Snapshot of the findings: what conversations are telling us
We wish we could give an account of a thriving relationship trend between INGOs and funders, and young feminist-led organisations, but the reality is that the international ecosystem within which funders and INGOs operate is not designed to effectively support young feminist organising.
Flickers of hope exist in the work of a handful of INGOS and donors truly being reflexive about their values and how they apply to their partnerships with grassroots organisations. However, the reality remains that large amounts of funding, according to the experiences of the majority of those interviewed, are not reaching young feminist organisers, and they continue to feel undervalued by INGOs and funders.
At the same time, a number of INGOs are recognizing the need to shift their organisational models
in response to changing political realities. However, strict donor requirements, project-based operational systems and organisational bureaucracy frustrate much of the efforts on the part of these INGOs to enact change towards more equitable and sustainable relationships with their local partners. This is especially because young women, trans and intersex youth and girls are still widely considered ‘beneficiaries’ of aid,
rather than leaders equipped to work with those funds and scale change. On the part of donors, the same bueracratic structures can hinder their ability to support the power of young feminist organising, even when staff have clear vision and commitment. The narrowly defined thematic areas of funding also hinder their capacity to reach YFOs directly. The long-term, slowly-changing thematic priorities of funders often does not align with the priorities of YFOs whose contexts are rapidly changing.
While there are many challenges that need to be tackled before equitable relationships between YFOs and INGOs and donors become common practice, there are numerous examples of reflexive partnerships between YFOs and INGOs or donors that have proven to be mutually beneficial. These examples hold truth to the undeniable fact that the challenges stipulated below can - and must - be overcome in order for YFOs, INGOs and donors to make sustainable, justice-driven impact in their spaces of work.
A. What young feminist organisers are saying
The young feminist-led organisations that were interviewed commented on the unequal power dynamic between INGOs and themselves, which is not only in many ways inherent, but is in numerous cases something protected, defended or even denied by INGO members of staff. Despite these challenges, there are several accounts of relationships between INGOs or donors and young feminist-led organisations that really did work well. In essence, the success of these collaborations can be credited to the trust shared between the two organisations working together, as well as the in-depth understanding that INGOs demonstrated of the political, social and funding contexts in which their young feminist-led partner organisations work. Mutual trust and the willingness to act on their understanding of organizing contexts are key prompts that led funders and INGOs that worked successfully with young feminist-led collectives to have flexibility in their funding structures, provide diverse forms of support in alignment with their partners’ needs, and make their partners feel valued.
A total of twelve interviews were conducted with FRIDA grantee partners based in the regions where FRIDA works. These young feminist-led organisations, while working in geographically and politically diverse contexts, also worked in diverse focus areas, ranging from sexual and reproductive health, LGBTIQA justice, theatre and public art, economic equality, advocacy against gender-based violence and leadership development.
1. Diverse and changing needs require adaptable funding programmes
Because young feminist organisers are working at the frontlines against social and political injustices in diverse contexts, they are also hit hardest by social or political volatility in their contexts. This requires them to be adaptable and responsive to change in order to effectively continue their work. Their needs are therefore not only different from one another, but change. The relationships that have worked best between YFOs and INGOs have been where INGOs and, donors - were able – and willing – to adapt and be responsive to their local partners’.
It is no surprise, that funding programmes reserved for very specific themes, with restrictive funding policies
that stipulate how money is transferred, how funds are distributed within the organisation, and the structural criteria for eligible applicants, compromise young feminist organisers'
access to resources.
Hayat Mirshad, a member of Fe-Male describes the wave of “big funds” being made available in Lebanon for humanitarian projects providing services to Syrian refugees, for example, and a recent trend among donors to fund engagements with men, religious leaders and government. Fe-Male does not work on ‘service provision,’ and funding trends are “really banning us from engaging our work… working with religious leaders – in other words – working with oppressors, is something that we are not ready to do yet.”
Ninka Khaindrava, a member of Women’s Gaze, works in Georgia – a country saturated with large, long-standing NGOs that emerged with the fall of the USSR. She states, “[donors] ask of you this really perfect English and this perfect organisation that has everything in terms of finances and law and reports… because of this, many younger organisations just close down.” A young feminist group based in Ecuador focusing on sexual and reproductive health at the grassroots level explained the tendency of donors in the country to support work at the legislative and policy level, when “there should be the intention to work at various levels,” so as to “diversify the type of activities” (translated from Spanish) conducted by local organisations.
