Last month, the Women’s Philanthropy Institute (WPI) released Change Agents: The Goals and Impact of Women’s Foundations and Funds, which offers new insight on how women’s foundations and funds create change for women and girls and the broader community. A previous blog post highlighted key findings from the report, brought to life by some of the women’s foundations and funds interviewed for the research.
Now that the report has been disseminated, WPI wanted to know what women’s philanthropy leaders found most compelling about the research, and how they plan to apply it to their work. To learn more, we spoke with Jennifer Lockwood-Shabat (JLS), president and CEO of Washington Area Women’s Foundation in Washington, DC, and Surina Khan (SK), chief executive officer of the Women’s Foundation of California in Oakland, CA.
What has the availability of research on women’s foundations and funds in recent years meant for your organization?
JLS: The research that WPI conducts on women’s philanthropy and women’s foundations and funds is incredibly important to Washington Area Women’s Foundation and our work. Having an outside expert analyze the state of women’s philanthropy, and the contribution that women’s foundations make to it, further makes the case for the importance of women’s foundations in the broader philanthropic sector.
SK: The founding of the Women’s Foundation of California was sparked over four decades ago by the realization that less than 1 percent of philanthropic dollars were invested in women and girls. (The Women & Girls Index estimates that in 2016, organizations dedicated to women and girls received 1.6 percent of philanthropic dollars).
Stewarding this work now, in a moment when there is so much more research, shines a light on how far we’ve come and how far we have still to travel. The research on women’s foundations and funds powerfully demonstrates the continued need to support giving by women to women.
As the CEO of an organization dedicated to training, investing, and connecting women and gender nonconforming people, I use this research to fuel our dedication and inform our strategies as we push toward racial, economic, and gender justice.
What has this research meant for the field of philanthropy?
JLS: More than anything, as a result of this research, we can see the field of women’s foundations and funds more clearly. The availability of research holds up a mirror to what is working well—like local impact and an intersectional approach—and points towards areas where the field of philanthropy still has work to do.
SK: The research clearly demonstrates the important role that women’s foundations play within the field of philanthropy, and this comes at a time when we increasingly need to make the case for gender and racial justice. Women’s foundations are a critical partner in this work, and the broader philanthropic sector should consider us strong community partners.
What did you find most interesting about Change Agents: The Goals and Impact of Women’s Foundations and Funds?
JLS: Two points resonated with me—the challenge of measuring long-term impact and the importance of strategies beyond grantmaking in pursuing social change. At Washington Area Women’s Foundation, we have made a commitment to systems change. We know that achieving gender and racial equity is a long-term strategy that cannot necessarily be definitively measured in the short term, but that doesn’t stop us from pursuing our goals. It does, however, sometimes make it more difficult to make the case for donors who might be looking for immediate returns.
We also talk a lot about our work beyond the grantmaking. The importance of our role as a convener, advocate, and behind-the-scenes broker cannot be emphasized enough. It is essential to our work and is a role that we have built an expertise in and have increasingly been called upon for by our community partners.
SK: One of the most striking aspects of the Change Agents report was the clear focus on an intersectional gender lens in philanthropy. To see that development in the field of women’s funds is highly encouraging. We’ve worked to adopt an intersectional approach to our work at the Women’s Foundation of California because truly supporting girls and women means acknowledging that their intersecting identities present different sets of opportunities and challenges.
Additionally, much of the report validated successes that we’ve seen in our own work. For example, as the study highlights, philanthropy committed to strengthening women and girls leads to better outcomes for their communities. That is exactly the experience we’ve seen in our Women’s Policy Institute. When we train women from historically oppressed communities across California in policy advocacy, they not only transform their lives but help direct the course of democracy and our shared future.
Did any of the findings surprise you?
JLS: No, the findings are absolutely in line with our experience.
SK: I wouldn’t say that any of the findings surprised me, per se, but the tendency of women’s funds to engage in a wide variety of strategies beyond investment was particularly striking. That has certainly been true for us at the Women’s Foundation of California. We invest. We train. We connect. And in some ways, it’s the confluence of those multiple strategies that make our work so much stronger. It makes sense to me that other women’s funds would find a similar approach successful.
In some ways, that finding speaks to longstanding power imbalances around money and gender. Because women have less money, women’s funds also have less money, but that doesn’t mean that there is less capacity to support. We just have to find other ways to get the work done.
What about Change Agents: The Goals and Impact of Women’s Foundations and Funds is most applicable to your work?
SK: In some ways, reading this report reminded me of the Alice Walker quote: “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” We have a lot more power in the field of women’s philanthropy than I think we give ourselves credit for sometimes.
There wasn’t enough funding going toward issues impacting women and girls, and women across the spectrum stepped in to change that dynamic. While there still isn’t enough investment in women and girls, women’s funds are such a compelling example of people engaging their power to solve a problem. Looking at the dynamic and growing field of women’s funds, there is so much to learn from and celebrate.
How have/do you plan to use the report in your work?
JLS: Over the past year, we have used all of WPI’s reports with our board, staff, and donors. In December 2019, we held a community forum that highlighted the research and encouraged attendees to consider giving to women and girls as they approach their end-of-year giving. It was also an opportunity to highlight the role that Washington Area Women’s Foundation can play as a philanthropic partner in investing in women and girls.
In 2020, we will be using the research with our board as we undertake strategic conversations about the long-term sustainability of the foundation and our role in the community moving forward.
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