Global Fund for Women CEO shares funding tips

Kavita Ramdas is the president and CEO of the Global Fund for Women, the worled's largest grant-making organization focusing on women's empowerment. Photo by: Terry Lorant

A successful grant proposal to the Global Fund for Women goes beyond dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s. It embodies women sharing their views on pathways to development, says Kavita Ramdas, the fund’s president and CEO.

For Ramdas, advancements like the Beijing Platform for Action and the Cairo Declaration are the result of “organic grassroots and globally connected movements for transformation.”

She explained: “If I were to say there has been any one really singular, spectacular achievement, I think that has been it. It’s that women themselves are simply refusing to wait for other people to free them or empower them or transform them.”

An early activist, Ramdas worked on literacy, violence and women’s rights issues at the urban and rural grassroots levels in India after dropping out of college, much to “the horror of my father and to the delight of my mother.”

In 1983, she resumed her academic career with a full scholarship to study at Mount Holyoke College and graduated two years later with a degree in political science and international relations. She secured her graduate degree in international and political development from Princeton University, and worked as a program officer at the MacArthur Foundation from 1988 to 1996.

“I worked on domestic issues rather than international issues, but [on] the same questions of poverty and underdevelopment and lack of access to resources because I was working with underprivileged communities in the U.S,” Ramdas said.

Since 1996, Ramdas has spearheaded the Global Fund’s efforts to equip women with the resources necessary for effecting change in their communities.

Devex spoke to Ramdas about the fund’s role as the largest grant-making institution globally and her thoughts on navigating the development arena.

How have your experiences influenced your philosophy on development?

Oh, they’ve influenced it very much because both I grew up in a developing country myself and I know that all the assumptions about either backwardness or lack of infrastructure or assumptions about what people know or don’t know, when you do that from the west, it’s much different than what actually is seen on the ground.

I … grew up as a citizen of a developing country and grew up exposed to those many, many multiple realities. I have to explain to people that yes, India is a country where on the one hand, girls are regularly mistreated and you know, where there are dowries. But India is also a country where they had a woman prime minister long, long, long before the U.S. can ever even dream of having a woman as the head of their country. So, you know, I think my philosophy on development is that it’s really important to start from the realities on the ground and to listen to people where they’re at, rather than assuming that you know something about their lives and that you have the answers to their problems.

The overarching message at the 54th Commission on the Status of Women, held in March 2010 in New York, was that more needs to be done in order to go beyond sensitization efforts on gender and development. In your opinion, what strategic steps need to be taken in order to translate policy into practice?

Well, I think one very important step is to make sure that women in the communities have access to the resources they need to actually undertake their many different creative ideas and strategies for bringing about change in their communities. So the policies need to translate in terms of access and resources to women on the ground, and I think that’s the most important piece that has to actually happen and that hasn’t really happened.

Women’s organizations continue to struggle with very, very limited access to funding. And the Global Fund for Women – it’s crazy that we’re the largest organization giving away grants in the world and all we gave away last year was $8.6 million, because we have to raise it all. Really, women deserve far, far more than that. It should be many, many times that amount. And so I think one of the major barriers to women being able to do this work is having access to the resources they need.

I think there are other issues which are related, which have to do with the whole question of organizations being given the kind of protection in terms of the role of civil society in many countries. I think for many women, just simply speaking up or mobilizing as independent organizations is very, very dangerous and really puts them into harm’s way. And so we, I think, need to do a lot more to make sure that women’s human rights defenders are protected and given the kind of space that they really need to be able to contribute to create open and democratic societies, and in many parts of the world that’s very far from the truth.

At the heart of the grant proposal

Could you run us through Global Fund’s grant-making process? Which areas generally receive the largest pool of proposals, and which areas tend to receive the most funding? How do you assess the impacts of your grants?

