The Global Fund for Women -- Reshaping Philanthropy Along Feminist Lines

Buoyed by the recent completion of a successful $20 million fundraising campaign, the Global Fund for Women (GFW -- is finding new momentum in its quest to nurture a growing network of grassroots women's organizations, and to energize feminist philanthropy through the mobilization of what it calls "donor activists."

As it faces the future, however, GFW's trademark resourcefulness is being tested as never before by the emergence of new threats to women's well-being around the globe -- from HIV/AIDS and religious fundamentalism to social and economic divides aggravated by military conflict and globalization.

As it moves to address these external threats to women's rights, the Global Fund is also facing a different type of challenge -- the task of sustaining, in an era of rapid expansion, the close-knit sense of community among grantees and donors that has been a core value since its earliest days.

Seeding change for women

In fact, the origins of what is today the largest women's fund in the world are remarkably similar to those of the thousands of grassroots organizations that it serves around the globe -- a small handful of women finding empowerment by working together toward a mutual vision of social change.

In the case of the Global Fund, the vision was supplied in 1987 by Anne Firth Murray, a New Zealander by birth, who was then director of environment and international population programs at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. Murray understood the central role that women played in development, and was concerned at how little money was going from US donors to support women-run groups internationally.

Frustrated by the lack of support for community-based approaches to international development, particularly those led by women, Murray took action. Inspired by a dinner discussion with two other women at the annual conference of the Council on Foundations in 1987, Murray decided to create a new organization to seed, strengthen and link women's groups around the world. Her dinner companions, Frances Kissling and Laura Lederer, both social activists, signed on as co-founders and GFW was born. (A personal account of Anne Firth Murray's experiences as founder and first president of the Global Fund for Women is provided in her recently published book, Paradigm Found: Leading and Managing for Positive Change.)

Accustomed to giving away money in her grantmaking role at the Hewlett Foundation, Murray now had to learn to raise it as well. Critical support was provided in the first year by a group of 35 contributors who gave $5,000 each to get GFW off the ground -- "the best five thousand dollars I have ever spent," says founding donor Esther Hewlett.

Empowering women: a pioneering approach

From the beginning, GFW was pioneering in its approach, which put money directly into the hands of women, the true experts at addressing problems in their own communities in the developing world, according to Hewlett.

From her work at the Hewlett Foundation, Murray had learned the value of general operating grants, which to this day are the primary vehicles for funding GFW grantees. To simplify the application process and respect indigenous traditions, GFW also decided it would receive proposals in any language.

Grants typically range from $500 to $20,000 annually and support women-led organizations around the globe that are addressing issues such as reproductive health and choice, access to education, economic independence, political participation, rights of sexual minorities and prevention of violence against women and children.

GFW relies heavily on the local knowledge of a 139-member global advisory council of women to identify and screen potential grantees and to help evaluate their work once an applicant organization has received funding.

Listening to the voices of women

"The important thing is how the Global Fund goes about its work, by listening to the voices of the people it seeks to serve. This was radical in 1987," said Hewlett, who served on the GFW board for eight years and attributes her life path as a "donor activist" to the influence of Murray and the organization she created.

Hewlett is co-founder of Youth Philanthropy Worldwide, an organization that aims to increase the next generation's involvement in global partnerships, and is a member of The Synergos Institute's Global Philanthropists Circle. As a board member of GFW, Hewlett visited grantees in Bangladesh, Nepal, Zimbabwe and Uganda, and attended the NGO Forum in Beijing.

"One of my hopes for philanthropy, when I look at international aid in particular, is that perhaps it can learn a little bit from the Global Fund Fund for Women when it comes to getting decision making into the hands of the people," she said.

Over the last 10 years, GFW has continued to build on the legacy of Murray, who retired as President in 1996. Today, under the leadership of its second president, Kavita N. Ramdas, the Fund has grown into an organization that has provided $50 million in grants to 3,100 women-led groups in 163 countries.

Responding to new threats around the globe

Whereas Murray's original concept of GFW was that of a small and nimble "guerilla operation" that she hoped might put itself out of business in 10 years, the reality is that GFW doubled in size every year for its first five years and continues to expand its efforts in response to threats to women's safety, security and freedom around the globe.

"I came fairly quickly to realize that small is not always beautiful," said Ramdas. Born and raised in India, Ramdas came to GFW from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, where she directed programs in economic development and population. "What I saw, coming in ten years after the Global Fund's creation...was that although we had done a lot, we still had so far to go, women were so far from mainstream status."

Although "women's rights" are routinely evoked as a global good, the pledges made in UN declarations on the status of women, whether in Cairo in 1994 or Beijing in 1995 remain largely "words on paper," according to Ramdas. The result is that women's groups remain under-resourced and outside the scope of international aid and donor programs and most private philanthropic giving in the US and Europe.

GFW and Mama Cash, based in the Netherlands, are the two largest of only a handful of publicly supported independent women's foundations that work internationally with the goal of providing resources to women's organizations in the developing world. Others doing similar work to provide grant resources include the United Nations Women's Fund (UNIFEM), small European funds such as Kwinne na Kwinne in Sweden, and WomenKind in the UK.

Spreading the women's fund model

GFW is helping propagate the women's fund model by empowering organizations around the world to become funders in their own right. "Fundraising is hard, and groups in the global South are so overly dependent on funding from the North. We're committed to seeing shifts," said Nicola (Nicky) McIntyre, GFW's vice president of development and communications.

