Leila Hessini: Feminist philanthropy – communities of care, solidarity and faith in humanity

Leila Hessini is a transnational feminist leader, advocate, and advisor with over 25 years of organizing and grantmaking experience advancing human rights, gender equality, and sexual and reproductive health rights and justice in the United States and globally.

Leila was born in Algeria and educated in the U.S., France, and Morocco. Over her professional career, she has lived and worked in Africa, Europe, and the United States. She held the position of vice president of programs at Global Fund for Women for over five years where she oversaw its strategic grantmaking, movement-strengthening, global advocacy, and philanthropic collaborations. From 2002 until 2016 she served on the senior leadership team of Ipas where she published extensively on abortion rights and justice, lead global advocacy efforts, and partnered with feminist groups working on self-management, community ownership, and stigma reduction around bodily integrity and sexual and reproductive rights. She also co-founded an intersectional feminist consulting firm Strategic Analysis for Gender Equality (SAGE) while based in North Africa, and led the Ford Foundation Cairo office’s gender work. Leila holds an MPH in public health and an MA in Middle Eastern and North African Studies. She studied Islamic law in Morocco and pursued doctoral studies in sociology in France.

We talked to her about the changes happening in the philanthropic world, the impact that women’s funds have on it, and the importance of solidarity, trust, and togetherness today.

1. You have worked in the philanthropic field extensively. What are some of the positive changes you have seen in the last 20 years? And what are still the ways to change it?

There have been so many changes. And it is really important to celebrate those changes. We have seen a real shift in philanthropic landscape. I will just begin with the shift with women’s funds because I think it is important to acknowledge that feminist and women’s funds have really changed the landscape in many ways. Both because they are moving resources differently since women’s funds are led by movements and constituencies they serve and also because they move money in core, flexible and sustainable ways; and the relationships they have with the movements and organizations they serve are very different from traditional philanthropy. So, in philanthropic field there are many organizations that are funding women’s funds, gender, non-binary, gender expensive organizations and movements. There is a better understanding of priorities being set and established by those who most experience the harms of the world. Of course, traditional philanthropy has a long way to go but at least we are talking about shifting power, about decolonizing philanthropy. There are philanthropist who are signing on and giving all of their money because they recognize the harmful ways their money was made. There is more questioning around where wealth comes from, how decisions are being made, about the wealth that philanthropist have, about shifting power, about making sure that your priorities are not outside of the context in which you are trying to affect change.

There are also more countries, governments with policies that are grounded in feminist policies and feminist foreign assistance. Even though Sweden has backtracked, there are governments like Germany, Holland, France, and others that understand, at least, and saying that their policies are feminist, and that there are some accountability mechanisms within that to make sure you are tracking what that means for the movements.

I also have to highlight someone like McKenzie Scott because she is a model of someone thinking differently about her money, moving her money differently, removing various barriers as to what it takes to get money and to the reporting around money. And she just writes checks! There are critiques because she is not as transparent as we would like her to be, but now there is a database that you can search and there is an open access. I do think that high net individuals like her and others who are interrogating their wealth as well as moving money in ways that are more aligned with what social change and feminist organizations need to actually make some of the sustainable wins in our life.

Finally, the thing I would like to say that is we are thinking differently about indigenous philanthropy, every day giving, mutual solidarity as ways of moving money and other resources and that also being part of philanthropy. Even though there is also a different institutional idea of philanthropy and ideas around it, if you think about what it means to be a philanthropist, to believe in love for humanity and in moving money and resources to communities that you are part of and issues you care about, a lot people do that. Everyday giving, it was very clear during covid, and today in regions I work in like Morocco and Libya – communities are coming together to take care of each other. And that should be recognized also as a philanthropic action.

As the priority in the next few years, I would like to see ideological and political framework changed in order for the practices to change as well; understanding where wealth comes form; the problems with our philanthropic institutions, at least in the US. I thought that philanthropy was benevolent and that it does good, but I would like us to actually have a conversation about challenges around taxes, subsidies to philanthropists, the lack of questioning of where their money came from and what harms it caused, the lack of democratic transparent processes. And finally, we do need to change and accept that philanthropic strategies need to be created in concert with those who are most affected in various parts of our world – participatory strategies, advisory committees, hiring people from movements and constituencies you serve. And finally, disrupting the whole field of who we think are philanthropists. If we could unpack that, there could be a lot of change there.