You can get much more of that information from our Web site. We receive about 2,500 proposals to 3,000 proposals every year. And, the bulk of those, I think the single largest group of them comes from sub-Saharan Africa. The next single largest group comes from India, I think 500 proposals come from India alone every year. Sub-Saharan African countries write to us in all different languages: in Portuguese, in French, in Amharic, in English, in Arabic.

So, we have been, I think, very responsive and particularly keen on increasing our grant-making in sub-Saharan Africa because it has been an area where women have both paid such a high price for the legacy of colonialism and the continued legacy of globalization and economic destitution. But also because women are really playing extraordinary leadership roles. I mean, women are really holding together and rebuilding countries in the aftermath of conflict.

Rwanda is a great example, Liberia is another example. And in the Democratic Republic of Congo, although we hear about the terrible news about women and girls being raped as victims in this terrible conflict, what we don’t hear so much is that women are also at the forefront of challenging this cultural impunity and militarized violence. Congolese women are really setting a very, very impressive bar for people in other conflict areas by really tracking down and identifying the flow of arms and challenging the governments to really stand up for what they say they’re going to do.

Our process is that we have an international staff which has a very diverse set of languages and then they review the proposals that come in, and then we in turn send them back out into the communities that we work in, because a very, very large number of our advisers are based in the countries where we work. So we actually send information back out into those countries and ask people on the ground to say: What do you know about this group? Are they doing what they say they are doing? How are they doing it? Can you find out more about it for us?

And then, based on the recommendations, we hear back from our advisers on the ground, we make recommendations to our board of directors as to whether to go ahead and fund the organization or not.

Could you share an examples of how a Global Fund grant has helped to spur development and advance women’s rights?

Sure. There are a number of different kinds of examples. In China in 2003, we got a request from a group of women who were noticing the linkages between pesticide use and birth defects and pregnancy-related disorders with women. They call themselves EcoWomen. They had a very small budget of about $400. They had the vision of being able to educate women about the dangers of the highly industrial chemical agriculture that women were practicing. They applied for a grant; the Global Fund for Women gave them a $10,000 grant towards the vision that they had of educating women in their community about organic agriculture, being able to be real advocates for a different way of both educating people in their community about pesticides and chemicals, but also growing food in a way that would actually benefit women’s health. And today they are one of the most influential activist organizations on the environment in China.

We have been influential in funding a women’s education program that was initially running underground schools during the time of the Taliban. We made a very small $5,000 grant to them in 1997. They now – they’re an organization called the Afghan Institute for Learning – they now reach over 350,000 women, children, girls and boys, across Afghanistan. So I think we’ve really had some incredible impact.

And in Africa, I think one of our amazing success stories has been the grant that we made to the Girl Child Network, which is an association of young girls and their teachers, who were determined to stop the practice of sexual abuse in the schools in Zimbabwe. They succeeded in mobilizing across the country, a real movement to end sexual abuse in schools, and they even succeeded in changing the laws that would bring perpetrators to justice.

What makes a successful grant proposal? What elements or information should it translate?

Well, I think proposals to the Global Fund are quite different than successful proposals to other foundations. And the main reason for that is we’re much less interested in looking at how cleverly an organization can write, or what good English they have, or how well they fill in the borders or the margins. We have a very basic set of questions that we ask. We don’t have a very complicated form, and the reason for that is what we are much more interested in is really hearing from women in their own voices about what they see as the priorities in their community and what they see as being the best way to address those priorities. So, I would say that our interest in proposals has very much been focused on those lines.

We are much more interested in knowing: Who do the groups work with? What do people in their own community think? For us, the sign of a good proposal is a sign where the group is able to tell us how the people who they are serving are actually involved in decision-making in their organization and how they are able to influence the design and the impact of their program. So I think those are the kinds of things we look for. We also look to see whether the organization itself is willing to commit its own resources, because we think that before you can go and ask others to fund you, you need to be willing to put your own resources, whether those are physical resources, whether those are financial resources, or whether it’s your own work or, you know, whatever.

