Uniting Money, Ideas and Action: The Unique Role of Women's Funds

Posted October 11, 2009 from Bulgaria

Women’s funds are uniquely situated on the funding landscape. They provide invaluable resources for women’s rights work, help raise the profile of emerging women’s rights issues, and are part of women’s movements.

Accelerating Change for Women and Girls: The Role of Women’s Funds, a report of a survey by the Foundation Center and the Women's Funding Network shows how significant the work of women’s funds is. Although the amount of money that women’s funds give is on the whole far less than what large foundations give for women and girls, the impact of their work is far greater. Women’s funds are in effect, the report says, “punching above their weight.” While their grants may seem relatively small, their impact is disproportionate because of their focus on women-led solutions and women as central actors in development. They wield their influence broadly; from grassroots engagement to international level advocacy. In the words of the authors, they "unite money, ideas and action to create lasting change for women and girls, their families and communities."


The survey analysed 1263 funders, most of whom are based in the United States of America. A large number focus their work in the US but many disburse grants internationally. The report shows that in recent years, philanthropy for and by women has intensified. Foundation giving for women and girls rose from USD 412.1 million in 1990 to USD 2.1 billion in 2006. The authors say that this suggests that funders are increasingly aware of the need to give money to women and women-led organisations, and women’s funds have been instrumental in educating other funders about this need. They attribute the fact that the “gender lens principle is gaining increasing traction in the wider philanthropic field” to the work that women’s funds have been doing to ensure that increased amounts of money are given for the benefit of women and girls. Still, the overall amount remains below 7.5 per cent of funds disbursed by foundations.

Funding by women’s funds has also grown rapidly in the past few years. Eighty per cent of organisations surveyed by the Women’s Funding Network reported growth in the number of donors, revenue and giving. Between 2004 and 2006 funding by members of the Women’s Funding Network increased by 24.2 per cent from USD 27 million to 35.6 million. Overall, the Global Fund for Women gave the most money, followed by Ms. Foundation for Women and Women for Women International. While private foundations raise money mainly from individual donors and donor-families, women’s funds raise money from a variety of sources and philanthropic activities. This means that fluctuations in gifts have a great impact on their ability to carry out their work.

The Women’s Funding Network has 145 member funds from all over the world with diverse areas of focus geographically and thematically. There are large world-wide funds such as the Global Fund for Women, national funds like the Ms. Foundation for Women and small local state or county-based funds. There are also regional funds like the African Women's Development Fund and the Central American Women's Fund. Some funds are identity based, like the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice.

The largest amount of money given by women’s funds internationally is for human rights – women’s rights, LGBTQ rights and reproductive rights. Health is the next priority for women’s funds followed by gender based violence. Women’s funds give five main types of support: general, capital and programme support, research grants and student aid funds. Over eighty per cent of the funding that they give is for general organisational and programme support. Most of the grants are small; most beneficiaries of women's funds received less than USD 10,000 in 2006. The median amount disbursed was USD 8,000. Eighty percent of funding by women’s funds explicitly targets women and girls, and most funds focus on women who are economically and socially vulnerable.

Internationally, the biggest funding for women and girls comes from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation whose grants of USD 241, 651, 371 formed 9.6 per cent of its total giving, and 21.6 per cent of the total grants given by foundations in 2006. The next biggest funders are the Ford Foundation and the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation. The bulk of the money that foundations give is for health. They also give significant amounts towards education and youth development and empowerment. Women’s funds ranked as among the top recipients for money from foundations.

Ideas and action

Women’s funds are changing how philanthropy is understood and practised. They have democratised giving and shown that everyone can be a philanthropist. Organisations like V-Day use a grassroots fundraising model to raise money while other funders organise giving circles. A 2008 report by Social Policy Research Associates found that compared with other funders, the composition of boards and staffers of women’s funds are more diverse ethnically, racially and in terms of sexual orientation.

The authors of Accelerating Change say: “While grantmaking is the backbone of women’s funds, what often makes women’s foundations unique is their theory of social change, as well as the role they play as agents in their respective communities.” Women’s funds go beyond providing financial grants to engage in policy discussion and advocacy. They assert that change is accelerated when solutions are created and led by women closest to the issues and 99 per cent of women’s funds surveyed prioritise investment in leadership and the empowerment of women and girls. About 93 per cent prioritise women led solutions to community problems. Women’s funds are instrumental in generating knowledge on the challenges that women face and the solutions they have. They draw attention to these solutions and ideas and take educated risks to support new areas of work and ways of working.

Comments 2

  • Maria Cuellar
    Oct 12, 2009
    Oct 12, 2009

    Dear Marietta,

    It's about time that women get money for supporting their empowerment! Thanks for informing us about these statistics. It really shows that the world is changing and that people understand that women empowerment is an important issue in the world today.

    Thanks for letting us know! Maria

  • Marietta
    Oct 13, 2009
    Oct 13, 2009

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