ANNIE HILLAR: As feminists, we are always leading the way

Annie Hillar has over 20 years of experience in feminist philanthropy. Prior to joining PAWHR (Philanthropy Advancing Women’s Human Rights) she worked at Mama Cash, holding various roles during her 10-year tenure, including Director of Programs, Learning and Evaluation Specialist, and Senior Program Officer for Women’s Funds. Annie also worked at the Global Fund for Women over a period of six years. She has been part of the governing bodies of various women’s rights and philanthropic networks, including serving on the PEX Co-Creation Council and as Co-Chair of the Steering Committee of the Human Rights Funders Network.

 She holds an MA in Social Anthropology from Central European University, and a BA in Romance Languages from the University of Chicago.

You have a long and rich experience in philanthropy. If you had to narrate how the field changed in the last two decades, what would be the most salient wins that a feminist movement has done in this field?

What I have seen in the last 20 years is much bigger interest from donors in women’s rights, and especially in the last 5 years, what we are seeing is much more use of terms and concepts that were used only in the radical feminist communities such as movement support, power building, and movement building. These kinds of terms that are rooted in the analysis of power dynamics in gender relations, in terms of multiple and intersecting oppressions of women and others…even terms like intersectionality, you would never hear this coming from bilateral or more mainstream philanthropy. These terms are circulating today much more widely – that is amazing. The narrative has shifted. However, I am not so sure if the funding flows have shifted towards feminist movements. I do think there is

more money for traditional approaches such as gender equality; what is also changing are language and strategies of bilateral and private foundations directly supporting women’s rights organizations, as opposed to relaying on international NGOs from Global North. I think that there have been significant shifts but it’s not enough because the structures have not necessarily changed; resourcing still goes to organizations that have large budgets, and have the capacity to show accountability and risk assessment and mitigation in ways that are still within the more mainstream traditional frameworks in accountancy and not frameworks rooted in the movements. There is still catching up that structures need to do in order to meet this kind of reality and vision of how change happens.

In terms of concrete big wins, I would definitely say that we could see some examples, the Leading from the South consortium that has received significant amount of resources, and its partnership with Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to support the movement. These wins build the kind of credibility of all women’s funds to do feminist resourcing in their own regions. This is a significant win from the perspective of bilateral funders in recognizing the role of women’s funds in social change and even in development. The successful bid of the Equality Fund to house the initial funding from Canadian government of 300 million Canadian dollars (around 235 million US dollars)  to design and build a funding mechanism that is self-sustainable in the long term, is a quite different approach, it’s a vision becoming a reality – building the sustainability of movements. When you see large private foundations like Ford Foundation and Gates Foundation, no matter how complicated they are institutionally, forming and developing gender strategies and programs to stand on their own as opposed to a gender mainstreaming approach or embedded through other institutions – it’s a great win bearing in mind that it took staff and organizations they support years of advocacy (both inside and outside) to make this happen. You can see that community has been working very hard in making these institutions announce explicitly commitments to make those stand-alone programs. 

I am hesitant to say that the Generation Equality Forum, that just finished, is a testament to the changes though it has a lot of potential given that there is a commitment of 40 billion dollars going specifically to gender equality and supporting of women’s human rights through commitments of those partners. However, what we are trying to figure out now is what are the accountability mechanisms to make these financial commitments actually happen. That’s another issue. But the fact that it was such as big announcement and seen as a signal and symbol of the future, that’s very helpful. 

Feminist philanthropy has a shorter history that the common sense understanding of philanthropy. And given that in the previous question, we focused on resourcing and not so much oh now movements come together and make change, and also how feminist philanthropy affects the change in relations (of power, or structures). On one hand, resourcing is a constant need, but how do you see feminist philanthropy changing in the future?

I read a lot of Octavia Butler – an Afro-feminist futurist and she is always imagining beyond our current ability to see, quite often writing from contexts that are dystopian. So, she is holding an imagined feminist future and dystopian one at the same time. I think this is where we are at now with the COVID crisis, with uprisings and movements for social and racial justice such as Black Lives Matters and Movement for Black Lives, but also a reckoning with the colonial past worldwide and its continued impact on the people’s ability to thrive. At the same time, feminist philanthropy has seen important gains in shifting the ways in which we see each other in the world and how we work together. In a recent crisis with women in Afghanistan, the networks of mutual aid during the evacuation of rights’ defenders, from getting people from one place to another, we saw there is truly a global feminist network that’s been put into practice. And feminists have been building this from the beginning – being able to be connected on a global level and share this network of support and care for each other. It truly has been transformational and will be transformational. That feminists have been able to care each other, holding each other up, is amazing – feminist have always been there to speak out and to speak truth to power when there is an injustice and to push each other to be better and to aspire more. At the same time, we always have to be conscious that we also hold different positions of power, and, in philanthropy, it is our job and responsibility to shift that power and change it from within.  