A young feminist group based in Ecuador focusing on sexual and reproductive health at the grassroots level explained the tendency of donors in the country to support work at the legislative and policy level, when “there should be the intention to work at various levels,” so as to “diversify the type of activities” (translated from Spanish) conducted by local organisations.
2. Need for core support and multi-year funding
Acquiring funding is only half the struggle. Once funding is granted, YFOs endure tedious, and often excessive reporting requirements.
YFOs have small core teams, often working without pay and or low wages due to limited resources. These core teams’ time is heavily invested in community engagement and advocacy work – and needs to be in order to be responsive to their communities’ needs. As one member of a young feminist-led organisation in Egypt explained, her team was aware that their workshop facilitators were “working with complicated communities, so we might face burnout, but we didn’t even think that the admin team would also face burnout.” The same member continued to explain that with multiple donors, her organisation reports on various templates for the same activity. In one particular case, they had to re-submit their reports “more than three or four times” to a donor organisation who had staff turnover without proper handover processes.
This challenge is coupled with donors’ tendencies to micro-manage
the funds given to YFOs. Most donors do not want to provide core funds, or only allow a small percentage of funds to go towards administrative expenses. In order for organisations to do the amount of reporting work required by INGOs, teams need to be expanded and staff need to be hired. A co-founder of a young feminist-led organisation based in Zambia shared her concerns: “we are a two-person organisation, we can’t achieve what a fifty-man organisation can do.” Furthermore, she continued, since most engagements with INGOs are short-term, “even when you hire staff you can only give them a contract for one year… as opposed to [a large NGO that the same donor funds] that would get funded for five years where its staff will have contracts for five years.”
3. Lack of trust between YFOs and INGOs
The lack of trust experienced by YFOs from INGOs and donors entrenches the unequal power dynamic that jeopardises the effectiveness of these collaborations. Ninka Khaindrava explains, “when organisations see that you are freshly registered, and all of the leadership are people who are under twenty-five… nobody trusts you.” Many grantees interviewed felt that being young is assumed to mean that you are unskilled. Hayat Mirshad spoke about this in the context of the very small amount of funds that trickle down to the bottom of the funding ecosystem to grassroots organisations. “They say we are partners and they want to deal with you as partners,” but do not adequately fund young feminist-led organisations for the administrative work required. “Afterwards they come and tell you, you don’t have the capacities… and for me this is humiliating. We are the people implementing the work on the ground, we have the capacities, but the due diligence and the requirements you are asking for as donors has nothing to do with the experience on the ground.”
This lack of trust leads to a break-down in communication between YFOs and INGO partners, hinders approachability, and protects the authority that INGOs and donors have. “You have to always be this really respectful person… when they are sending emails, you have to always respond in two hours or something, and their time[line] is like three months,” said one young feminist interviewed. One member of a YFO in Poland spoke about how ‘check-in calls’ from the donor feel more like surveillance than actually caring about how the project is going: “there is power in hearing what other people are doing.” It also makes things difficult when there are misunderstandings or disagreements.
Six out of the twelve organisations interviewed told stories of extreme challenges they faced due to there not being any policies or reporting mechanisms in place when a particular donor or INGO partner breached their side of the contract or abused their power. Sylwia Wodzinska, co-founder of MamyGlos, emphasized the stress experienced by the organisation’s members in reporting power abuses “to someone who is powerful or to whom your organisation’s life depends on.”