As the largest global grant-making organization focused on women’s issues, the Global Fund offers hundreds of grants annually. How do you decide on how much funding to allocate to each region? Are you seeing any trends in the needs of women across the various regions, say between Asia and Europe, for instance?

Yes, I think we do see trends, and I think the question of allocating across regions is always a complex one. We try to use a number of different factors including size of total population, percentage of the population that is female, the degree to which those parts of the world have strong women’s movements or not. We’re also limited to some extent by how the money that we’ve been able to raise is restricted or not restricted towards a certain region, and then, of course, lastly: How far does the dollar go in those different places? So, while we may make a lot more grants in sub-Saharan Africa, the average size of the grants in sub-Saharan Africa tends to be a lot smaller than grants in Latin America for example, where the cost of living is much higher.

Also, organizations in Latin America are more likely to be able to deal with issues of sexuality and questions around reproductive health and rights. Women’s groups in Africa are just only now beginning there. There are a few groups that are dealing with issues of sexual minority rights, the rights of gays, lesbians, transsexuals. It’s still quite a taboo subject, women’s organizations are nervous to take it up. That’s quite different in other parts of the world. And I think similarly, the way in which we allocate resources is also based on whether there are other funders that are available to do this kind of work. So, the smallest amount of our resources goes to Europe and the former Soviet Union and in part that’s because we think European countries, for the most part, have better access to resources. And we also don’t fund in the U.S. for that reason.

Fundraising and partnership goals

The Global Fund’s “Fundraising Handbook” lists businesses and companies as a potential fundraising source for small NGOs. In the current business climate, how would you suggest that these NGOs approach businesses?

Well, I think in the case of many of the groups that work in their local communities, local businesses are interested in being identified with doing good for the community. And so, women’s organizations have been successful when they’ve been able to kind of appeal to small businesses by saying we, as a small business, are not just here to make money but we’re also giving back something to our community. And then, they improve that by saying: We’re partnering with the local women’s shelter. Or, we are helping to sponsor three girls to go to school. Or, we are, you know, making sure that there are enough additional access to computers or something for kids who don’t have the opportunity to use them in the schools.

Those are things that those companies can do to promote themselves as well, and they also benefit the local organizations. So I think we’re encouraging them to think about ways in which they can do that. Although of course we realize that in the current crisis it’s not just hard for our grantees to raise money, but also for us to raise money. So you have to be as inventive and as determined and as persistent as possible.

What are some of the milestones the Global Fund is working toward this year? What are you excited about?

I think we’re very excited about a few things. We’re excited about our corporate leadership council. We’ve been working very hard to strengthen and build close and working relationships with prominent women who are leaders throughout the U.S. in corporations, but who are looking to find a way to be more engaged in the work and lives of women in other parts of the world. …

I think women in the corporate world have an incredible ability to step up and really stand with their sisters in the rest of the world. I spoke on March 8, International Women’s Day, to the women of Axa Equitable, which is a – women and men actually, of Axa Equitable – which is a very large insurance company which is owned by a parent company in France. They’re very interested to know what they can be doing to invest in women across the world.

I think similarly, we’ve seen trends in organizations like Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan: People are very committed to the international [agendas] and trying to figure out, now that more and more companies see themselves as being global, they also want to have a global socially responsible footprint. So I think that that’s something that’s really important as well.

And I think, one of the other things we’re very excited about, that we believe will be able to make a real difference in the lives of women, is we have a grant-making initiative on women dismantling militarism for peace and security. And that is an effort in which we’re supporting women like the brave women of Liberia who challenged the civil war, to be able to really push back against the growing pressure that societies are under to spend all of their money in weapons and militaries and to instead really think about how those resources could be directed elsewhere, how they could be invested into human capital development and how that could actually create much more long-term security for women worldwide. So, we’re very interested in that initiative and looking forward to it to grow.

We also have a real desire to see the overall resources for women’s organizations to increase dramatically. And we’re very excited about partnering with others to encourage their interest in that work and we’d like to see more and more companies and other foundations stepping up on the issue of investing in women.

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