What do small women’s rights organisations want from INGO funders? Less red tape and a seat at the table

Laura Norman Gender, Innovation, Women's Economic Empowerment

In the first of a series of blogs for International Women’s Day, Laura Norman and Mona Mehta set out three things women’s rights organisations want from international NGOs – and how Oxfam is responding with an innovative fund that aims to give women activists real power to do what’s best for their communities

Group of young women
Workshop run by Oxfam partner and women’s rights organisation Badili Africa for young Kenyan women in urban informal settlements on ways they can influence local government (Picture Peter Oryem/Badili Africa)

We know women’s rights organisations (WROs) transform the lives of women and girls around the world. These organisations are firmly rooted in their communities, can quickly support the most vulnerable in times of crisis, and can create lasting change for women and girls by supporting women’s needs, fighting to change policies at local, national and international levels, and addressing the causes of gender inequality.

Yet, for too long WROs, especially small WROs, have been ignored in the funding landscape. Around the world, WROs remain severely under-funded, receiving an average income of just $20,000 per year – in 2017/18 they received only 0.13% of global government aid funding! But it is not just the amount of funding that is important. Does it deliver in ways that empower the women doing the work, or do they feel constrained by bureaucracy and dictated to on how they should work with their own communities?

 ‘This is a gamechanger for small organisations like Badili Africa. Most donors would not allow us to use their money to pay 100% of staff salaries. I didn’t even know I could do that’

Bina Maseno, founder of Badili Africa

Here are three key things that Oxfam has been hearing from women looking to fund their grassroots organisations.

Fewer strings attached, please! 

Most funding available is bound to donors’ own short-term goals and does not contribute to the women’s organisation’s own priorities, nor does it help sustain the WRO for the future. Traditional funding also often institutionalises WROs, dictating how they operate and what they do. What the women tell us they need instead is flexibility to do and expand on the things that make them effective. That means flexible funding to support small, grounded initiatives to grow organically, maintain their unique structures, sustain their activities and strengthen their impact.

Oxfam’s new Women’s Rights fund provides just such flexible grants to WROs in Kenya and the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) – and they have told us just how scarce this type of flexible funding is.

Bina Maseno, founder of our Kenyan partner Badili Africa told us: “This is a game changer for small organisations like Badili Africa. It means we have a say in the issues or solutions that get prioritised since we work in the communities we represent. Also, most donors would not allow you to decide on the percentages that should go to project activities and institutional support and this is the first funding that has allowed us to do that. I didn’t even know it was possible.” 

The work we do takes time

Though the benefits of long-term over short-term funding are well known across the sector, for grassroots WROs, long-term funding is in short supply. WROs too often have to work to short grant timeframes to solve complex problems or create systemic change, work to unrealistic targets and get forced into short-term thinking. Even when long-term funding is available to WROs, it is often given as one-year grants that are renewed annually.

Grant stability enables WROs to take a longer-term approach, allowing them to make strategic organisational plans and investments, retain and invest in staff, build expertise and networks to sustain and grow their work and increase their impact.

As a woman from another of our partner organisations told us: “The work we do takes a long time because it’s about changing communities.”

A seat at the table

The conversation about who holds power is absolutely essential to being able to fund in this way. And of course, any organisation that holds to feminist values should be working in ways that empower women. Shifting power requires trust, honest communication and transparency that goes both ways.  It doesn’t just mean shifting power over how money is spent but also changing who makes decisions and sharing access to information and resources.

Non-financial support through dialogue, technical inputs, opening of doors to strategic forums and introductions to networks are important ways to support WROs along with funding. That means we need to ask ourselves some difficult questions about our own systems and how they might help or hinder the work of our partner organisations.

“At Badili Africa we had innovative ideas on mobilizing grassroots women and young women to engage effectively in political and governance processes and no one would agree to fund the ideas,” said Bina Maseno. “Most donor strategies are defined at national and international conferences involving national and international NGOs. Small WROs like ours rarely have a seat at that table and often wait to get funding as a downstream partner to implement activities. Which means the work is donor-driven and not community led.”

The Women’s Rights Fund – a new way of working

Oxfam’s new Women’s Rights Fund supports WROs with flexible, multi-year funding to invest in their own priorities. Decisions on how they spend the funding are made entirely by them. It marks one of Oxfam’s first deliberate commitments to test and learn how to devolve more resources and power to local organisations, challenge our own systems and become a better partner on the ground.  It was inspired by Oxfam’s longstanding work with WROs around the world, and by our 2019 research, A Leap of Faith.

The fund was launched in December 2020 and currently works with eight WROs in Kenya and the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) to respond to their organisations and communities’ urgent and strategic needs. In addition, the fund is also committed to supporting its member organisations to become more sustainable, through requested support on issues such as fundraising, organisational policies, budgeting and strategic planning.  Oxfam is now gearing up to expand the fund to include 10 more WROs in Kenya and OPT, building on our successes and learnings.

Eman Shannan, founder of our partner Aid and Hope Program for Cancer Patient Care in OPT, told us: “This project contributes to the development of our organisational capacities and has directly provided technical and financial support to a team of well-trained women that will be able to sustain the positive impact [for women in OPT with cancer].”

The Women’s Rights Fund is just the start of our contribution to what we hope is a broad shift in how INGOs work with WROs and other grassroots organisations. What’s clear is that, in order for funding of these women’s organisations to be effective, successful and sustainable, funders need to start listening to what women have been saying to us for decades – and taking it seriously.


Laura Norman

Laura Norman is Head of New Partnerships working to build relationships between Oxfam GB and Trusts and Foundations


Mona Mehta

Mona Mehta is Oxfam GB’s Gender Lead

This is the first in a series of posts to mark International Women’s Day this month on our Views and Voices blog for development professionals. Follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn and do subscribe to our newsletter to keep updated on the latest blogs