4. Communication matters
Key to any sustainable and thriving relationship is open, honest communication. Young feminist organisers want to learn from their international partners, and want to feel that their needs are heard. Often, impersonal communication mechanisms make feminist organisers feel surveilled, rather than supported. Young feminist organisers expressed wanting to be able to approach their international partners with challenges that they are facing without threat of the discontinuation of funding. Having approachable points of contact helps to dismantle the unequal power dynamic
that so often characterises communication. One YFO based in Ecuador emphasised their desire to have a horizontal relationship,
where “empathy” is shown: “it would be great if they were interested in knowing us” (translated from Spanish)
. They felt that once the grant is received, communication is “missed… until the report is needed” (translated from Spanish)
5. Genuine care makes young feminists feel valued
While the anger and frustration felt by many young feminist organiders about the lack of voice they have in shaping the funding ecosystem is unquestionable, there are many accounts of relationships had with INGOs and donors that were positive, productive, and inspiring. True partnership came down to a sense that grantees felt of being valued, listened to, and understood by their international partners. This sense was cultivated, firstly, by experiences of genuine care by the INGOs and donors
, not only for the wellbeing of the projects run, but for the wellbeing of the members of the grantee organisation themselves. Akosua Hanson, a member of the Drama Queens in Ghana, said that what fortified their relationship with OSIWA was their “genuine interest in the project.”
Members of a YFO in Zambia spoke about their relationship with one particular funder that, even after the funding period was over, “continue[s] to think about us in the work they are doing” by directing them to other opportunities, and inviting them to speaking events. Two grantees spoke about the acts of care the FRIDA takes to support the wellbeing of their members. “FRIDA blew our minds away, they dedicated a part of the grant to self-care… that was amazing,” said Sylwia Wodzinska, co-founder of MamyGlos. FRIDA’s support of self-care “makes us feel that we are also priority working on the ground,” said Hayat Mirshad, member of Fe-Male.
More often than not, all YFOs want is for their international partners to care: to be genuinely interested in their projects and invested in their members’ well-being. Impersonal, formal correspondence, micro-management of funds, lack of transparency and mistrust make YFOs feel under-valued.
6. Willingness to be flexible and in-depth understanding of context foster a sense of partnership
Thriving relationships between YFOs and INGOs or donors were also cultivated by expressions of willingness to be flexible regarding the nature of support given to, and nature of relationship had with young feminist-led organisations.
This was often the case with regards to YFOs applying for first-time funding, unregistered organisations, and grantees requesting core funding. “FRIDA saw us when nobody saw us,” said a grantee member from Zambia, recounting the struggle of acquiring funding for the first time. It was this first-time fund that Susan Mueni and Siama Yusuf of MAD Sisters in Kenya believe is what “enabled us to start growing.” One YFO member based in Egypt described the collaborative way in which their partnership with one particular funder was designed. According to the young feminist interviewed, the funding partner approached them and said, “‘We want to continue supporting you, but you don’t want to be incubated and you don’t want to register as an NGO, so how can we still support you while not being forced to do anything that you don’t like to do?’”
Lastly, in-depth understanding of the organizing context and needs of their local partners engendered an approachability that strengthened communication between YFOs and their international partners.
One YFO whose political context frequently poses threat to their work reflected on a recent conversation one of her colleagues had had with one of their funders. “She was quite surprised with the level of understanding they’ve shown… she felt that they’re living here and sharing with us the same context. They’re very aware of the situation and the security threats.” This understanding also yielded diverse forms of support, including capacity building opportunities, expanding a grantee’s visibility, connecting the grantee to key contacts within their network, and supporting travel to regional and international convenings. Susan Mueni, a member of MAD Sisters in Kenya, explained how a capacity development grant enabled their organisation to put the structures in place they believe they need in order to be eligible for more funding opportunities: “I remember we were given a capacity grant last year, and we used that money to attend a capacity development workshop where we came up with a strategic plan… We’ve now opened an account and we’ve registered our organisation.”
Not only are the contexts in which young feminists work constantly changing, politically and socially, but many face threats to their security and safety as a result. Because contexts change, the needs of their community often change, and so funds need to be used differently to how it was originally programmed. Many young feminists also work in extremely under-serviced areas, where it is difficult to give hard proof of money spent.
7. Forging community
Many YFOs working in under-serviced areas or geographically remote countries feel alone in their work.
Other organisations – even based locally – feel inaccessible. Furthermore, in cases where the members of a feminist organisation are particularly young, many do not know where to start in initiating international collaboration, and if anything, find meeting members of international organisations stressful and intimidating.
At the same time, YFOs who have been able to travel and network at international and regional convenings have acquired funding, shared learnings, catapulted their visibility, and importantly, engaged in a felt solidarity, through their participation in these gatherings. The variance of connectivity points to the value of supporting young feminists to travel and be in key movement of funding spaces. Opportunities for engagement between YFOs and INGOs and funders need to be made available.
