We build women’s collective power in the U.S.

June 12, 2024

Collaborative funds include our communities

by Bri Barnett

This piece was reposted with permission from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

More than 50 years ago, the Ms. Foundation for Women was founded with a radical vision for philanthropy—feminists funding feminists to build women’s collective power in the United States. Collaboration between activists and movement leaders on staff and among our grantee and advocacy partners is a core value that we’ve refined over time. We’ve come to understand that our trust and care-based approach to mobilizing dollars from donors to support women, girls, and gender-expansive leaders of color makes us a collaborative fund. Yet, when we were invited to attend the Global Summit of Collaborative Funds, we were unsure we belonged in the room because we understood the term “collaborative fund” as describing organizations where donors make decisions together through formal board positions on an entity that pools their resources. Those power imbalances are antithetical to how we operate, because they erase the expertise of organizational staff and grassroots leaders.

Through the convening, we saw a broader definition of collaborative funds that includes organizations based in the communities they serve. We now believe that the movement towards resourcing collaborative funds can be a powerful shift in philanthropy—as long as the donors who fund collaboratives understand that we must extend collaboration to the communities we are working with to make change. Here are some lessons we’ve learned over the past five decades about how to practice true collaboration:

  • Who we are shapes our impact: The Ms. Foundation was founded with the belief that “the personal is political”—that having leaders with direct experience of the issues they’re working on is a critical component of a successful strategy. Our staff live in the movements we resource and the Ms. Foundation operationalizes that expertise. Our Birth Justice Initiative Program Officer Sona Smith is a Black mother, a doula, and the former executive director of a small nonprofit, which means that our programmatic strategy is infused with the deeply personal knowledge of the issues facing Black parents, birth workers, and nonprofit leaders.
  • Strong, authentic, relationships are the basis of collaboration: Relationships begin with listening—our shift to centering women and girls of color, with a focus on the South and Midwest, began a decade ago with our President and CEO, Teresa C. Younger, using a national listening tour to build connections. Every year, we return to underrepresented areas in our portfolio and act on what we hear to build trust. For us, that means adopting an issue-neutral funding strategy that allows communities to talk about issues on their own terms, specific portfolios for underfunded areas, and capacity building opportunities responsive to grantee needs. Over time, we’ve been invited into genuine relationships with grantee partners where they share the challenges they’re facing, not just their wins, which allows true partnership on strengthening individual leaders, their organizations, and broader movements.
  • Research can support strategy, bring in new partners, and promote accountability between grantee partners and funders: Effective research should deepen relationships as an opportunity to collaborate with leaders in the field and create an evidence base to bring in new partners. Our report Pocket Change: How Women and Girls of Color Do More With Less, emerged from our grantee partners sharing that their work was under-resourced. Our research put numbers to what our grantees were experiencing, and found that women and girls of color in the United States receive just 0.5% of all philanthropic support, with pronounced disinvestment in the South and Midwest. Those findings guided our strategy and advocacy and led to follow-up research, Living With Pocket Change: What it Means to Do More With Less, which uses qualitative analysis to let women and nonbinary leaders of color speak directly to funders about what they need to win.
  • Fund collaboration and rest: Too often, collaboration, cross-issue work, and time to rest, network, and dream new strategies is unfunded work because it doesn’t fit into issue areas and its deliverables don’t emerge on short timelines. We explicitly fund this work through our Activist Collaboration and Care Fund and our capacity building offerings.

Fifty years into the Ms. Foundation’s experiment with feminist philanthropy, we welcome a move to true collaboration alongside leaders and communities engaged in the heavy work of social change. Together, all of us can create a safe and just world where power and possibility are not limited by gender, race, class, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, or age.

Photos by Bryan Patrick Photography