Women and girls need more routes to power and influence. How can funders help?

Over the summer of 2021 a group of seven funders started an informal conversation about the opportunities for women’s sector organisations across the UK to bring about change, both at a local and a national level. We were a disparate bunch of grant makers, both large and small, including generalists and those with a specific focus on women’s issues, but all of us had in common a history of making grants to women’s organisations, and an interest in hearing a stronger policy voice from the sector. Early on we began to use the title ‘Routes to Power and Influence’ on our emails.

The more we talked, the more we realised there were some things we knew already from existing research and sector intelligence: that the women’s sector is under-funded, has fared badly through austerity and is particularly vulnerable to further cuts post-pandemic; that throughout conversations about the impact of the pandemic and recovery from it, the specific impacts on women have received relatively little attention; that the need for, and benefits women and girls gain from, gender-specific services is often not recognised by funding and commissioning processes; that marginalised women face multiple intersecting barriers to fully participating in economic, social and cultural life and are often unheard and unable to influence decisions and policies; that women’s rights as a broader set of issues have fallen down the national agenda, with fewer funders and other institutions identifying women as a priority group; that there are some local, regional, national and sub-sector-specific networks that bring together some women’s organisations but provision of these is patchy and they can lack a clear link through to (and voice in) national conversations; that there is a lack of a co-ordinated voice talking to central government about women’s issues – a gap left when the Women’s National Commission was disbanded – although there are examples of better practice in Scotland and Wales.

However, there was also a lot we didn’t know, including: what infrastructure and networks exist at a local, regional and national level, and/or on particular issues or for specific communities; how, and if, those existing organisations and networks interact; what proportion of women’s organisations are members of women’s infrastructure organisations and who isn’t being represented; how are the concerns of grassroots groups heard and amplified; what are the examples of effective influencing; where are the gaps; what are the specific issues for organisations working with marginalised groups of women, including Black and minoritised women, deaf and disabled women; what support do women’s organisations get from generic local infrastructure organisations, do any of them use a gender lens; how do different types of women’s organisations work together e.g. policy-focused organisations and local community groups; what do women’s organisations want to achieve together. In short, we wanted to know what women’s organisations need to increase opportunities for transformational change.

Having got to this point we decided to commission a quick piece of research. We didn’t have the funds, or the patience, for a comprehensive study; we wanted something relatively quick that would point us in the direction of some practical next steps. Three of us were able to contribute some funding, so we invited tenders and got a really strong response. Our preferred research team stood out as they proposed to take a ‘movement ecology’ approach which sparked our interest. We suggested they focus in on a few sample areas, rather than try to cover the whole of the UK; asked them to speak to both grass roots and national organisations and to pay particular attention to intersectionality and to hearing the voices of Black and minoritised women and deaf and disabled women. Critically, we asked the research team to draw out recommendations for funders – we were the primary audience for the research, we weren’t looking to tell the women’s sector what it should do, we wanted to know what funders could do.

At this point it’s probably worth mentioning that, as well as representing very different types of grant-maker, we also play different roles in our organisations: some of us are grants managers; two of us are CEOs and we have a regional manager and a trustee. We are spread across the country and Zoom and Doodle Poll have been our friends, making it easy to organise quick, short meetings to keep this work moving. We are all very busy in our day jobs and, for some of us, this work has been an ‘extra’ that we have engaged in because we want to see the sector thrive and have a stronger voice. Some of us have been able to contribute funding, others bring their networks and all bring sector intelligence; all voices are equally valued. Quite apart from the usefulness of the research and the possible next steps that might flow from it, we have enjoyed meeting together and found having the space to discuss these issues of value too.

The research work is now complete and we have a really helpful report with lots of insights, reflections and recommendations for funders, which we are keen to share.

We will be launching the report at a virtual event on 28th November and want to use that opportunity to hear from other funders, both about your experiences of, or interest in, funding the women’s sector but also about your experiences of funding other movements, or policy and influencing work in other sectors.

We decided to keep this first event as ‘funder only’, on the understanding that any specific work that flows from it will be developed in partnership with the appropriate sector organisations.

The event will be in two parts; we will hear from the research team about the analysis that sits behind the recommendations, then there will be time to talk to each other, share questions and possible solutions and test our individual and/or collective appetite for further activity in this space. If any of this sparks your interest, you would be most welcome to join us.

– Cullagh Warnock, The Pilgrim Trust

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