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Crises require care: It’s time for philanthropy to walk the talk on social justice

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By Maria Alejandra Rodriguez Acha, Co-Executive Director at FRIDA The Young Feminist Fund; Mbali Donna Khumalo, Program Officer at FRIDA The Young Feminist Fund; and María Díaz Ezquerro, Co-Manager of Programs at FRIDA The Young Feminist Fund

The current crises brought to light and amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the unveiling of entrenched anti-black racism, have exposed a core fragility of the philanthropic sector: the lack of alignment between our internal organizational cultures, and our external missions of supporting social movements and grassroots groups to tackle the causes of oppression, marginalization and violence. There are overarching cultures within international human rights organizations and funders that operate under hyper-productive and white supremacist productivity standards, with a negative effect on mental health, self and collective wellbeing. Six months into these disruptive times, an important learning is that if we actually want to tackle injustice during and beyond this moment of emergency, philanthropy needs to look inward towards the wellbeing of its staff, grantee partners and allies; and recognize the importance of pause, rest, collective care – as well as developing participatory processes as strategies to overcome crises, and build sustainable alternatives.

Prioritizing wellbeing is key for the resilience and sustainability of our communities. Yet, too often we focus on the wellbeing of others and fail to see how our own staff are dealing with these extremely changing times. We cannot sustain and resource social movement work if we are not safe, and mentally, physically and emotionally well.

Unfortunately, this is not the rule in our sector. The sum of political and financial crises worldwide in the last years and their repercussions on the development sector have many faces, but some of the fiercest and most invisible are the increased pressure and work overload on organizations’ staff. People are burning out in professional environments where they are supposed to feel safe and protected. Beyond being unproductive, this is a matter of justice. It is a display of how patriarchal power and capitalist relations have de-centered care, the sustainability of life, and our ability to flourish as our full selves.

Now, the precarious global context due to the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a created need for both grassroots activists and those working in the philanthropic sector to abruptly adapt to virtual routines – if they have the privilege of technological access – and revise their priorities, whilst feeling the pressure for rapid and effective response, in a perfect combination for work overload, anxiety, fatigue and burnout.

But urgency shouldn’t require burnout and exhaustion. Our response is as rapid as our trust in one another, our response travels at the beat of our own ability to be present, focused and fully prepared to face anything. In light of what the last months have brought, and the ongoing crises we’re facing, philanthropy must engage in deep reflection and take this as an opportunity to promote real change in its practices. Below, we list some suggestions for steps forward from our own experience centering care, flexibility and participatory grantmaking into our work. We make these humble offerings to our community in the hope we can all see what care and participation mean in our own context.

Prioritize care and holistic security

How are staff members in your organization coping with the challenges of the pandemic? What are the impacts of this moment of reckoning with the racist violence that permeates our societies and organizations? It’s time to prioritize wellbeing over productivity. Ensuring that organizations’ teams have access to the necessary support to ensure their wellbeing is no less important than guaranteeing the achievement of institutional outcomes. In fact, it’s a determinant to success. And beyond that, being in alignment with our values is what will eventually sustain our organizations.

An important strategy to make it happen is asking the questions and deciding together how to best support each other. At FRIDA, we carried out a collective process to implement emergency response measures that include access to specialized support such as coaching and healers, additional resources for staff to deal with unexpected personal costs that may arise, and others. Creating these mechanisms collectively is an important step in the development of a long-term culture of wellbeing where people feel respected and protected. Take this as an opportunity to also dialogue with your board, leadership and own funders, to advocate for the need for greater flexibility and to speak to the importance of individual and collective self-care.

Care is not a one time thing but a daily commitment and reflection. The creation of regular collective spaces for reflection around organizational practices is crucial to challenge our internal cultures and leaderships, as well as is an opportunity to overcome the difficulties that are preventing team members from feeling happy and staying healthy. Besides from these spaces, here go some tips on how to include care in practice, in virtual office routines: dedicating time for check-ins at the beginning of each meeting – asking people how they are doing, or other creative, non-work related questions -, respecting lunch breaks and working hours, setting up clear protocols to reach each other in case of emergencies, hosting occasional optional team meetings to not chat about work, and facilitating fun optional spaces to hang out with colleagues.

