Women-Led Alternative to Top-Down Philanthropy Is Driving Change

The Women’s Funding Network embraces a ground-up philosophy that empowers women to work together in planning and raising money for community projects. Key to its success, says CEO Cynthia Nimmo, is the fact that WFN takes a long-term view of project impacts.

Written by News Deeply Contributor Published on Read time Approx. 8 minutes
Cynthia Nimmo, left, speaks at a Women’s Funding Network conference in New Orleans.Credit: Women’s Funding Network

The often-patrician act of philanthropy and the Me Too movement may not seem like the most obvious pairing, but for Cynthia Nimmo, president and CEO of the Women’s Funding Network, they are two sides of the same coin.

Formed 33 years ago in California, the Women’s Funding Network (WFN) was a gathering of 20 women leaders who were convinced that philanthropy and social change needed to recognize women’s voices more fully and include them in the discussion. With an intention to “bring together the financial power and influence of funders of gender equity in order to address and solve critical and complex social issues ranging from poverty to global security,” the WFN was born, and is now a growing community of more than 100 women’s funds and foundations spanning 14 countries, with a string of successful campaigns to its name.

One example is the three-year program run by Women Win, which reached more than 65,000 adolescent girls and young women in seven countries. As a result, nine out of 10 girls involved in the scheme know that a woman has the right to say no to sex, 70 percent know where to get money to start a business, 97 percent of their parents had an improved perception of their daughter as a leader, and eight out of 10 now know how to prevent pregnancy, compared to only three out of 10 before.

Nimmo believes that it’s through this kind of long-term strategy – rather than just throwing money at gender-based issues – that WFN, by enabling women to take action in the social, political and financial spheres, has contributed to an environment in which the Me Too and Time’s Up movements have gained traction.

Changing the Landscape

Nimmo, who met Women’s Advancement Deeply on the sidelines of the Sustainable Brands 18 conference in Vancouver, believes that it’s through this kind of long-term strategy – rather than just throwing money at gender-based issues – that WFN, by enabling women to take action in the social, political and financial spheres, has contributed to an environment in which the Me Too and Time’s Up movements have gained traction.

“What [women’s philanthropy] has done, and how it’s changing the landscape, is it’s just broadening it, and broadening it, and broadening it, where Me Too is about a collective narrative, and I think that’s why it’s so powerful,” she says.

“It touches so many people because it’s not really a story about victims and people out there, it’s something that many, many, many women can relate to, whether they had experience, a friend, a sister, somebody, you’d be hard-pressed to find a woman who doesn’t get it when we talk about the Me Too movement. It’s empowering. It is put out there as a show of strength.

“I think what it’s done to change the landscape, it’s blasted open any walls that may have existed, and created opportunities for lots of people to talk to each other, in some cases to be angry, and sometimes anger is what it takes to propel people to step in. I think more and more women, especially, and corporations and other entities are looking for ways to put an end to the things that [make it necessary for] … a Me Too movement … to exist.”

And this is why the WFN was created in the first place – as a diverse group of women from all levels of society working as an antithesis to the white male-dominated world of top-down philanthropy.

Ground-Up Philosophy

“Within philanthropy, traditionally and historically, decisions were being made mostly by men, mostly white men, however you want to say that. In a traditionally top-down model where challenges or issues were identified in communities, and a funder, or funding entity, or foundation, might say, ‘OK, we want to resolve this. Here’s the solution, and here’s the money to do that,’ women looked around and said, ‘We want to have the opportunity to create the solutions.’”

It’s this ground-up philosophy – crucial to WFN’s existence – that stops the organization from being cut off from the groups they are trying to help.

“Women decided they would raise their own dollars from within the community, so the majority of these foundations are public, though some are, of course, family foundations; they would raise money, and because it was their money they would decide and they would identify women leaders within the community and include them in the creation of the solutions. Many times these women they were identifying were not thought of as leaders.”

The WFN’s template is constantly evolving, with innovative new funding models being created at the ground level, which then have lasting effects as other groups in the network adopt their approach.

“In our network, I would say until about the past four years the … core component of our membership were these women’s funds and women’s foundations because 100 percent of their grant-making dollars go toward gender equality, so that’s unique,” says Nimmo. “Because of this increased interest that we’re seeing from individual women, from corporations, because they either have their own foundation or they have their sort of women’s groups just for the company, there is an increased desire to be investing in the community, either where they are located or where their consumers are, and to be looking at women and girls.

“Eight different Women’s Foundations have established something called the Young Women’s Initiative (YWI). This is sort of the power of our network. What happens is, it starts in one place, and then because it’s effective it ripples over into the next state, or the next state, and the next state, so now it’s in eight states.

