Five ways funding is crucial for organising and defeating gender backlash

Published on 12 March 2024

Independent Strategist and founding former Executive Director of Just Associates

Ben O’Donovan-Iland

Communications and Impact Officer

Backlash from conservative, patriarchal, religious and political forces is often seen as ‘the cost of doing business’ by feminist or LGBTQ+ activists. Yet how do philanthropic institutions who support gender justice respond to the scaled-up, well-financed and globally coordinated anti-gender ideology backlash today? How do they support and collaborate with activists and civil society organisations to expose and win against the ‘opposition’?

Lisa VeneKlasen explores this in ‘Anti-Gender Backlash: Where Is Philanthropy?’, from the IDS-led Countering Backlash programme. It is written primarily for gender justice and women’s rights activists and researchers in the global South who struggle to make sense of the philanthropy ecosystem, and to gain a partial view of the map of actors most closely aligned with their agenda.

With the focus of UN Women’s 68th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) 2024 around ‘financing with a gender perspective’, here are five takeaways from the paper.

1. Gender is the ‘canary in the coalmine’

Coordinated attacks on gender rights and activists are part of a larger authoritarian agenda that includes the targeting of ethnic and racial minorities, immigrants, environmentalists and more. The backlash against gender justice is a central pillar of the orchestrated rollback of democratic and progressive rights, politics and movements. Important collaborations between LGBTQ+ and feminist donors through the Global Philanthropy Project (GPP) and between women’s funds, such as the On the Right Track initiative, are funding research that tracks who’s behind the anti-gender movement and makes the connection between anti-gender, anti-democracy and authoritarian discourse and strategies, in addition to resourcing increased power and protection of activists.

2. Anti-gender funding is a juggernaut

Global anti-gender backlash is a juggernaut, stifling and reversing advances in racial, gender, and reproductive rights and justice, and attacking defenders in dozens of countries, and globally. As shown in the paper, research by the Global Philanthropy Project (GPP) finds that the anti-gender movement spent over USD$1 billion between 2008 and 2017, from organisations based in the United States alone while new anti-gender networks are emerging in Europe. These are the networks behind the passing of ‘anti-gay’ laws in Uganda and Ghana, for example. In 2023, research by the Institute for Journalism and Social Change (IJSC) found that the UK Government had been directly funding anti-LGBTQ+ churches in Uganda.

Actors in the UK are now a ‘key producer and exporter of anti-gender narratives’

In contrast, justice philanthropy has been slow to respond, and many steps behind the anti-gender opposition with regard to coordination, amounts and ways of funding.

3. Donors are not making the connection between gender backlash and threats to democracy

Too few donors recognise how patriarchy and gender are ‘critical to the forces characterised by rising authoritarianism’, according to interviews for this research.

Trump’s election in 2016 and subsequent assaults on reproductive and gender-related rights have been a ‘wake-up call’ focusing philanthropic attention on the urgency of anti-gender backlash. But feminists in philanthropy suggest that it remains an uphill battle, and that women’s rights funding is generally decreasing.

They point to the different ways that characterising anti-gender backlash prevents donors from sharing a common understanding of the problem.  The distinct frames donors use include: fundamentalist backlash, democratic backsliding, rising authoritarianism, anti-gender, anti-feminist, anti-‘gender ideology’, anti-rights, anti-abortion, anti-democracy, the far right, religious nationalism, and the opposition.

A report published in September 2023 from the Astraea Lesbian Fund for Justice, ‘Global Resistance to Anti-Gender Opposition’ explores this issue. It recommends that donors’ responses ‘keep it simple’ (e.g. use words like ‘conservative’ or ‘fundamentalist’) to help forge a shared narrative and communicate to the general public.

Backlash is nothing new, and many feminists and gender justice activists are frustrated by a perceived lack of donor urgency. One donor advisor shared that some activists in the Middle East, feel like the recent framing of ‘anti-gender-Backlash’ is a Western export by Northern donors who are only now realising the extent of the problem because of Trump.

Several philanthropic foundations, such as Ford Foundation, Oak Foundation, and Wellspring, are prioritising global South-led research and other strategies to fill knowledge gaps. GPP plays a central role in gathering analysis and coordinating the growing interest across the philanthropic sector.

4. Donors must also fund collaboration among feminist activists and organisers directly

The fact that philanthropic organisations are investing time and funding to coordinate and scale up their responses is promising. For example, GPP’s ‘Shimmering Solidarity Summit’ in 2021 led to the establishment of the ‘Responding to Anti-Gender Initiatives’ (RAGI) to ‘energise and coordinate donor responses.’ According to GPP staff, there has been a significant increase in funding to LGBTQI+ groups and improved coordination since the summit, but new challenges are always emerging.

At the same time, funders recognize that prevalent funding siloes can create competition and prevent urgently needed collaboration. Improved donor collaboration is welcome, but it doesn’t substitute for more unconditional funding to enable activists and organisers to create their own spaces that are essential to power-building and aligning creative multi-sectoral strategies and unusual alliances to tackle and expose who’s behind backlash on multiple fronts. With more opportunities to strategise together, they would also have meaningful advice for their donor partners. Both a donor and activist approach to collaboration is essential.

5. Funders in search of ‘innovation’ while managing a heightened sense of risk

The philanthropic sector tends to seek out innovation and ‘big bets’. At times, the search for the new and better is at the expense of tried and tested strategies that are not as visible or exciting.

Not infrequently, new large-scale funding is directed toward the creation of new funding structures like collaborative and pooled funds to move money more quickly to groups and mitigate risk to the donors involved. Two new promising collaborative funds that have emerged in response to GPP’s analysis are Numun and Nebula. Both of these funds direct resources toward energised movement-driven collaboration to address important gaps.

Risk is not new to donors, though, in such a volatile political moment, donors are naturally concerned, especially as philanthropic foundations have faced attacks from governments. How to balance the risk of not funding movements at the scale needed to win against the risk of donor-directed political and legal attacks is a significant dilemma.

The seemingly contradictory push and pull of heightened risk vs a ‘moonshot’ mindset impacts how quickly and flexibly funding flows. This is particularly true for the less flashy organising and infrastructure-building necessary to resist and win against an ever-morphing foe in the long run.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


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