December 06, 2011

A Nobel Victory for No-Strings-Attached Grants


Yemeni journalist Tawakkul Karman (left) and Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee won the Nobel Peace Prize this week.

This week’s awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize is a notable victory for three courageous women who have worked to overturn repression in the Arab and African worlds. But what won’t get any headlines is another victory: The prizes demonstrate why it’s so important to give general operating support to outstanding nonprofit leaders and not to tie their hands with too many strings.

At the Global Fund for Women, we never imagined that when we awarded grants to the Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee and the Yemeni journalist Tawakkul Karman that they would become Nobel Peace Laureates, sharing the prize with Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Liberia’s president.

In 2006, we made a $7,000 grant to Women Journalists Without Chains, an organization co-founded by Tawakkul to train and educate female journalists, who agitated for press freedoms and staged weekly sit-ins to demand the release of political prisoners. Today the journalists’ work is credited with playing a central role in Yemen’s democratic uprisings, which spread throughout the Arab world.

In 2003, we gave Leymah’s organization, Women in Peacebuilding Network, a $10,000 general support grant.

At great risk to the lives of members of the network, the group used the money to stage a historic sit-in for peace at a hotel in Accra, Ghana, where official peace talks were under way between the militia and government.

For two decades, these warring factions engaged in civil war, claiming over 250,000 lives and causing brutal rapes of thousands of women. The Liberian women had had enough. They literally linked arms and blocked the doors of the meeting until a deal was finalized. The peace accord was finally signed. Today, Leymah has been appointed to negotiate peace among Liberia’s warring parties.

While it took tremendous courage for Liberian women to confront the heavily armed militia and government forces, it also took resources, not just to run their campaigns but also to keep basic operations afloat.

Over seven years, the Global Fund gave more than $50,000 in general-support grants to Leymah’s organizations, which they used for core operations and advocacy.

“The flexibility and significance of the general-support grant cannot be overemphasized,” Leymah wrote to us.

Although the Women in Peacebuilding Network received other sources of support, the Global Fund for Women and a sister fund, the African Women’s Development Fund, were the organization’s only sources of flexible aid. Our general support to Leymah’s organization was an endorsement of the group’s ability to make decisions about how best to allocate funds, whether for rent or to mobilize women to occupy peace talks.

Such money is hard for nonprofits to find. The growing trend by foundations to provide money to specific projects is causing major struggles for women’s groups seeking to advance gender equality and women’s human rights. A 2006 Association for Women’s Rights in Development survey of 1,000 women’s-rights organizations worldwide found that it was “most difficult to find funding for staff salaries, administration and capacity building.”

Other groups encounter the same challenges. The Foundation Center found that only 20 percent of grants from the largest private and community foundations are designated for general operating support.

Nonprofits that work on all kinds of issues in the United States have raised concerns about the paucity of unrestricted aid. In the 2011 “State of the Sector Survey” conducted by the Nonprofit Finance Fund, half of nearly 2,000 nonprofit leaders wanted foundations to give more general operating support.

Although foundations say they are earmarking a growing share of their money for specific projects because that approach is more strategic and can be better evaluated, what we’ve learned over the years—and what our Nobel Peace Prize winners demonstrate—is that general support is more strategic. Yes, it is our philosophy as feminists to trust in women’s wisdom and experience, but it’s also based on solid evidence.

Recent studies conducted by two grant makers—the California Wellness Foundation and the Blue Shield of California Foundation—found that general support helped grantees build long-term sustainability and strengthen their management and other skills.

Most recently, a 2011 study on grants for medical research found that unrestricted grants made more of a difference than those that were earmarked for specific projects. The study compared flexible funds from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute with restricted grants from the National Institutes of Health. Economists discovered that the Howard Hughes grants led to “higher-impact research” because scientists could re-direct money to more promising research areas as they figured out what worked and what did not, while NIH researchers were stuck with their set research goals.

To investigate how the Global Fund for Women’s general support affects our grantees, we hired Lyndi Hewitt, a Hofstra University assistant professor of sociology, to help us evaluate. Using a random sample of 82 grantees, Ms. Hewitt’s preliminary findings point to three key advantages of unrestricted support:

  • Flexible support gave grantees greater liberty to practice “strategic acumen,” which is the ability of activists to adapt their tactics to respond to their changing political and social environment. Those with strategic acumen can better face setbacks, assess why, and adapt their strategy accordingly (not unlike researchers who received grants from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute).
  • General support gave organizations the freedom to “be who they were.” In many parts of the world, women’s groups are working on politically charged or controversial issues, such as sexual and reproductive rights, or issues that don’t rank high on donors’ agendas. “Externally driven pressure to 'follow the money’ censors organizations from using indigenous knowledge,” says Ms. Hewitt, “and from freely exercising ideological and strategic autonomy.” This freedom enabled groups to be more honest when reporting about their accomplishments and challenges and to use funds more carefully and efficiently.
  • Because general support enables organizations to cover operating costs, including staff salaries, Ms. Hewitt found that organizations could operate continuously instead of getting delayed by staff turnover, which harms the organization’s viability and credibility.

In an era marked by financial crises and economic contraction, it’s vital not just to invest in women to change the world but also to give them the gift of freedom to liberate the most creative, imaginary, and bold solutions. Like ending decades-old civil wars or overthrowing repressive regimes.

Musimbi Kanyoro is chief executive of the Global Fund for Women, in San Francisco.