You can also see it from the perspective of bureaucracy: from assessing risk, how much due diligence you have to show, and all that work that women’s organizations have to do to prove themselves to donors. The most obvious that people talk about now as an example of the future is the Mackenzie Scott approach – sending in a check! It’s the money you can use however you want because you are a credible and respected organization working on important social justice issues. This particular scale is visible but it is happening every day when, for example, organizations and funds build a commitment from their communities to resource them with money and energy. For example, I think RWF is that kind of an organization that is shifting the funding landscape within its own community. I remember you had a series of discussions on topics such as what does it mean to engage community and donors, what does it mean to hold donors accountable, the money that is going to different projects from government – to know it’s not their money, it’s your money, and how do you take that ownership and responsibility and put those principles into practice, bringing together the unusual suspects for a common cause. I think women’s funds do phenomenal work in that area. There are also others, such as Fondo de Mujeres del Sur, making efforts for several years now to build support and political commitment from everyday people from Argentina, in a country that is extremely vulnerable and in crisis. Also, the emerging Black Feminist Fund – they have an explicit project to raise resources from folks from their community and to make global connections with black feminists, black feminist history and thinking, between black feminists organizing in different parts of Africa and the Americas. They want resources to come from the communities they are serving. Vida Afrolatina is doing a similar thing. 

Feminist funds are the forefront of putting a vision of political and financial sustainability that comes from our own communities and making that a viable option. I feel positive about where women’s funds and feminist funds are going. And as always, everyone else will have to catch up. 

What is the most annoying aspect of philanthropic field that you find to be easily changeable but for some reason, approached and treated as the most difficult thing in the world?

(Laughing). You probably know what I am going to say. Well, there have been many studies about this term called „core support“. I can cite at least 3 that have been talking about the positive impact, especially on feminist and women’s organizations, that flexible and core support has. It seems to be impossible to turn into a norm. And I think we need to build that as a norm. Funders have said that they believe it and believe in it, but in practice they also have said that it is impossible for them to practice it, for various reasons that include legal and fiscal constraints, trustees, boards…I do not necessarily believe that they are impossible to overcome. I think that it is about building critical mass of people in institutions, especially at the leadership and trustee level, to let go of the idea that this is their money, and shift to the idea that it is the people’s money and that they are stewards of that money. However, it is very difficult to shift that mindset, and yet, it needs to happen in order for core support to be possible. I also read the other day that we need to stop using the term core support – instead talk about essential costs, so that the message gets across about why this type of funding is needed. 

Historically, another thing that is frustrating for me, is the shifting geographies of support. I really believe that there needs to be more resourcing for feminist movement in Europe broadly. It’s a struggle to get funders to even consider it because everyone thinks Europe is fine – no need for protesting, you are fine, you have your rights, there are mechanisms, structures that hold that in place. However, I always say – you need movements to hold institutions accountable, and to have different movements that discuss, debate and build common agendas together. For example, no one is going to hold accountable your government on climate change unless there is a feminist movement. Feminists do all that work. They hold everyone accountable because their vision of the world is one that is more just in terms of climate, economy, power, issues on sexual rights, education…without feminists  advocating for changes, it won’t happen. And that’s a challenge for me – how to keep resourcing in Europe. Something similar is happening in Latin America. In many ways they are the vanguard, with very sophisticated and radical strategies and articulations, but they have no money to do it and so their message does not come across. Funders have moved out from Latin America because they are basing their decisions on GDP or World Bank indicators or a „return on investment“ thinking because everyone is playing the „scarcity games“. So, they think that 20 thousand euro goes a longer way in Nepal than say Germany and France. They want quick impact. Thinking in terms of impact actually gets it all wrong. Resources are needed everywhere but there also is a need to  support those two regions if we are going to make change.  

If feminist philanthropy is inseparable from trust and solidarity, what do those two phenomena mean to you?

I think my understanding of these two processes has changed in the last two years given that I have not met up in person with almost anybody from the feminist community outside my city (laughter). It made me realize that I made a lot of assumptions about in-person  meetings being symbols of trust. Actually, those encounters were the building blocks of trust. They were not themselves trust: being at a conference is not a demonstration of trust and solidarity, it’s actually a tool, that if done well, is building that trust. Now, there are certain networks where I can send an email, or zoom call, and we can move things very fast. Since we have a common political understanding, we come from the same political base, and we have the trust because we have a common goal, and that only comes from lots and lots and lots of time spent engaging with each other. And I know it’s a phrase, „in order to get far, you need to go slow“, but it’s true. What others may have seen – feminists having all these meetings and talking to each other – is actually deep trust building. The last two years have shown that trust is the roots of our work. 

Trust and solidarity are processes. And now it really hits me much more clearly that trust takes time, vulnerability, and actually showing up for each other – just sitting at the same table together, even if you don’t feel like it. Trust and solidarity is showing up for that zoom call.

Interviewed by Djurdja Trajkovic