“It’s an official adviser committee for young women, and in many cases women of color, marginalized women, who – more than simply having a place and space to come together – are given direct access to policymakers. In New York, that adviser committee works with the mayor of New York. In Minnesota, they work with the governor. They are talking about the issues that young women are facing, and this is based on research on the status of women and girls and outcomes, and as advisers they are giving solutions.”

No Barrier to Entry, an Opportunity to Get Involved

WFN is not your average philanthropist group – something Nimmo believes is wholly down to the way women approach the work. She expands: “I think what motivates women is different. I think what encourages them to continue their philanthropy is different. I don’t think that when women get involved, it’s a one-off gift. I don’t think they’re looking at it, at least in the U.S., as, ‘It’s good for your taxes if you give,’ if you make a contribution to a charity. I believe that it is a different set of motivators.

“I don’t think that when women get involved, it’s a one-off gift. I don’t think they’re looking at it, at least in the U.S., as, ‘It’s good for your taxes if you give,’ if you make a contribution to a charity. I believe that it is a different set of motivators.”

“We’re seeing women coming together: Maybe it’s within their workspace; maybe it’s with neighbors; maybe it’s with their book club. They are deciding together on an amount each to give, and deciding together on who and what to fund. There’s no barrier to entry, there’s the opportunity to get involved, regardless.”

This egalitarian philosophy has seen WFN slowly spread to become a global movement.

“There’s a women’s foundation of Ukraine; a women’s foundation based in Nepal,” says Nimmo. “There’s probably about 150 or so. Many of them are younger as far as foundations go, but they function. What is unique about them is in every case, they are the only funding entity in their country that is focused 100 percent on women and girls.

“Imagine, then, whereas in the U.S., there’s 80-plus, if you’re in Mexico and there’s only one, or you’re in Brazil and there’s only one, or you’re in Mongolia and there’s only one, or the Ukraine, it is an enormous task to educate people to try to establish a culture of philanthropy, to educate on gender equality.”

A Different Way of Measuring Success

Another difference with WFN lies in how they view the success of the groups they fund. Their goals are often far less tangible than something that can be easily shown on a balance sheet or pie-chart.

Another difference with WFN is in how they view the success of the groups they fund. Their goals are often far less tangible than something that can be easily shown on a balance sheet or pie-chart.

“In most cases, it’s social change; it is not direct service,” says Nimmo. “It’s not how many beds are in the shelter for battered women. Not to say that’s not a need – it is; but our world is about making social change. That’s what’s challenging to measure. You can count how many women are running for office, and people are, you can count and track companies that are on their own volunteering to close a pay gap, that we can all see, but it’s not the sustainable change that we are about, that’s at the heart of the Women’s Funding Network.

“What has to be measured are shifts. It’s a shift in policy, and that’s with a lower-case p and a big P. It doesn’t just mean laws, but it could mean on a school board. It could be from the most local ‘group,’ it could be an organization or company policy.”

One interaction from over a decade ago sticks in Nimmo’s mind as the perfect exemplar of why WFN has such a unique take on the notion of philanthropy.

“We were talking to Mama Cash, the women’s foundation based in the Netherlands, in 2004. They were doing their evaluation the traditional way, where you would maybe call the grantee and interview them, and find out, ‘OK, we gave you this grant and what happened?’

“They had given a grant to a local organization that wanted to hold a demonstration on violence against women. A brief phone call, and it was sort of like, ‘OK, we did it and we held the demonstration and this is how many people came.’

“What? Who cares? What changed because you had that demonstration? It’s not so interesting if 500 or 5,000 people came – it’s who was there, and what did they do next? Was the mayor there? What if his wife came, too? You have to be able to track the ripple effects.

“Anyway, in this case, the program person just started to ask a few questions, and then they got this whole bigger story, ‘Well, to be able to do this demonstration we had to get a permit; we went to the police station to get a permit and they denied us.’ Because [the police] said, ‘Well, violence against women is not an issue anymore,’ like kind of, ‘It’s been handled.’ This group said they went back again, and again, and again with their materials, and their research, and statistics, to show them.

“At the end, after all these many months of working and changing their mind, they got the permit, and they held the demonstration, and the police force created new positions just on handling domestic assault. They created an entire training program for police officers to identify [it].

“What if that one person hadn’t stayed on the phone to find that out? They would have gotten back a very standard evaluation report that many provide because many foundations ask for that, and that alone. It’s not catching the full story.

“If we can’t do a better job of that and really paint a picture of what it takes to make social change, we also won’t be successful in engaging more women in our case, because they have to understand that social change takes a long time. That’s why we created this in the first place. That’s where it does come down to funders not just to ask better questions but really to understand what goes into making these changes.”

Interview by Megan Clement.

This article was produced as a result of a partnership with Sustainable Brands.

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