Bringing Participatory Practices to Life at Fenomenal Funds

It’s commonly said in philanthropy that those closest to the problem are best positioned to develop the solutions. However, understanding this in principle and implementing it in practice can be two different challenges. In 2018, the Prospera International Network of Women’s Funds and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation began a conversation about how to bring this idea to life by strengthening the infrastructure of feminist funding. The Hewlett Foundation requested funding from its board and invited other funders to join in an unprecedented effort to provide institutional support to women’s funds. In total, four institutional funders came together to create Fenomenal Funds, determined to launch an initiative that truly walked the talk.

As a feminist funder collaborative, the purpose of Fenomenal Funds is to effectively funnel resources to women’s funds: philanthropic actors that provide funding and support to grassroots feminist movements working for the rights of women, girls, and LGBTQI people around the world. Historically, major global initiatives focused on women and girls have directed their support toward international organizations, with less than one percent of funding reaching women’s funds or grassroots gender justice movements.

“Women’s funds emerge from the movements they support. Their founders and leaders are the individuals who are driving change, including marginalized individuals such as Indigenous women and LGBTQI leaders. As women leaders, many of them from the Global South, they show us how to walk the talk,” says Zanele Sibanda, director of Fenomenal Funds. “Women’s funds understand the challenges facing grassroots movements because they come from those communities, but they tend not to be on funders’ radar the way larger organizations are.”

To reverse this trend, Fenomenal Funds set two goals. First, it aimed to provide resources to support women’s funds in building up their infrastructure, so they could become more resilient and responsive to the feminist movements they support. Second, it would use what it learned from this process to influence funder practices, helping philanthropy better understand the transformative role of women’s funds and feminist philanthropy.

Flexible and Responsive

From the beginning, Fenomenal Funds was an exercise in co-creation between women’s funds and private philanthropy. It worked closely with the New Venture Fund and its frequent partners at Arabella Advisors to design a participatory governance structure that would facilitate power-sharing, allow for true collaboration, and center the voice and needs of women’s funds. The resulting model brings to the table the four funders, four women’s funds, and a representative of the Prospera International Network of Women’s Funds Secretariat. All members sit at the table together with equal voice and decision-making power.

With this infrastructure in place, Fenomenal Funds was ready to start issuing grants to women’s funds in early 2020—just when the COVID-19 pandemic created unprecedented challenges for women and girls around the world.

“Violence, loss of income and employment, and the caretaking burden all disproportionately affected women and girls during the pandemic,” says Sibanda. “But at the same time, women’s funds were receiving less funding, as funders focused on COVID-specific responses.” Accordingly, Fenomenal Funds focused its first round of grantmaking on providing core institutional support to women’s funds, helping many to adapt in response to the pandemic. In 2021, women’s funds in the Global South continued experiencing the impacts of COVID-19, with fewer resources in terms of vaccines and health and social services. Fenomenal Funds responded by extending core funding grants for two more years, supporting staff salaries, technology upgrades, internal training, and other fundamental operational needs.

New Avenues for Collaboration

By 2022, the situation had stabilized enough that Fenomenal Funds could begin the second phase of its work. Through its Collaboration Lab, Fenomenal Funds is supporting women’s funds to dream and imagine how they want to use collaboration-focused grants. It has created a participatory design process, led by the advisory committee—also made up of women’s funds, private foundation representatives, and the Prospera Secretariat—to support women’s funds to connect and collaboratively explore topics they want to work on. The women’s funds formed 13 collaboratives to share their knowledge and experience, address shared challenges, and strategize on topics from financial resilience and participatory grantmaking to transformational feminist leadership and collective well-being.

Currently, the collaboratives are finalizing their plans to put their strategies and approaches into action. The advisory committee will then review all plans and present funding recommendations to the steering committee. In keeping with the fund’s participatory approach, this proposal process has been highly cooperative, and the collaboratives use the advisory committee’s reflections to further refine their plans and decide how to share their insights with the wider women’s funds community.

Navigating the Logistics of Shared Power

To realize the funders’ desire for a single, unified pooled fund, a neutral party was required to house and administer their contributions. Fiscal sponsorship proved to be an ideal model for executing this vision, and the funders leaned on NVF’s significant experience and operational capacity to do so.

Fenomenal Funds’ global focus also raised specific compliance needs, which it worked closely with NVF to address. NVF’s compliance team guided Fenomenal Funds through the process of issuing international grant funding to politically challenging countries, providing regular documentation to keep funders apprised of how funds are moving. NVF also worked with Fenomenal Funds to support women’s funds in Ukraine, Mongolia, and elsewhere to obtain expedited equivalency determination, opening new avenues of private funding.

Further, Fenomenal Funds’ work requires it to hire employees with specialized skill sets, including trained facilitators and interpreters to provide simultaneous translation services during all fund and collaborative meetings. NVF helped Fenomenal Funds quickly and compliantly onboard these employees and provide them with competitive benefits—something many of them rarely receive for their work.

“Philanthropy talks a lot about democratizing resources and sharing power, but we were determined to get our hands dirty and actually do it,” says Sibanda. “With NVF available to manage the administrative and logistical aspects of our work, we could focus our energy and effort on the strategy and implementation and on what it actually means to share power. It’s allowed us to fully live our values in a way that would have been more difficult otherwise.”

What’s Next

As Fenomenal Funds moves toward approving its collaboration grants, it is looking to the third phase of its work, focused on building narrative power. Women’s funds will develop strategies to evolve philanthropy’s understanding of women’s funds and their role in channeling resources to feminist movements. The hope is that this work will help women’s funds continue to deepen and expand their efforts beyond the lifecycle of Fenomenal Funds. And, as has been standard practice for the fund, Fenomenal Funds will document and share what the women’s funds have learned with movement practitioners around the world.

“We’re excited by the learning and connection we’ve already seen,” says Sibanda, “and equally excited about the work to come. Through these efforts, women’s funds will have the infrastructure to take in more resources, the deep relationships to move in collaboration with each other, and the skills to more powerfully tell their story.”

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