Some women’s funds intentionally cross borders when reform demands it.  The Frontera Women’s Fund in Texas supports women’s organizations on both sides of the U.S./Mexico border and brings these groups together to fight for gender-sensitive immigration policy reform and social justice.  Meanwhile, the Slovak-Czech women’s fund operates in two neighboring countries. Although they are separated by political boundaries, they are united around women’s rights.

Women’s funds have also banded together when other funders won’t get involved with a controversial issue.  For instance, the Angela Borba Fund in Brazil and the Central American Women’s Fund, which supports women’s organizations through the region, have given unwavering support to groups fighting for progressive reform on sexual and reproductive rights, especially as other funders have withdrawn for fear of entering contentious territory. This kind of backing provides security and a vote of confidence for advocates facing an uphill battle, and helps ensure a more open dialogue and culture of exchange.

A Long-Term Investment

Despite their innovation and creativity, women’s funds don’t control the large sums of "big players" such as the Ford Foundation or the Gates Foundation, so they’ve typically been more cautious about what they fund--and they’ve had to support groups for many years before seeing their efforts bear fruit. Many of them take a long-term, systemic approach to building women’s movements, because they see themselves as a part of women’s movements, rather than simply as donors who are "in and out" after a particular outcome is achieved. 

In fact, many women’s funds have been instrumental in helping to develop cultures of charitable giving and civil society in regions where these are underdeveloped. This has not only generated necessary support for struggling organizations, but helped to enlarge the pool of potential donors and funding sources for a variety of important issues.

A related achievement is that women’s funds have helped more women see themselves as donors, regardless of how much they are able to give. The Global Fund for Women, for example, has successfully raised funds from a wide range of individual donors to support the cause of women’s rights.  Similarly, Semillas in Mexico has developed a growing network of women supporting women, and they have engaged "supportive men" as well--all in a country where philanthropic giving is not very developed.  The Women’s Funding Network’s Women Moving Millions Campaign has inspired the largest gifts ever for women’s funds--$1 million or more per donor--totaling more than $176 million.

In these challenging economic times, women’s funds channel resources to women’s leadership and empowerment, bring awareness to women’s issues, foster cultures of giving, tap new sources of funding and ensure that women’s groups receive the support they deserve and need. Above all, they make investments to address root causes and transform societies for the long term--providing irrefutable evidence that the "pie" is not shrinking but being redefined by women, in ways that benefit us all.


1. Women’s Funding Network, “Accelerating the Change for Women and Girls: The Role of Women’s Funds,” (Accessed August 1, 2009).

2. Women’s Funding Network, “The Network,” (August 1, 2009).

3. Women’s Funding Network, “Accelerating the Change for Women and Girls: The Role of Women’s Funds,” (Accessed August 1, 2009).

4. Conversation with Fernanda Hopenhaym, manager of the “Where is the Money for Women’s Rights” strategic initiative at the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (July 31, 2009).

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