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October 26, 2023

Lessons from the journey: Reflections on the Ms. Foundation Safety Cohort

by Samantha Franklin

This piece was also published on Philanthropy News Digest.

The Ms. Foundation for Women has always invested in the safety of women and girls, providing funding to organizations that work to end violence against women and girls.

In 2016, our Safety program strategy shifted to respond to a social and political climate of intense anti-Blackness—inflamed by the rhetoric of Donald J. Trump’s presidential campaign—and the lack of public discourse around the intersections of anti-Blackness and misogyny. Public attention and philanthropic response at the time were directed primarily toward men and boys of color. Far fewer resources and far less attention were directed toward women and girls of color. Black women and girls continued to experience disproportionately high rates of violence and criminalization, including trends in racial profiling similar to those experienced by Black men, and statistical overrepresentation among women killed by the police. In 2014, following the death of Sandra Bland, the silence around the impact of police violence on Black women and girls spurred the launch of the #SayHerName campaign.

It was in this context that we shifted to a new strategy that was rooted in the lessons drawn from a year of conversations with women and girls across the country, and that centered Black women and girls. A central assumption of the strategy was that when the conditions are in place for Black women and girls to be safe, the realization of safety for other marginalized and oppressed groups will be possible. Ms. Foundation was one of the first foundations to create an all-Black, women-led and -centered cohort of seven local, regional, and national organizations that understand the issues that impact the safety of Black women and girls: BYP100EveryBlackGirl, Inc.Girls for Gender EquityNational Black Women’s Justice InstituteRestore ForwardTrans Sistas of Color Project, and Women with a Vision. Through a Black, queer, feminist lens, this Safety Cohort highlighted three key issue areas—criminalization, sexual assault/violence, and state-sanctioned violence. It brought a much-needed gender lens to the conversation around safety, and centered Black women and girls before it became commonplace for philanthropy to focus on and invest in them. It also laid the groundwork for Ms. Foundation to shift our funding strategy to unapologetically name and prioritize women and girls of color (WGOC), who, as we highlighted in our Pocket Change report, receive less than $6 in philanthropic dollars per year per capita in the United States.

The foundation has supported these organizations through multiyear general operating funding, capacity building, and three convenings (in 2016, 2019, and a closing convening in 2023). In accordance with our 2018-22 strategic plan, we eliminated issue-specific funding approaches in response to calls from the field to move toward a more intersectional approach. Thus, as safety no longer exists as a focus area, we’ve begun the process of sunsetting the Safety Cohort. Throughout this transition, we have sought to facilitate a process rooted in transparency and trust. As the program officer for the portfolio, it was important to me to help prepare our partners for the transition and understand what role they felt the foundation could play in supporting them through and beyond the sunsetting of the portfolio. Over the course of several months, we solicited input from our grantee partners through individual and group dialogues regarding the activities and support that would best position them to continue and advance their work. We developed and iterated a transition plan in response to these conversations that includes additional funding through spring 2024 to help bridge the gap, ongoing capacity building, support for collaboration, and a closing convening.

We have been intentional about creating space for authentic conversation and relationship building over the lifespan of the cohort, and we have been tremendously privileged to learn from these dynamic leaders about what it means to do their work. From building the infrastructure to ensure that their organizations can operate effectively to navigating executive positions as Black women in the current sociopolitical context, there is a considerable amount for them to manage—and a great deal for us as funding partners to support them around if we hope to grow a movement that embodies sustainability, wellness, and liberation. Here are a few key lessons:

Black, femme leaders need support to feel safe. In contrast to the 2019 convening, which emphasized strategy, field mapping, and programmatic collaboration, our 2023 convening leaned into personal leadership and organizational culture. The agenda, developed by a subset of the cohort leaders, provided a container for conversations around role clarity, collaborative leadership, white supremacy and other internal threats within organizations, and executive director (ED) longevity. “Safety” means something specific and unique to each ED, and is influenced by their backgrounds. In order to lead effectively and safely in their positions, they need access to rest and care. They need support in establishing structures for holding space for their staff—who, like them, come from frontline communities—around trauma, which can often skew expectations of leadership, distort conversations around accountability, and damage organizational culture.

The conversational trend mirrors what we are observing more broadly among our grantee partners, which is no surprise given the outsized and growing burden women of color hold. Like the communities they serve and to which they belong, these leaders bear the brunt of the continued efforts to roll back civil and reproductive rights and dismantle the public sector, as well as the continued impacts of a devastating pandemic, climate change, economic precarity, and more. It also points to the need for greater safety in the relationships between grantee partners and their funders. We as funders need to be intentional in the creation of honest and trusting spaces where grantee partners can share challenges with foundation staffers—especially those who share their experiences or identities—knowing that we will bring our resources to bear in supporting them rather than pulling those resources altogether.

Relationship building pays dividends. We recognize the critique from many leaders regarding funder-driven cohorts: that the mere fact of working on similar issues and being funded by the same foundation is not sufficient justification for expecting them to work together. Our hope was to create a learning community where the seeds of new connections could be planted. Over time, we’ve watched relationships between our grantee partners blossom. At the convening, leaders talked about how being able to reach out to one another reduced feelings of isolation and created space for them to share lessons, discussed practices to support their longevity, and highlighted the importance of mentorship and having a “brain trust” and a “village of care.” They asked the foundation clearly and directly for resources to support them to reconvene without us in a healing-orientated, loosely structured space—a container for them to process and grieve the moment we are in and to see what conversations and insights emerge organically. We are excited to provide this support in the form of mini-collaboration grants and eager to see how this experiment benefits our partners.

Multiyear general operating support and capacity building are critical investments. Our journey with the Safety Cohort (as with grantees outside of the cohort) continues to underscore the importance of general operating grant dollars and of capacity-building support. Our grants have provided organizations the flexibility to do work for which funding tends to be scarce, such as sex worker organizing and research. It has allowed organizations to experiment and “dream into” work that might not have otherwise been funded. It has signaled trust in these leaders and their work, and it has represented a willingness to invest in their leadership and in the strength of their organizations in contrast to a historical backdrop of philanthropic underinvestment and disinvestment in women and girls of color. (Stay tuned for the follow-up to our Pocket Change report, which explores the impact of this underinvestment and disinvestment in depth.)

Our learning journey with the Safety Cohort will continue with a story gathering and listening phase through which we will synthesize key narratives regarding this body of work and, hopefully, draw more attention to and support for the work of these incredible organizations. With profound gratitude for the generosity and insight of our partners, we look forward to continuing to share our insights.

All graphic recordings by Yen Azzaro