The Prism of Philanthropy

By Giving List Women   |   May 20, 2024

Kavita Ramdas is a globally recognized advocate for gender equity and justice, at home in academia, the corporate boardroom, and the larger activist community. She may be best known for her work as the president and CEO of the Global Fund for Women, one of the world’s leading foundations for gender equality, from 1996 to 2010. During her tenure, the organization dramatically grew its funding and global reach, with grants increasing to $8 million per year and expanding to reach 160 countries. The Fund has awarded over $100 million in grants to over 4,000 organizations.

Ramdas’ work at the intersection of gender, democracy, development, and philanthropy led her to direct Stanford University’s Program on Social Entrepreneurship, as well as the Open Society Foundations’ Women’s Rights Program. At Open Society, she ensured that the Foundations made their largest-ever investment in gender justice with a $100 million commitment to the Generation Equality Forum.

She has been a senior advisor for global strategy at the Ford Foundation, served on the Global Development Program Advisory Panel for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and advised United Nations (UN) Secretary-General António Guterres on the importance of gender equality in the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Ramdas continues her advisory work through KNR Sisters, her feminist consulting firm.

In addition to many other awards, Ramdas received the 2010 Women’s Funding Network’s Changing the Face of Philanthropy Award and was named one of the 21 Leaders for the 21st Century by Women’s eNews.

Giving List Women:Through your work in feminist philanthropy, you’ve seen a lot of evolution. What stands out to you about this moment?

Kavita Ramdas: I have to locate this in a larger political reality context. We’re in the middle of a difficult time for the world and for the positionality of the Global North versus the Global South. All of that affects philanthropy and feminism.

The Greek root of the word philanthropy simply means love of humankind. And how are we expressing our love of humankind at a time of such deep divisions, when we are othering large groups of people as less than other groups of people?

Much of philanthropy wants to do the right thing, but we don’t agree anymore on what right is or what it means to have equal and fair standards for all people. And it becomes difficult for feminists to argue from a clear, unequivocal position. And it’s clear that the gains we’ve seen in the last 75 years are under threat. And not just in the developing world – in the U.S. as well.

GLW: The world is deeply divided, and women are no exception. We’re not monolithic. Would it be useful to have rules of engagement to help us have productive dialogue? 

KR: That speaks to me. We shouldn’t assume all women share the same understandings about what it even means to be a woman or that our aspirations are the same or that we aren’t complicit in patriarchy ourselves. I grew up in a country where every day, 17 women lose their lives to dowry deaths. And it isn’t men who are burning them alive – it’s their mothers-in-law.

For me, feminism has nothing to do with what’s between your legs; it’s what’s between your ears. And what you expressed is an ideal I strive for: Is there a way for us to have reasonably respectful conversations with people who see the world very differently from the way we do? 

I’ve tried hard, and the Global Fund for Women was a huge part of this, to stop making assumptions. We made many assumptions about Republican women or people who want to shut down discussion about abortion, but have we tried to have a conversation? To meet women where they’re at? To understand that this is a difficult decision? I don’t come from the same places as others, and if I can approach things from a place of listening and learning – not be meek about my position, but be open to hearing something that will teach me a different way.

GLW: Less than 2% of philanthropic dollars go toward women and girls. Would it help if donors applied women and girls as a lens in their giving?

KR: Totally. I use the word prism because a prism allows you to see all the rainbow colors that light has. To see what diversity means. There are intersections with things we have no idea would be related to what it means to view the world through a more gender-just lens.

The lens metaphor developed from conversations with many brilliant women who take giving very seriously but still see women and girls as one lane of work. I think they’re missing the intersectional piece, and the understanding that women and girls are a powerful lever for change. Helping people think about it as a lens rather than a lane is super helpful. It’s simple. 

GLW: Do you think people need more data to understand the power of that lens?

KR: I’m going to say something controversial: I don’t think we lack the data. For over 50 years, we’ve had the evidence. If you feed a woman, educate a woman, birth rates go down, child malnutrition decreases. I don’t think this is about having facts. I would posit that it’s because everybody knows what the power and agency of women can do – that there is anxiety and fear and downright resistance to actually making it happen.

Many women have been taught defining dominant narratives that go something like: We won the battle on women’s rights. Women got the right to vote in 1920. We’re a developed country. The issues with women and girls have been addressed. Now, it’s about climate change, war, and starvation. The lens on women and girls is resisted, not because women are not progressive or don’t want to do the right thing, but because I think we underestimate the osmosis of the dominant narrative around us.

But women and girls are leading environmental justice struggles and are actually key to shifting. There was a report that came out by [Project Drawdown Founder] Paul Hawken saying the two most significant things you can do to bring down the carbon emissions in the planet is give women and girls access to contraception and sexual and reproductive rights and to education.

I think it’s about an underlying fear patriarchal societies have of just how radical this transformation would be if women and girls all over were treated as equals with a voice and a say and the ability to actually act with independence. This is a substantial fear that feminists need to take seriously.

GLW: What would you point to as the most transformational piece of your work?

KR: Global Fund for Women profoundly changed the way I was able to understand the world – my transformation about issues of tradition, around listening, my framing of the analysis that I had on critical issues, which allowed me to bring that lens or that prism to other kinds of work. I can’t not have that gender lens. And I realized three things about philanthropy: First, that in the giving, you are also receiving countless things that you’re not even aware of. Second, that the power of money is in the collectivization of that money. Global Fund for Women was able to go from an organization that was 90% dependent on big foundations to, when I left in 2010, an organization where almost 50% of the resources came from individual women and girls. And third, it taught me to be brave in mainstream spaces, which sounds counterintuitive because I was inside a feminist organization, but I had to raise money from places that weren’t. My ability to talk to Jamie Dimon from JPMorgan Chase, who had three daughters, about growing up as the eldest of three girls in India, and how moved he was by the fact that he wanted the best for his girls. There are dads all over the world who want that for their girls. Fathers are not just oppressive patriarchs. In many places where the Global Fund was, it was fathers who stood with daughters over the objections of their mother.