The unequal power dynamics
between YFOs and INGOs can undermine the feminist movement globally by mirroring the very patriarchy feminist organisations are trying to dismantle. However, INGOs and donors working with young feminist organisers directly have the remarkable opportunity to mobilise and distribute resources in ways that make long-lasting impact where it matters. Their vast network of international and local organisations and explicit investment in the thriving of young, feminist-led organisations position them to leverage their power to bring the young feminist organisers they work with to the decision-making tables that determine global partnership trends and direct global movements.
B. What INGOs are saying
The international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) also expressed facing a range of challenges that arise when working with young feminist groups.
1. Differing levels of institutional commitment to young feminist work
From the interviews conducted and relationships which FRIDA has built, it seems INGOs differ widely in their comfort level in using movement building or feminist language/framing, however a large number are committed in priorities and resources to working with "young women", "adolescent girls," or youth. INGOs can easily become caught in the nexus of upward donor accountability, focused on implementing programs with set deliverables within a designated timeframe that will satisfy donor requirements.
While few INGOs take the movement building
approach to their work, some are beginning to lean towards this direction, recognizing the need to shift their organisational models in response to changing political realities. Too often however, the theory of change
of large INGOs is based on meeting targets within specific, and often very short, timeframes. Thus, considering the fact that truly effective youth and women’s empowerment requires extensive time to address the root causes of discrimination and patriarchy, even when working on longer-term projects, the INGOs are often unable to meaningfully engage with YFOs and bring about durable and lasting change.
2. Reliance on individual relationships
It appears that often, the success of projects involving partnerships with young feminists are often dependent on the personalities and relationships between individuals involved rather than institutional mechanisms to facilitate such partnerships.
In addition, there are varied approaches to working with young feminists within a single organization, perhaps guided by differing priorities or agendas between the headquarters and local offices. This can mean it is up to a small group of committed individuals within those organisations to explore avenues for collaboration with young feminists. This work can range from revising organisational policies and grant agreements, to creating new avenues for programming, to challenging power imbalances that frequently create misunderstandings and thwart positive outcomes. Indeed, partnerships between young feminists and INGOs often thrive thanks to individuals and their commitment to creating equal and durable partnerships, which energize and strengthen young feminist movements.
i. Impact of funding restrictions
One fundamental issue is the funding structure
for international development aid organisations. Strict donor requirements and project-based systems through which funding is allocated can frustrate efforts to establish more equitable and sustainable relationships with young feminist groups.
Because of donor compliance requirements, INGOs seek implementing partners that will be able to deliver on specific programmatic outcomes on time and on budget. Such large-scale projects also require reporting that can be highly technical and burdensome, especially for smaller organizations that lack administrative capacity. Finally, most donors require that all implementing partners be registered organisations, which often prevents INGOs from partnering with young feminist groups that opt out from formalizing their organisations for a variety of reasons.
ii. Organisational bureaucracy
Assuming that these structures can be addressed, a second barrier to working with young feminist organizations is organisational bureaucracy
of the large INGOs. INGOs have fairly rigid systems for implementing partners that are designed to meet a variety of legal and financial requirements across contexts. Often, these systems are not suited to partnering with small, grassroots organizations that require flexible approaches to meet the specific needs of their constituencies.
These system barriers require feminist allies working within INGOs to invest signficiant time and effort to navigate the bureaucracy, challenge internal practices or policies, or shift organisational norms and culture. Such allies often play a role of bridge or translator for informal groups working within a large system.
iii. Limited funding avaliable
Although INGOs have access to much stronger and durable financial resource base, compared to women’s rights groups, internally, program areas focusing on young feminists within these structures are relatively underfunded. Often, this area of work has to rely on the commitment and passion of a few members of staff who are often part-time or temporary, or their workload does not permit getting involved in more challenging, or less traditional projects involving young feminist organisations.
In addition, the INGOs are struggling to secure sustainable funding to meaningfully engage with YFOs. With the priorities of bilateral governments shifting, and mid-size funders increasingly wanting to prioritize grassroots work, INGOs are becoming more cautious about spending money on things that do not necessarily align clearly with bilateral or private funder priorities or are perceived as risky due to their informal status or unpredictable nature. This suggests that there is a need to work collaboratively with INGOs on advocacy at an ecosystem level, making the case for supporting young feminist organising and inter-generrational work as critical to meeting broader sustainable development goals.
