What Philanthropy Can Learn from Feminism.

Reflections on power and revolutionary change

Feminism teaches us to interrogate our own bias, power and complicity in unjust social structures – philanthropy stands to learn a lot, says Rachel Stephenson Sheff. 

“What can Philanthropy learn from feminism?” A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of speaking at Restless Development’s event on Power Shifting Philanthropy and was asked this question. It stayed with me. Besides the most obvious (and slightly glib) answer of everything – I believe feminism has some very specific lessons to teach philanthropy. 

The first port of call most think of is bringing a gender justice lens to our philanthropic donations, even if on the surface the causes we’re supporting are not explicitly focused on gender equality. Think climate change, migration, conflict, entrepreneurship – all of these causes (and more) benefit from proactive gender analysis and investment.

The second port of call, however, is more uncomfortable. It’s that feminism is a wake-up call to our own privilege and the systems of injustice we are all complicit in. It encourages us to dismantle these power structures within ourselves and, by extension – our philanthropy. 

The author (centre) speaks at Restless Development’s PowerShifting Philanthropy event in London.

There is such resistance, particularly among ‘social do-gooders,’ to admit that we ourselves perpetuate (and oftentimes benefit from) inequality. But we do. We are all raised breathing the poison air of patriarchy, racism, homophobia, ableism, and other systems of oppression and inequality. You can be a woman who has internalised sexism, or a queer person who has internalised transphobia – none of us are immune, no matter what identity we hold. 

The true focus of revolutionary change is never merely the oppressive situations which we seek to escape, but that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within each of us

Audre Lorde, (Sister Outsider). 

(If Audre Lorde, one of the most progressive and pioneering ‘social do-gooders’ of our time, can recognise her internalised oppression, then we have no excuse for not recognising ours.)

The good news is that once we get over the initial discomfort of this, move beyond defensiveness and see the things we can’t un-see – then we become better philanthropists. Philanthropy has a far deeper impact, and longer-lasting legacy, if it’s approached through a power shifting, systems-change framework, and if decisions on where to donate resources are made by (or in direct consultation with) the communities who receive them. Not only is this the right thing to do, but it’s undeniably more effective. 

Recently, there have been many critiques of philanthropy, books like Anand Giridharadas’ Winners Take All challenging plutocracy, tax evasion and the fundamental concept of ultra-high-net-worth wealth itself. These arguments are valid, however I think we are mistaken to point at wealth holders – who are often hesitant to redistribute their power through participatory philanthropy – while shying away from self-reflection. Most people I know are resistant to the idea of acknowledging, let alone redistributing their own power, in whichever way they hold it (even the ‘wokest’ among us tend to be great at the first part of that sentence, but not so great at the latter). 

This isn’t a philanthropy problem, it’s a human being problem. 

All of that said, philanthropy has a particular responsibility to get this right because the stakes are higher when we get this wrong. Under capitalism, money is the most tangible manifestation of power we have, so redistributing it with integrity in the context of philanthropy is fundamental to progress. 

Every philanthropist, if she is paying attention, eventually becomes an activist. If we do not, we risk becoming co-dependent with power – saving the system’s victims while the system collects the profits, then pats us on the head for our service. We become injustice’s foot soldiers

Glennon Doyle, founder of Together Rising, (Untamed).

The way we go about our philanthropy is just as important as the actual philanthropy itself; it says everything about who we are and what depth of self-reckoning we’ve been brave enough to do. I could go on, but I’ll save that for the next event. And instead I’ll invite all of us – philanthropists, people who work in philanthropy, non-profit professionals, activists, and beyond – to apply the same amount of effort we spend criticising and fixing problems ‘out there’, to turning inward and examining ourselves. We’ll all find something. We’ll all start to see what we can’t un-see. And that’s when revolutionary change in philanthropy can truly begin.

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What Philanthropy Can Learn from Feminism.

by Rachel Stephenson Sheff Reading time: 3 min