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How Flexible Funding for Women’s Funds Can Shift the Paradigm

Date: March 14, 2024

Aminah Jasho

Head of Strategic Communications, Equal Measures 2030

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What happens when flexible funding meets women’s funds? The answer lies in the potential to drive profound, lasting change.

Women’s funds are crucial players in the drive for gender equality because of their reach and long-term relationships with some of the smallest and most local organizations working daily at the heart of change within families and communities. Global Fund for Women’s analysis of its own data showed that the latest annual budget for almost half of its grant applicants was less than USD $30,000. And yet women’s rights organizations have been proven time and again to be one of the most effective players in bringing about long-lasting change.

There is growing evidence that feminist movements have played a critical role in driving toward goals beyond gender equality, and Equal Measures 2030’s recent report highlights that better and more investment in feminist organizations and movements is needed as their work goes beyond promoting gender equality.

Transformative community action does not happen quarterly, bi-annually, or annually, though; it happens daily. From experience, we know that traditional program funding comes with extensive strategizing, planning, compliance, and reporting burdens, making it harder to focus on creating change. Thus, networks and women’s funds increasingly recognize the need and benefit of flexible funding. Responding to global challenges requires flexible, adaptable, and trusting relationships in deciding how resources should be utilized. Investing in women’s funds with a flexible funding approach can shift power directly to communities to drive solutions supporting their needs, including long-term systemic change driven by “unglamorous” relationship building, bureaucratic work, and frustrating organizing efforts that often take years.

Barriers to Greater Flexible Funding

Several barriers have hindered the shift to more flexible funding. Some of these challenges include the stringent requirements and expectations attached to traditional funding. Similarly, the tendency for funders to adhere to their own strategies often results in a lack of consideration for the needs of different communities. Funders need to listen and give communities the space to dictate their own development strategies instead of imposing predefined solutions.

Moreover, funders need to recognize and accept the inherent risk that comes with flexible funding. They need to offset this risk by building strong relationships with organizations and networks based on trust and mutual understanding. This includes open and regular communication, response flexibility, and implements such as ‘fail-safe’ mechanisms. They should also provide mechanisms for learning and improvement.

Accelerating Flexible Funding

At the same time, there are a number of accelerators that can promote the adoption of flexible funding. These include embracing a more holistic and inclusive definition of value and success, advancing a culture of trust and accountability, and rallying stakeholders around a common mission. The utilization of technology also presents an opportunity to streamline processes and make funding more accessible.

In the context of women’s funds, support for accelerators is particularly pertinent. Traditional funding models can fail to fully support organizations that are responsive to the needs and rights of women because they can be rigid and reductive. Therefore, flexible funding can provide a dynamic and adaptable solution, placing decision-making power directly in the hands of those working on the ground.

Successful Funding Initiatives in the Global South

When we talk about accelerating social change and empowering women, there’s no better way to understand the impact of flexible funding than by consulting real success stories from the Global South.

The Women’s Fund in Mexico

In Mexico, Fondo Semillas is one of the larger gender-focused funds. This organization’s mission has primarily been focused on supporting projects aimed at promoting women’s rights and gender equality. In over 20 years, Fondo Semillas has supported more than 600 projects, reaching around 617,000 women directly. Their projects have spanned everything from reproductive rights to economic independence, education, health, and the fight against gender violence, showcasing the effects of flexible funding that caters to the different needs of marginalized women.

Kenya’s Urgent Action Fund-Africa

This unique fund is entirely run by African women. It operates by providing rapid response grants to women’s rights organizations facing sudden threats or having immediate strategic action opportunities. From supporting local communities to participate in governance processes to backing initiatives against sexual violence, the fund moves resources seamlessly to where they are most needed, a perfect example of flexible funding in action.

Asia Foundation’s Lotus Circle

The Lotus Circle is a philanthropic initiative that mobilizes financial and intellectual capital to advance the rights and well-being of women and children across Asia. Their flexible funding model has been instrumental in enabling both adaptability and the reach of funds.

These case studies present a comprehensive look at how flexible funding can cater to the diverse needs of women from different cultures, regions, and societies. They are evidence of the significant impact made by women’s funds in the Global South that are leveraging flexible, unrestricted funding to drive real change.

What Does Flexible Funding Look Like?

When you consider flexible funding, it’s useful to keep in mind that there is variation in how this goal can be achieved. One key factor in this process is breaking the nonprofit starvation cycle  While unrestricted, multiyear support is perhaps the most obvious form of flexible funding, it’s important to understand that meaningful change doesn’t come in a one-size-fits-all package. It’s expected that project-restricted funding will remain a popular form of support, and it can be a crucial means of funding real change, too.

The Funding For Real Change project has been designed to help funders navigate through a range of practices, including offering needed support for project-based grants. This starts with covering indirect costs — the necessary expenses that keep the organization operating effectively, like administration costs and infrastructure. We then progress to the notion of multi-year flexible funding — a promising strategy that can secure stability for recipients, allowing for effectively planned long-term projects.

A Necessary Shift in Perspective

Thankfully, the importance of covering indirect costs is increasingly being recognized in the philanthropic realm. Viewing indirect costs as an integral part of a project is a crucial first step in more accurately representing the true cost of executing sustainable projects and creating lasting change.

With this perspective at the forefront, the concept of shifting power in the context of women’s funds becomes about rethinking ways of distributing resources, wealth, and influence and moving away from the top-down hierarchical structures that largely characterize our societies today. Shifting power aims to put the decision-making power about what is actually funded, and what that looks like, into the hands of those who are closest to the issues themselves.

Moving beyond the inclusion of indirect costs in funding models, the importance of establishing multi-year flexible funding as the new norm cannot be overemphasized. This shift towards multi-year flexible funding is not just a financial strategy; it’s a commitment to a more trusting and respectful partnership with organizations in the Global South. It recognizes the need for a continuous, rather than episodic, support system that aligns with community-led initiatives’ natural rhythms and cycles. The shift in power dynamics that comes with this approach to funding also hints at a bright future — one that champions more inclusive and decentralized decision-making where diverse voices are not just heard but are instrumental in shaping their unique paths.

Whether working as a donor, activist, or policymaker, our role in this transformative process is pivotal. We are stakeholders in an evolution that calls for our constant understanding, adaptation, and support. We must rise to the occasion — committing to a future where flexible funding is not the exception but the norm, and where every woman and every community has access to the resources they need to actualize their full potential.

Aminah Jasho is head of strategic communications at Equal Measures 2030, founder of Unmothering the Woman, and a consultant with Funding for Real Change. Find her on LinkedIn.

Editor’s Note: CEP publishes a range of perspectives. The views expressed here are those of the authors, not necessarily those of CEP.

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