C. What funders are saying
Among the donors interviewed, there are similar positive trends and persisting challenges as found among INGOs.
Issue-based programming rather than identity-based and a focus on individuals not organizations
Funders see young women and girls as important beneficiaries of international development projects and many donors also recognize the value of developing individual young women as potential leaders and activists. However, young women-led organizations are not currently a priority for many donors. Such groups are welcomed as applicants but not prioritized for funding, except in the cases of a few women’s funds1.
YFOs compete with other groups based on the work they propose to do rather than their perspective or composition. Few if any donors place an emphasis on funding organizations who explicitly profess to be feminist or be led by feminists
. Many do however, place an emphasis on funding projects which have clearly feminist goals.
Most donors interviewed identify their priorities in terms of issue areas. These are often categorized under different themes, but include issues such as sexual and reproductive health and rights, violence against women, land rights and the environment, poverty and economic justice, HIV and AIDS, governance and institutions, social infrastructure, gender equality, leadership development, and humanitarian assistance.
Very few donors interviewed at the time had an explicit focus on organizations led by young women or led by young feminists. Almost none of them tracked the degree to which they support these types of groups, but this has changed over recent years. Many have examples of young women-led organizations who they have funded, but these groups were not chosen because they are young women-led organizations or because they have an explicitly feminist perspective, but rather because of the work they were proposing to do. In other words, there was an alignment between the goals of the grantee and the goals of the donor.
The degree to which young feminist organisations are successful in obtaining funds from largely depends on whether their programmatic work aligns with the thematic priorities of the particular funder.
The work of YFOs in ever-changing and volatile contexts often remains unfunded because it might not fit in the long-term, and slowly changing, thematic priorities of the donor organisations.
1. Slow but steady institutional and operational shifts
Young women were perceived by a significant number of donors as effective activists due to their energy, dynamism, flexibility and innovation. They are often intersectional and may form coalitions more easily with other groups of young people rather than with older and more established women’s rights groups. These groups are, however, also perceived by some donors as small and somewhat disorganized compared to more established groups. They are less likely to be registered or have the capacity to manage and report on external grants. As such, funders are still learning how to adjust their funding mechanisms and operations to be able to satisfy certain requirements and traditional models.
Donors acknowledge that they lack experience with young women-led and feminist-led groups and that, as donors, they face a challenge in either incorporating them into the established funding approach, or modifying that approach to better serve them.
Furthermore, for donors operating in certain contexts, funding social justice movements can be challenging in itself, as these areas of focus can be perceived as controversial by local governments, communities, or donors. While more traditionally supported projects, focused on issues such as access to clean water or medical supplies, appear to be more likely to generate popular support, funding young feminist groups can be more controversial and could require certain degree of political maneuvering. Moreover, the shift from funding charitable work to funding social movements requires a different theory of social change.
Like most organizations, donors have to comply with strict objectives and short deadlines, which hinders their ability to explore new and less traditional partnerships. Instead they are encouraged to do what they have done in the past and try to replicate past successes. While individual allies within donor organisations with experience working with YFOs can be critical to ensuring more equitable partnerships in the future, these can be frustrated by existing organisational structures, priorities and time pressures.
2. Providing the evidence
Fundamentally, young women-led and young feminist-led organizations still do not receive dedicated funding because donors have yet to be convinced that these groups bring a truly specialized benefit by virtue of their composition.
The unique value added of being led by young women is not creating significant amounts of dedicated funding even if it is supported or admired.
Project and core funding for groups seeking social change presents donors with a challenge related to outcomes. Both applications and monitoring/evaluation presuppose a measurable impact from the work to be done. In traditional projects, this might be measured by the number of wells completed, for example, or the number of patients treated. Social change, however, is notoriously gradual and difficult to measure. This makes it more difficult for funders and regranting organizations to assess the impact of their grants.
Several funders noted that funding directed toward social change requires a higher level of trust, even faith, in the grantee because hard evidence of results is unlikely to be forthcoming. As noted earlier, this lack of evidence may be especially acute with regard to the work of smaller informal organizations such as those led by young women and young feminists.
Semillas is an exception in this regard.