In moments of crisis, surveillance often increases, as do volatile political environments. It’s important to remember that safety is a core part of care. By the nature of our work, grantmaking staff can become targets when persecution against civil society escalates. In addition, many of those working in feminist philanthropy tend to be activists ourselves, engaging with our own communities. Are your security protocols for digital and offline threats updated? Does your staff know how to proceed in case of organizational and personal risk? If not, consider developing and sharing this knowledge.

Let flexibility guide you

Core and flexible grants will allow you to support grassroots organizers to respond to their communities’ urgent needs at this moment, and to meet their own needs in terms of care and holistic security as activists. If your organization has been pushed towards taking on a less rigid approach due to these unique and urgent circumstances, you can learn from this experience. Ask your partners what this meant for them, and what it would mean for the sustainability and effectiveness of their impact if you move towards more flexible grants. Change is a process. Listen to grantee partners and staff about what worked best, what could have been done differently, and collectively develop an internal plan setting grantmaking flexibility as a goal.

Think of support beyond core funding

Whereas core flexible funding is essential for grassroots activists to operate and maintain their work, a wide range of types of support is also critical to sustain social movements. This includes peer feminist learning and sharing, alliance building and networking, and ongoing efforts to contribute to the holistic safety and wellbeing of movements. Traditionally, philanthropy has had a top-down approach to capacity strengthening, building rigid programs and determining what skills they considered movements needed to improve. Feminist philanthropy, on the other hand, takes a horizontal and participatory approach, recognizing groups as experts and leading agents when it comes to strengthening their own organizations.

During the COVID-19 global pandemic, at FRIDA we co-created an accompaniment plan to enhance the support we provide to grantee partners during these challenging times. Care, flexibility, and feminist solidarity are at the root of this accompaniment process, which is built collectively from ongoing conversations with groups and a mapping of their current immediate needs and strengths. In addition, we co-created regional safe spaces for reflection and healing among FRIDA’s community, organized online learning opportunities on the self-identified priorities of the groups, and shared tools and resources on digital security and organizing, among others.

Participatory grantmaking

Many donors have been providing additional and emergency funds for grantee partners to respond to these crises, which have consequences for communities’ urgent needs that will last longer than this initial moment. Because urgency doesn’t require sacrificing participatory practices, this can be a great opportunity to move towards participatory grantmaking. This model of funding puts the power of deciding who should receive resources directly in the hands of applicants, who have a deep understanding and are most familiar with their local contexts and the most basic needs. It also offers transparency and allows building relationships based on learning and knowledge exchange between funders and activists, turning your support into more than money.

At FRIDA, we developed our own Community Resilience Grant to provide flexible funds. Grassroots organizations – often led by young feminists in the Global South – are carrying out basic community survival initiatives that may not directly be what they set out to do. In some contexts, where these networks mean the survival of communities, supporting these is crucial, as is to do so in a participatory way. The Community Resilient Grant followed a participatory decision-making process, for which regional FRIDA advisors and staff formed the peer review and decision making committee. Besides us, there are multiple funders who are already implementing, experienced or trialing participatory grantmaking. You would not be on this journey alone!

Feminist philanthropy embraces the strategies and practices of the grassroots organizers it supports, since it understands that “how” funders work is as much or more important than “how much” they donate. From this perspective, the ways we establish relations with activists and set up our grantmaking work influence our ability to promote change. Feminist philanthropy seeks to tackle the roots of inequality through its practices and structures, recognizing that the intersectionality of race, gender, sexuality, religion, disability, class and others are profoundly interwoven in exposing us to bias, injustice and structural violence. In doing so, we center the principles of flexibility, participation, care and wellbeing. Philanthropy needs to move towards a feminist, justice-based, vibrant collective vision, not just through grants, not just through our “deliverables” – but in how we relate to each other, in how we show up to our shared spaces and in how we work together, right here and now.

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