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Flexible or Unrestricted Funding: Key to the Sustainability of Feminist Movements and Initiatives

Written by Jaya Tiwari, Senior Programmes Manager at Maitrayana and OAC member, and Smita Sen, Founder and Executive Director of Rupantaran


We had the opportunity to participate in a Funders Dialogue session on 16th November 2023 and here are some of our reflections on the conversation. 


One of the most relevant topics discussed within the small, vibrant group of ONSIDE funders, grantees, Advisory Committee members and Women Win was the sustainability of grassroots initiatives. During the conversation, several questions were raised to dissect the topic of flexible funding for sustainability: Should funders provide sustainable funding that is multi-year and unlimited or focus on funding sustainable change and long-term systemic impact? What does flexibility in funding entail, and how do we understand it?


This dialogue was specifically pertinent because this is the final grant cycle of many ONSIDE grantees who have received unrestricted funding for three years for initiating, implementing, and sustaining gender equality movements through sports with girls, women, and non-binary people from underrepresented groups and communities.


Illustration by Sagrario capturing key highlights from the conversation

Grantees across Asia-Pacific, Sub-Saharan Africa, the Americas, and Europe echoed the need for flexible funding that is fully unrestricted. Restricted funding opportunities are often limited to registered, stable, and established organisations. New initiatives, particularly those amplifying women and girls’ voices and challenging existing norms, struggle to access such funding.


Most restricted funding is project-based and fails to consider the individual needs of organisations, including supplies, physical spaces, learning and capacity building, and leadership development. Moreover, women who do not conform to stereotypes are often perceived as incompetent to lead any movement or cause.


In contrast, the flexible funding provided by ONSIDE has reached 99 groups across 55 countries, including startups with innovative ideas and the courage to challenge gender norms and expectations.


Within ONSIDE, flexibility is not solely about budgetary flexibility and line items, it is about recognising the needs of the community and where and how funds are required to advance the movement. It was also acknowledged that individuals in positions of power influence the concept of flexible funding. On the one hand, individuals can make funding more meaningful to grassroots organisations by granting them the liberty to decide how to allocate resources. On the other hand, even funding labelled as flexible can become highly restricted if it faces excessive scrutiny.


Diana from H&M Move beautifully articulated that grassroots organisations should not be confined to rigid structures and assigned Key Performance Indicators. Instead, they should have full ownership of funds, as they are best positioned to determine how to manage those resources being sector experts.


We found a resonance in the reflective sharing of the ONSIDE grantees who participated in the discussion. Although the sustainability of movements has multiple faces, grantees agreed that working with vulnerable communities and empowering them through sports is in itself a way of making the movement sustainable as it enables the community to take ownership of carrying it forward. Building leadership skills among the girls and women we are working with is not only empowering but also promotes sustainability as shared by Luz, Jennifer, and ourselves. 


We also felt that unrestricted funding is giving organisations a breathing space and infuses us to be entrepreneurial and more creative in our strategies. It fuels the experimentation of new ideas and supports self and collective care within communities, societies, countries, and continents.


In conclusion, we believe that flexible funding represents the future of philanthropy and is something that more corporations should embrace. The funders in the conversation echoed the need for this type of discussion with corporate funders more broadly so that they can hear the voices from the ground and understand how feminist initiatives and movements are looking at sustainability issues as well as flexibility in funding.



The ONSIDE Fund Thought Piece Series IV - Jawa Tiwari, Smita Sen
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