2. Sexual and reproductive health and human rights are under attack globally due to different right-wing and anti-gender political agendas. What are some of the challenges you see organizations have to face due to these dire situations? What do you see as some of the new challenges organizations are facing?

What I think is happening, in terms of terminology, is that there are different crises that are compounded. So, what is happening with the global right and anti-gender is that they are strong and incredibly well funded in a post-covid era, in a context of climate change, and also context of incredible authoritarian regimes, and backlash on the real issues we care about. So, in this context, their impact is even greater and I think we need to recognize that.

In terms of the groups on the ground, they are just fighting for their basic rights and to be able to organize holistically on sexual and reproductive rights and justice. What happens when you are under around, or you support LGBTIQ+ rights, trans and gender expansive rights, to uphold that inclusive intersectional agenda becomes increasingly difficult. And that is the hard. As feminists, we know we need to work interjectionally, we know that we cannot leave anybody behind, we know that we have to include areas where people are under attack, such as trans rights, abortion, sex workers rights. And so the movements becomes divisive and division happens because of the attacks. We need to stay strong, ensure there is safety and security for human rights defenders and feminists, that we continue to find other sources of funding. We also need to continue on civil societies closing and resourcing since that has been challenging all long. And that we create different ways of getting money and resources. But ensuring the safety of activists as well as security and healing justice.

3. You have also worked in women’s funds. What do you think is the main difference between women’s funds and traditional philanthropy?

What has been exciting for me is to be part of this evolution of woman’s funds. First funds, in the 80’s created by feminists, to move resources and caring about moving money from Global North to Global South were Global Fund for Women, MamaCash, and Astrae Foundation. Then, if I fast forward later, I think of Prospera International Network of Women’s Funds that now has 48 women’s funds that work at the national, regional, and global level and across regions. It is great to see that diversity. Women’s funds, also, are led by the movements and constituencies they represent and serve and they have that proximity to the movements. They believe in trust, solidarity, and relationships which make the bases of the approach to resources and all of this traditional philanthropy does not have. Their strategies often come from communities they serve and they move money in flexible ways, and often in participatory ways.

In the realm of advocacy, women’s funds have always advocated for structural changes and shifts, and now we see private philanthropy such as Foundation for Just Society,  Gates Foundation, Hewlett Foundation, Wellspring, they are all developing philanthropic advocacy on these issues. And a huge part of that is that they were influenced by women’s funds.

In the African continent, where I situate myself as a pan African feminist, we see that, for example, all Ford Foundation offices now have feminists as directors who come from women’s funds. So, you see that feminists from women’s funds are now in positions of power in FJS, Hewlett, Wellspring…that is incredibly encouraging to see that they are bringing the learning to traditional philanthropy and as a result we are seeing the changes and shifts in traditional philanthropy.

4. If feminist solidarity is inseparable from trust and togetherness, given your own personal background and different contexts in which you have worked on, what would you like to see forming part of the foundation for feminist solidarity in the years to come?

That is such an important question…personal is political so I will start with my own story which is that I was born in Algeria and raised in the US, so as an immigrant I was always taught to remember my people and to be connected with my people and also serve my people. I have always been in places where are I am connected to north Africans and pan Africans, and Middle East, and spaces where we could think about trust, solidarity, and togetherness. I have grown over time to have really that understanding of the world. It started with being raised as an immigrant, and you are always thought of as other and you are always protecting yourself. Now, to be honest, I believe in the global community and how interconnected we are. Starting from the heart which is so important, as well as feminist analysis, but also our interconnectedness is what is critical to changing the world. And changing in more feminist ways. That deep understanding of connection, trust, of some people call in the US, calling in and not calling out, recognizing some of the harms we do to each other because we are not privileging trust, togetherness and solidarity. If we could begin with those values and embody them it would make a huge difference in the ways in which we as feminists are connected and how we organize.

For me solidarity also means that I have your back, that I am here for you, and that what is happening to you matters to me, is crucial. If we had that on a global scale, we would be unstoppable.

Inteview by Đurđa Trajković