Gender and Transformative Giving

Thursday, May 23, 2013
by Riki Wilchins, Executive Director, TrueChild
As an action tank focused on promoting gender analysis, we were recently approached by another organization with a sizable grant who wanted help identifying major U.S. funders with a strong gender focus in their funding priorities. They wanted to then track how that was applied in actual grantmaking and through the programmatic work of grantees.
It was a wonderful project. But we had just undertaken a similar analysis ourselves and were unable to identify more than a handful of major funders working in at-risk communities that incorporated a strong, specific focus on gender into their grantmaking.
Two decades of research has shown that challenging harmful norms of masculinity and femininity and improving gender equity is a major key to improving life outcomes in at-risk communities. For instance, consider how the two sides of the gender coin — gender equity and gender norms — are critical to understanding health care, and are deeply linked to race and class:
  • Women of child-bearing age need and consume more medical care than younger women or men their age, largely because of their need for reproductive health services. Moreover, black and Latina women of this age — particularly in low-income communities — are more likely to lack medical insurance and therefore postpone needed medical care.
  • When health care is made freely available, it is young men who do worse, often postponing getting help for easily treated illnesses until their bodies are in crisis, because being sick or asking for help is considered weak and unmanly. In low-income communities, where manhood codes on the street are often narrow and penalties for transgressing them harsh, pressure to avoid showing weakness or sickliness can be especially strong.
Similarly, a large foundation recently engaged us to work with several high-profile civic engagement organizations. These are large nonprofits with considerable sophistication. Yet even today, many civic engagement groups still lack a strong gender lens. When questioned about their gender analysis, they often provide the diversity response: “We already have women on our board” or “Over half the people we serve are women.”
The need for this kind of “intersectional analysis” that reconnects gender and race, age, and class is not limited to heath care or civic engagement, but extends to a host of philanthropic concerns that include reproductive health, intimate partner violence, educational achievement, immigration and welfare. In fact, gender impacts almost every social issue foundations addresses.
Yet as a major domestic violence funder recently confided, “My grantees get race and class, and some are even are starting to get sexual orientation — but where is the gender analysis? What I want to know is, what happened to gender?”
In our work with dozens of funders, we have found program officers are often acutely aware of the need for a gender lens in their grantmaking. But too few foundations challenge program officers to do innovative, intersectional work that connects race, class and gender.
We encourage program officers to make not only the moral case — that it’s the right thing to do — but also the efficacy case — that funding that addresses gender norms and equity is more effective.
Yet sometimes just moving foundation management to prioritize grantmaking focused on (for instance) young men, who are African-American, and perhaps also unemployed, is already a huge stretch. Asking them to add a focus on manhood and masculinity — regardless of any increase in efficacy — may simply be a bridge too far.
In some cases, program officers practice grantmaking that engages a strong gender lens outside of their institution’s guidelines, or by calling it something else.
Even program officers who want to do the right thing can’t always be gender experts. They may want to encourage their grantees to have a strong gender lens, but lack the time, expertise and tools to assist grantees in doing so. Their nonprofit grantees may face similar hurdles, lacking capacity and in-house experts when it comes to gender. That’s why often our offer to such funders has been to let TrueChild become their “in-house gender think-tank,” providing experts, training, toolkits and ongoing hand-holding.
This is an area where international funders are already on board. Donors like the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), the World Health Organization, and a host of private foundations are already funding initiatives that challenge harmful gender norms and improve gender equity.
In fact, USAID no longer funds new programs that lack a strong gender analysis, and PEPFAR has made gender central to its funding in three dozen developing countries.
Now the U.S. is finally starting to follow suit. Today there is a small but growing core of program officers, often working with communities of color, who are committed to the gender lens and are quietly pushing to make it more a part of U.S. grantmaking.
Our goal is to support their efforts. We’ve developed a research clearinghouse of key studies, one page briefing papers, and a portal designed to help busy philanthropic officers that links to new reports and programs with a strong gender focus.
And with help from a half-dozen funders, including Jacqueline Ebanks of the New York Women’s Foundation, Stephen Foster of the Overbrook Foundation and Rahsaan Harris of The Atlantic Philanthropies, we just published our new guide, Gender Transformative Philanthropy: A Key to Improving Program Outcome and Impact in At-Risk Communities. It covers basic language, concepts and background, as well as the challenges ahead and specific suggestions to help program officers get up to speed quickly and painlessly.
We’re beginning to see more interest in the gender lens. For example, for the past year we’ve been partnering with the Heinz Endowments to document the impact of gender norms on the health and wellness of young black girls. This partnership has produced an information clearinghouse as well as a report developed with several leading authorities in the field of gender and youth of color.
As that program officer mentioned above observed, most grantees do get race and class, and many are starting to get sexual orientation. In the coming decade, our task is to ensure that they also get gender, and that as funding moves out of a siloed approach to issues, it is reconnected with race and class so that the gender lens continues moving to the center of socially engaged philanthropy.
Find More By

News type