GFW support for an initiative of a local women's group in Mexico, Grupo por los Derechos Humanos por los Mujeres, was instrumental in the creation in 1990 of the first feminist fund in the global South, Semillas ("seeds").

Funding from GFW also inspired the efforts of Nepali activist and women's rights leader, Rita Thapa, to launch Tewa, the Nepal Women's Fund, in Kathmandu in 1996 (see related story). GFW grants have since inspired women from Mongolia and Ukraine to move forward with funds in their own countries.

An umbrella group was formed in 2000 to link and support the growing number of women's funds around the world -- the International Network of Women's Funds ( The majority of the organization's 20 members received key early support from GFW and one, the African Women's Development Fund, is now giving out about $1 million a year in grants to local women's organizations across the continent.

GFW is also serving as "fiscal sponsor" for six women's funds in Mexico and Central America, Mongolia, Nepal, South Africa and the Czech and Slovak Republics that are raising money from diaspora communities in the US -- and from other donors outside the diaspora who wish to support these groups.

Investing in Women: a record-breaking campaign

To continue expanding its ability to address the unmet needs of women's organizations, GFW last November successfully completed a $20 million Investing in Women Campaign, which drew donations from around the world in amounts ranging from $5 to $3.8 million. The effort was co-chaired by US philanthropist-entrepreneurs Laurene Powell Jobs and Diane Jordan Wexler, both members of the GFW board.

The proceeds were channeled into two board-designated quasi-endowment funds: the $10 million Legacy Fund, the largest endowment ever for an international women's rights organization, and the $10 million "Now or Never" Fund to make more resources immediately available to women on the frontlines of the struggle against poverty, violence and fundamentalism.

Among the $2.3 million already granted from the new funds are initiatives such as the Mano River Women's Peace Network (MARWOPNET), representing 100 organizations from Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea. MARWOPNET, which works to ensure a role for women in negotiations to secure long-term security for the region, played a key part in securing the recent peace accord between the Liberian government and rebels.

Expanding the ranks of "donor activists"

The Investing in Women Campaign mobilized thousands of contributors, large and small, from the GFW's own grantees in Asia, Africa and Latin America, to major new individual donors such as social activist and philanthropist Abigail Disney (see related story).

It also served to energize a carefully designed development effort -- undertaken with the support of the Sigrid Rausing Trust ( -- that has increased the number of active individual donors to 15,000 from 3,000 just five years ago, according to the GFW's McIntyre.

Giving programs are designed to create "donor activists," "so that even the smallest donor becomes an ambassador for our organization," said McIntyre. In keeping with the egalitarian ethos of GFW, donors are listed in the annual report alphabetically, not ranked by amount of giving.

Embracing the challenge of growth

As the ranks of supporters continue to swell, Ramdas observed that "growth is the single largest challenge we face, to sustain the sense of community." Nevertheless, "there's incredible excitement at the knowledge that the Global Fund is growing and that we're going to give away more money," she said.

"It's the same challenge our world is facing -- a longing for a sense of community, while being fascinated and intrigued by the global community," said Ramdas. "We're both drawn to being part of something larger and scared of growing too large." The Global Fund's solution is to "create and sustain a smaller community within this larger global context."

At a time of rapid expansion, the Global Fund for Women has taken a number of steps to keep its supporters connected and engaged, through regular donor teleconferences with GFW leaders and experts; field visits to developing countries for higher-level donors; and by means of the Internet. The GFW website,, for example, offers a full range of resources for hosting a "house party" on women's issues, and a blog updated regularly by Ramdas.

In recent years, the war on terror and the rise of conservative forces have taken a serious toll on US leadership in the global women's movement, according to Ramdas. Complacency has also set in among many in the global North who assume that feminist activism of the 1960s and 1970s secured equality for women once and for all.

"The international consensus of Beijing has been eroded, not only by the usual suspects...but by the people the women's movement expected to be its allies," she said.

Looking to the global South for leadership

"There are amazing examples of leadership out there, but most of these are not from the West," said Ramdas, citing models such as Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, President of Liberia, who embodies a "different style of leading" based on respect, trust and equality.

"Every day, I see examples of women in the global South refusing to accept the status quo, who bring innovation, creativity, courage and vision -- a different way to envision what our society could look like," said Ramdas.

To foster such efforts, GFW in May made a grant of $10,000 to an organization formed by a group of women Nobel Prize winners -- including Iranian lawyer Shirin Ebadi -- who have joined forces to push diplomacy, not force, as a means of resolving global conflicts.

"They are not at all shy about saying you can't have peace unless women have equality," said Ramdas. "That's what keeps us going in the midst of horrible news."

"In a time of religious extremism and military conflict, we have to be connecting women in the US with struggles in other countries," said Ramdas, noting that for the first time, the GFW has begun to make grants to women-led organizations in the US whose initiatives link women in the global North and South.

"We have a unique opportunity to be an amplifier of women's voices here in the US. My commitment is not to let women's voices remain unheard," said Ramdas. "The question is how the Global Fund can best respond to the basic needs of the world's poorest women even as we address the incredible hunger for more meaningful global connections that I see among individuals in the US and other wealthy parts of the world."

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