Feminist philanthropy in Serbia: A view from the in-between

Recently we had the pleasure of taking part in the publication called Feminist Philanthropy: Stories of Resilience with the stories collected by Women’s Fund Armenia. We are glad to share the text from the publication written by Đurđa Trajković, RWF’s coordinator, and Galina Maksimović, RWF’s program and community coordinator, in which they reflect upon the local context of resourcing feminist movement and the foundations of Reconstruction’s working principles. 

Get familiar with diverse feminist contexts by reading the full publication, available in English, right here!

To find oneself as a feminist in philanthropy is strange and paradoxical; strange because the relation between the two is fraught with difficult histories. Any feminist knows that the love of humanity, phil and antropos, is a difficult obligation since humanity has rarely been kind to women, to say the least. And yet, to learn to love humanity anew has always been at the core of feminist thought. It is also paradoxical since philanthropy is usually thought to be outside of the political. Giving is giving, loving is loving! And yet, it is structured around and by politics, doing the work of politics: money, private and public sphere, redistribution, decisions. And when and if philanthropy outdoes politics, it marks the end of it. The more successful philanthropy is, the less there is politics. However, historically, philanthropy has had many shapes and goals, but the field in which feminist philanthropy intervenes reflects elementary principles that feminism in general works on equality, freedom, and justice for all. The ways in which these principles shape practices are not abstract at all. Let’s see how they work with our fund, the Reconstruction Women’s Fund from Serbia.

Founded in 2004, we were the first and, until today, remain to be the only local women’s fund in Serbia. But what does that mean? Since its beginnings, RWF has been supporting the feminist platform against war, nationalism, militarism, racism, and any form of wrong-doing against women. All of these phenomena are deeply under-addressed in our context, ignored, trivialized, or manipulated. And yet, we think that they are really the only ones worthy of our attention. Serbia is a strange country in that sense, constantly in crisis without change. In the last 30 years, it went from real-existing socialism to savage capitalism. The transition took place via a war that was not addressed but forgotten – as one should not speak about it, manipulated – as Serbs were portrayed as victims or celebrated – as part of the long narrative of Serbian mythical past of heroism. If these complex phenomena sound difficult for us to oppose, resist, and change, it is so, because we not only address the root causes of the phenomena (culture of violence, authoritarianism, lack of democratic participation, patriarchy and its avatars) but we also think of how to change these structures without reproducing more sameness. And this is the most difficult task of all that demands deep thinking, analysis, and alternative genealogies of knowledge. Atypical of traditional philanthropy, feminist philanthropy oftentimes thinks in terms of paradoxes, contradictions, and how to displace or resolve them. Therefore, our task is always to insist on and support the historicizing and politicizing of the feminist movement in our context. Without it, we are left with little projects, simple implementation, and reproduction that today seem to be a dominant form of philanthropy in Serbia, whether we are talking about international aid agencies, international, national, or local governments, or other foundations. Furthermore, any feminist philanthropy worthy of its name also knows that those who make knowledge, those who think and act within the field, activists, artists, academics, affected citizens, need time, space, autonomy, and solidarity. Thus, RWF supports women’s groups, formal or informal, with flexible and core funding maintaining the grassroots and organic work of the groups and respecting the autonomy of decisions, and managing the resources. Given the principles and obligations we have toward the world, we oftentimes go beyond grantmaking. When and if possible, we support capacity building, intergenerational and collective leadership, and the transmission of memory and knowledge.

As for other types of support? Sure, we give a few pieces of advice here and there if we can. We run to forward emails with essential information, but – above all – we listen. We may not always directly contribute to solving the problems our partners may face, but the least we can do is to actively listen to them and take their voices into account when envisioning how to advance our support, be it financial, non-financial, or even emotional to some degree. Bearing in mind all of the above, the RWF is often seen as part of the feminist movement in Serbia and the region. As much as we are proud of that perception, we work hard not to fail the corresponding expectations, and at times, it can become a burden of responsibility that we must endure. As one of our partners defined us, “Being a feminist is an attitude, being RWF is a revolutionary way of funding.” What a demand from us! 

We understand that our work is part of a wider struggle and that the change we want to achieve, if sustainable, is long and difficult, bringing with it occasional disappointments. And yet, we do it, and we insist on it because to do otherwise, to imagine a world without peace, justice, freedom, joy, and laughter, would be unbearable…and who would want to live like that?! Neither we nor the communities we work with! The feminist philanthropy we practice is not limited to institutional donors. In fact, we try our best to create new philanthropic playgrounds that will welcome more and more individual donors. From fundraising parties connecting activists and communities, or activists across the movement, to an annual festival of arts and activism conquering forgotten public spaces, we try to inspire people to support women’s movement with small donations. Even those who, due to a lack of resources, cannot donate directly, indirectly contribute by purchasing at least one drink at our event, since a percentage of the price of the drink goes towards a donation. The very gesture of support is even more appreciated by both us at the fund and the groups that we work with than the financial aspect. Just knowing that you are not alone in struggles that can be long and frustrating sparks hope, warmth, and a sense of togetherness. Hence, our local philanthropy is wrapped in loads of joy and fun. It is an unwritten rule that our local philanthropic events spotlight activists, often from smaller towns, whose stories of turbulent struggles in confined environments call for immediate solidarity. We also welcome academics, frequently women we have supported through our program of stipends, to shed diverse light on feminist knowledge and remind us of the importance of contributing to women’s education. Finally, what completes our events are artists and musicians, not the well-known names but certainly, those bringing the fresh breeze of feminism and rebellion expressed in striking creative forms and sounds. One of the symbols of our devotedness to local feminist philanthropy is embodied in Cakana, a recognizable wooden donation box proudly wearing our “R” logo. She lives in our office but is the happiest when she accompanies us to local philanthropic events to fundraise for the movement. With the blow of the pandemic, Cakana was working her magic online, writing people emails and reminding them of the importance of supporting the movement. In her vocabulary, fundraising stands as fun-raising.

Not that we neglect the seriousness of philanthropy, money, or how it’s generated and distributed. Quite the opposite, we have a firm grasp of a sense of responsibility not only to practice fair and transparent redistribution of money in our own bubble but also feel responsible to take part in broader public conversations or even start our own conversations around all sorts of money-related subjects. Our educational campaigns and workshops on local philanthropy, aimed at activists, have broad frameworks. From how the public money is spent to money accountability to creative ways of fundraising locally. It all adds up to a tangled network of methods directed at change-making. 

So, what futures are there for feminist philanthropy in Serbia? We work and dream toward becoming a hybrid place where we work, cry, and laugh while we do the hard work of change. And a place where “we” is evermore always contested, always thought as vague, polysemantic, and without closure…