Participatory Grantmaking for Teens: The Funders Who Trust Girls to Make Grants

Teenage girls in gambia. Agarianna76/shutterstock

Teenage girls in gambia. Agarianna76/shutterstock

It’s important to include teens and girls in feminism and feminist philanthropy, because around the world, they face challenges like child marriage, assault, exclusion from schooling, a lack of cultural freedoms and empowered media representation, and more. Philanthropy, and participatory grantmaking in particular, can potentially enable teen girls to take the reins in their lives and communities. The With and For Girls Collective (WFG) is a group of nine funders that asks teenage girls around the globe to choose its grassroots girl-led and girl-centered grantees. Since 2014, it has awarded close to $3 million of flexible funds to 60 such organizations in 41 countries.

WFG’s members are Plan International, the Global Fund for Children, Novo Foundation, Nike Foundation, Comic Relief, EMpower, FRIDA the Young Feminist Fund, Mama Cash and the Stars Foundation. It has been hosted by the Stars Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the Saudi company the Al-Dabbagh Group, since its inception. In 2018, WFG began a transition to a new home with Purposeful, a Sierra Leone-based “movement building hub” for adolescent girls in the Global South. Stars merged with Purposeful and will soon cease operating as an independent foundation.

“In every decision you make, in every strategy you make, ask yourself a question: Where are girls?” a girl activist working with WFG said to the global funding community. For its part, WFG “has always been committed to meaningful engagement and decision-making with girls,” Director Swatee Deepak tells us. She says WFG brings girls into many aspects of its operations; they participate in grantmaking decisions, branding strategies, research, international representation and advocacy, and also helped the collective choose its new home.

Participatory grantmaking, which cedes funding decisions to impacted communities, has been used in other instances by the Case Foundation, Ford Foundation, Open Society Foundations (OSF), Global Greengrants Fund, the Red Umbrella Fund, the Disability Rights Fund, FRIDA and others. Like WFG, the New York Women’s Foundation also backed a participatory grantmaking program for adolescent girls in 2016. Another localized example can be found in Michigan, where teens handle youth-related grantmaking in community foundations through Youth Advisory Committees, which launched in 1988 with support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

Related: Power in Letting Go: How Participatory Grantmakers Are Democratizing Philanthropy

It makes sense for participatory grantmaking models to include young people. Like adults, they have the most direct knowledge of their own needs, resources and abilities. Many a teen girl around the world is waiting for or already embracing opportunities to experience autonomy and use her agency and voice. As one young WFG participant said, “We have enough power inside of us to overcome all of the obstacles we may face.”

A few funders who engage younger adults in philanthropy are Resource Generation, the Surdna Foundation, Andrus Family Fund, McKnight Foundation, and Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. Some of the foundations stepping up for girls, teens and women include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Ford, NoVo, Global Fund for Women, OSF, Ms. Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation, and many others, including numerous regional and international women’s funds and local grantmakers. Meanwhile, corporate philanthropy has taken a notable interest in boosting STEM participation for girls and women.

While there are 900 million girls, teens and women aged 10 to 24 globally, the World Bank estimates that less than 2 cents of every dollar spent on international aid is directed toward adolescent girls. In 2015, foundation human rights funding for girls and women around the world was at about $561 million. While this is up from $319 million in 2011, it still only amounts to 23 percent of the $2.4 billion in total foundation human rights funding in 2015.

How the With and For Girls Collective Works

WFG gives grants in five regions: Asia and the Pacific, Europe and Central Asia, the American continent and the Caribbean, the Middle East and North Africa, and sub-Saharan Africa. It gives about 20 awards annually of up to $50,000 in flexible funding to small- and medium-sized grassroots groups that are led by or centered on teen girls. Organizations are nominated to WFG by an international network of “thought leaders knowledgeable about girls’ rights and programming,” including service providers, funders and intermediaries. The World YWCA, Central Asia Institute, Womankind Worldwide, I Am a Girl Barbados and the Women's Fund in Georgia are a few examples of previous referral partners.

Each year, former WFG prize winners run participatory grantmaking panels, training teen girls to interview the new shortlisted organizations and select the new recipients of unrestricted funds. Recent winners include Beautiful Hearts Against Sexual Violence in Mongolia, the Ponton Group of Sex Educators in Poland and Mujeres de Xochilt in El Salvador.

To boost grantee visibility, WFG includes teen reps in international events relating to girls’ and women’s rights and philanthropy. In late 2018, a cohort of WFG-backed adolescents led the closing plenary for the Human Rights Funders meeting in Mexico City, calling on philanthropies to take funding pledges, which were subsequently featured in a United Nations report. The pledges sought core and long-term funding for girls’ groups and acknowledgement of the intersectionality of girls’ issues, and advised funders to see girls “not as trends or gimmicks, but as real change-makers.”

2019 and Beyond for WFG

WFG recently commissioned external research to evaluate its programs, which provided multiple recommendations. Along with experienced adult female researchers and nonprofit consultants, 12 girls from Kenya and Nepal also led elements of the study, including interviews with past award winners.

One suggestion from the report’s authors was that WFG offer awards to girl-led groups with budgets below the current lower threshold of $20,000. This insight has been absorbed by the collective. Deepak says, “Based on findings from the external evaluation and discussion from winners, we will be launching a new awards category to award much smaller girl-led groups in addition to our existing categories.”

The report also advised WFG that more groups could participate if the application was briefer, less burdensome and offered in more languages, such as Portuguese or Hindi. Deepak says the group is “aware that we don't want to just include mainstream voices; we want speakers from all languages, from our official languages—English, Spanish, French, Russian and Arabic—to also involving younger girls, indigenous girls and disabled girls who are all representatives of our award winners.”

Deepak says other considerations for the collective include acknowledging and adapting to teen and young women’s time constraints, being aware that many girl-led organizations and movements have a decentralized and collective—rather than hierarchical—structure; securing compensation for girls who work in philanthropy within the collective, which is already underway in some forms; and other concerns.

Purposeful, the new home of the With and For Girls Collective, currently has three main avenues of support for young women: insights and influencing (research), media and communications campaigns, and convening and grantmaking, including girl-led micro-grants. It will be interesting to see how Purposeful and WFG continue to merge and evolve. The next WFG award nominations will be announced during the spring of 2019.