Philanthropy Through A Gender Lens: Because Giving is an Act of Social Change

women's philanthropyBy Hamutal Gouri

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine,
then let us work together.”
Australian Aboriginal artist and elder,
Lilla Watson

I learned this quote from some of the young activists participating in a program sponsored by the Dafna Fund. I’ve adopted it warmly, since it speaks to my motivations as a professional and a feminist activist. My liberation as a woman is bound up with the liberation of other women, even if I am very different than them and even if each of us experiences a different kind of oppression and discrimination. The call to work together is anchored in the belief that the challenges that each of us face are deeply bound together in the gendered inequality in society, which persists in viewing women as lesser partners.

We women make up 51% of the population, and we are an integral part of the lives of the other 49% as mothers, grandmothers, sisters, friends, and daughters. And yet, in the year 2016, the world is not a safe or equal place for women. Yes, in 2016, women still earn less than men; women are not paid for their “invisible work,” which includes caretaking and family work; and women still face physical, sexual and verbal violence. Women still bang their heads against the glass ceiling and still struggle to get themselves up from the mud floor of poverty, oppressive employment and low wages.

But, of course, that is only a piece of the picture; it is the piece that reveals all that is missing and the lack of equality. The other piece of the picture points to our wealth, to all that women bring to the world: resilience and flexibility, an ethic of care and concern; integrity; and the ability to take calculated risks and act in a concerted, attentive manner.

Those who oppose full equality for women, whether overtly or covertly are quick to bring up their two main arguments. First, they list the handful of women who have reached the highest levels of leadership, from Golda Meir to Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel. Then, they readily note that women who reach senior positions of power and influence do not necessarily reveal the qualities that I listed above.

As a world view, feminism observes society through a wide, multi-faceted lens that examines the links between gender, ethnicity, nationality, status and geographical location. Thus, the happy fact that some women have managed to break through the glass ceiling and amass wealth or experience personal security in their lives cannot serve as an argument against the fundamental struggle for full and essential equality. Simply because most women still struggle every day with the most basic existential challenges.

True, there have been in the past and are today some women who have broken through the glass ceiling. But they are the exception that proves the rule, if only because we can count them on the fingers of one hand. True, not every woman in power brings a feminist agenda or is committed to creating change in either gendered power relations in particular or power relations in general.

In order for women – and men – in positions of leadership and power to work for women’s rights and welfare and full gender equality, we need strong and effective women’s organizations. That is why we need philanthropy that is committed to a feminist agenda. Because feminism is, after all, “the radical notion that women are people.”

Recognition of gendered injustice on the one hand, along with the qualities that women bring to the world, is one of the reasons, among others, behind the trend towards increased philanthropic investment in women, as noted, for example, in recently-published article that discusses philanthropic leadership in the United States and in the growth of philanthropy from a gendered perspective:

“Let’s start with the new money to advance women and girls. After years of growth, women donor networks are now exploding, bringing more philanthropists to issues of gender equity and growing the ranks of women donors who are explicitly focused in this area.”

Melinda Gates, who, together with her husband, Bill Gates, heads one of the largest and most influential funds in the world, has decided to devote her annual letter to the “invisible work.” Yes, that endless housework that women throughout the world still perform, and much more than the men do. Gates, whose letter is addressed to the generation of the future, high school students, writes:

“This isn’t a global plot by men to oppress women. It’s more subtle than that. The division of work depends on cultural norms, and we call them norms because they seem normal – so normal that many of us don’t notice the assumptions we’re making. But your generation can notice them – and keep pointing them out until the world pays attention”.

Gates is drawing our attention to the ways in which social and cultural norms perpetuate the reality of inequality, even in societies which have ostensibly egalitarian legislation. With commendable tact, she avoids pointing an accusatory finger at 49% of the readers of her letter; since, of course, men, too, must be agents of social-gendered change.

It is encouraging to see that a world-leading philanthropist is so clearly engaged in the struggle for gender equality. It is heartening to see that a movement of donors is gradually forming to promote philanthropy through a gendered lens as a best-practice for grant-making. Why is giving through a gendered lens a best practice? Because it examines and considers women’s needs and preferences, assets and priorities, based on the fact that women make up, as we have already noted, 51% of the population. Integration of gendered thinking in the funding of activities in the fields of basic and higher education, health, welfare, community planning and development, environment and sustainability thus constitutes support for better, more effective services and provides an opportunity for women to take an active part in the shaping of society.

Yet, this trend, which is gaining a certain traction in the United States, has yet to expand outwards, to the Jewish philanthropic community in the United States and throughout the world and to the burgeoning philanthropic community in Israel.

For some twelve years, Barbara Dobkin, the most generous Jewish feminist I know, has been working to strengthen women’s philanthropy in the American Jewish community through her continued support for a network of Jewish women which has grown over the years and now numbers more than 20 funds and foundations throughout the United States. The Dafna Fund joined this network five years ago, in order to be part of the developing conversation among philanthropists who make their investments through a gendered lens, in Israel and the US. In 2012, the network of Jewish Women’s Funds made its first collaborative grant in Israel to a Shutafot (Partners in Hebrew), a coalition of eight feminist organizations working to promote economic security for women.

The network serves as a supportive framework for learning and development of shared leadership by women for women. Together, we learn to lift up our voices and to believe in our collective influence. This is not an easy task, because investment through a gendered lens is still a rarity among the practices of mainstream Jewish philanthropy.

The philanthropic community in Israel is younger and is still developing. Over the past few years, we have seen encouraging initiatives, such as “Committed to Give,” dedicated to advancing the culture of giving in Israel; The Institute for Law and Philanthropy, currently being established at Tel Aviv University; and, of course, the more veteran Forum of Foundations in Israel, which provides opportunities for networking and collegial learning among the heads of Israeli foundations. To these we can now add, Keren BaKtana (“The Little Fund”), which concentrates on establishing giving circles throughout Israel – since philanthropy really isn’t only for the rich.

We hope that out of these welcome initiatives, a movement of giving through a gendered lens will grow in Israel, too; this will be a movement of men and women committed to the advancement of women’s rights and full gender equality. Because an egalitarian and inclusive society is not only a better and more just society, it is also a more stable and thriving society.

We invite you to become a part of this movement.

To learn more about giving with a gender lens, please visit our information center:

Hamutal Gouri is Executive Director at The Dafna Fund.