A Reflection on Feminist Philanthropy

Blog, Ontario Hub

In March 2018, the New York Women’s Foundation (NYWF)[1] announced that its partnership with the Women’s Funding Network (an international network of more than 100 women’s funds and foundations)[2] successfully mobilized $58.4 million, part of a five-year commitment of $100 million, to invest in the economic security of women and their families in America under the Prosperity Together funding initiative. Overall in 2018, the Foundation supported more than 175 community organizations and initiated the Fund for the #MeToo Movement and Allies. The overall goal of this commitment was to create a just future for women by overcoming poverty and violence against them, and promoting economic justice, as well as building cross-cultural alliances. Hence, besides foundations for women’s welfare and development, there are also networks that mobilize funders within the philanthropic ecosystem, such as Philanthropy Advancing Women’s Rights (PAWHR), with annual leverage of more than USD $200 million. PAWHR directly promotes the rights of women and girls globally. Like other actors in the ecosystem, feminist philanthropy embraces local, national and international initiatives. They are by far not limited to regional or national actions.

In 2016, Andrea Pactor, the Interim Director of Women’s Philanthropy Institute, underlined the complexity of the emerging field known as Gender in Philanthropy (GIP)/Women in Philanthropy (WIP). The complexity mirrors the changing role of women in societies, driven by the interconnected factors of their lives (known as the intersectionality of identity markers of gender, race/ethnicity, class, ability, Indigeneity, immigration status, origin of birth and 2SLGBTQQIA). One area of GIP is identified as Feminist philanthropy (FP). FP is an attempt to provide clarity by building intersections across multiple disciplines and engaging in challenging research. This editorial seeks to clarify what constitutes FP while situating its relevance, and sharing the research areas it covers in Canada and abroad.[3]

Thus far, FP in Canada is an understudied area, and has raised more questions than answers, including the following[4]:

FP and Economy

  • Is FP changing the way Canada conducts trade?
  • Can FP successfully fight economic inequalities?
  • In what capacity is FP alleviating poverty in Canada?

FP and Identity

  • Are all philanthropist women de facto feminist philanthropists?
  • Is feminist philanthropy a “Western” concept?
  • Is FP modifying how Canadians understand their identity?

FP and Politics[5]

  • Has women’s philanthropy ever brought about social change in achieving a more equitable Canada?
  • Is Canadian FP involved in contributing to foreign policy formulation?

FP and Institutions

  • What are the institutional characteristics of Canadian FP foundations and its social impacts in the country?
  • How are Canadian FP institutions changing our democratic institutions?
  • How are Canadian FP institutions structuring our collective behaviour?

FP and History

  • Are women who conduct philanthropy aware of its colonialist past and potential impact of privileges?
  • What is the historical heritage of ethnic groups to FP in Canada?
  • How historical legacies continue to impact the Canadian FP ecosystem?

FP and Geography

  • How geographical locations impact the behaviour of FP Foundations?
  • What are the differences between Canadian FP and American FP?
  • How is urban expansion affecting Canadian FP and its resources?

FP and Psychology[6]

  • Are there ethnic and cultural differences in Canadian women’s giving?
  • Are Canadian male and female philanthropists different in their management style?

Answers to these questions are complex and beyond the scope of this brief editorial, but food for thought for future undertakings.

To begin, let’s take a more in-depth look at the following question: are women more involved in philanthropic behaviour than men? This question could lead to an understanding of the enduring systemic gender inequalities in communities. It also reminds us not to reproduce “exploitative dynamics power,” as in Bosch and Bofu-Tawamba’s discussion that FP is fighting “systemic oppression and marginalization of women, girls, trans and gender non-conforming people across generations, communities and continents.” Philanthropy, for them, is a feminist issue (Bosch & Bofu-Tawamba 2019).

Thus, FP cannot simply be equated to women’s participation in any philanthropic activities, although women mobilizing and providing relief predated the first wave of feminism in the 19th century, and could be found across all continents. In Canada, women have historically participated in voluntary organizations, community organizations, religious charities, and various foundations. Understanding FP requires a look into the multiple layers of realities it covers. If FP is focused on Women in Philanthropy (WIP), it is then accepted as an umbrella expression for all philanthropic initiatives done by women. However, Bosch and Bofu-Tawamba suggest that FP is more than just women’s philanthropy. It encompasses a political act that challenges laws and practices that lead to marginalization and oppression. Their interpretation of FP illustrates the inherent idea of social or political change, and it is not centred on FP actors. Are they individuals, organizations, civil servants, social movements, or coalitions of actors? Are all “challengers” of marginalization and oppression to be considered feminists? FP is thus not just about women’s rights and their advocates, but about working with and for all disadvantaged individuals and peoples against all forms of discrimination, despite the risk of losing its specificities.

Feminist philanthropists should tackle social norms that give rise to subjugation, as Bosch and Bofu-Tawamba again argue for a need to “challenge and transform the notions of power, privilege and resources” supported by the structures of the current system. They identify 4 types of power, each capable of transforming its nature: 1) power within, 2) power to provide, 3) power with, and 4) power over.  This identification echoes what Nancy Ruth and Rosemary Brown have presented based on the LEAF’s report (Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund) “that only 2% of charitable donations from corporations and foundations” in Canada were helping women and girls in Canada back in the mid-1980s. The Canadian Women’s Foundation was essentially born out of this desire to generate gender equality in Canada, and “what it would take” for women and girls to feel empowered. It sought to redress the situation and empower Canadian women through philanthropy by making it a political endeavour.[7] It is now a powerhouse and a beacon for FP in Canada.

To conclude the first section of this editorial, given the ongoing existence of systemic gender inequality in this country, and abroad, philanthropy is essentially presented as a feminist endeavour. FP is understood as a process producing social changes at the local, national and international levels by mobilizing women around a common shared reality of oppression and marginalization. It potentially provides a sense of unity in diversity.

This is the first half of the editorial for PhiLab’s Feminist Philanthropy special edition.

Read the second part here


Would you like to share your thoughts on this article? Write to us at philab@uqam.ca , we would love to hear from you!