At the Nexus of Women and Climate: The Case for an Underexplored Funding Paradigm

In the social sector, having distinct but broad funding areas helps us organize our work and allows us to grapple with this fact: our societies face many critical, global, and intractable problems, which pose daunting challenges. Then we simplify, categorize, and otherwise divide huge issue areas into discrete sub-areas to make implementation work more manageable. 

But we also know this approach creates blind spots. The lived experience of people closest to and most affected by the problems—for example, in issues of race, gender, climate, health, and economic injustice—tells us they are inextricably layered and intertwined.

What is it we end up losing or not seeing? What would another way look like?

Between October 2020 and March 2021, The Philanthropy Workshop held Women & Climate: Embracing Radical Collaboration for Our People & Planet, a four-part series on gender equity and the climate crisis co-designed with TPW members Lynne Smitham and Terry Gamble Boyer. Informed by this series, our discussion here is a case study of the intersection of those two issues, and why funders should consider the advantages of taking both (and intersections more generally) into account. Separately, climate and gender each represent one of “society’s biggest intractable problems.” Examined together, a different story emerges—one that reveals promising new approaches to shifting the needle towards impact on the widest scales. 

Philanthropy must become more aware of this story. It must recognize how thinking and engaging where different issue areas overlap both opens up different paths for steady change, and also has potential for greater impact. For social investors already working in either the gender equity or climate change spaces who might be interested in funding “at the nexus,” the below ideas on complexity, collaboration, and trust can perhaps serve as starting points in thinking about how this space differs from most single-area funding work.


Photo by USGS on Unsplash

The Nexus: A Unique Landscape

“Working on climate through the lens of gender equity is catalytic,” says Lois Quam, CEO of Pathfinder International, who spoke on the topic of women’s health and education at the inaugural Women & Climate session. Quam makes it clear that investing in women globally is one of the best courses of action to make a difference on climate change; the holistic and multifaceted outcomes of doing so show how funding and designing social change work at the nexus of big issues results in a multiplier effect. “When you look at the impact of girls’ education and family planning, it’s more significant than solar panels or solar farms,” she adds. Anushka Ratnayake, Founder and CEO of MyAgro, presses this point in the second session on Food, Livelihoods, and Entrepreneurship: “We have to think about and design for women.”

Of course, social change work that attempts to address multiple high-level issues is difficult, and their intersections are areas of deep complexity with no silver bullet solutions. But that doesn’t mean challenges are insurmountable or hopeless—rather, we can use certain principles, practices, and knowledge to better facilitate and accelerate progress. We will examine how the following allow us to accomplish more: 1) fully recognizing complexity within the funding community and being willing to take it on; 2) the role collaboration plays in tackling complexity; 3) how a foundation of deep trust is requisite to effective collaboration; and 4) why trust is incomplete without just and equitable approaches.

Recognizing Complexity

“The leadership in this moment is all about stepping up to complexity,” former CEO of Barefoot College International Meagan Fallone, who spoke at the second Women & Climate session, is quick to remind us. Having funders and the philanthropy sector as a whole recognize that there are unique opportunities in areas of increased complexity would open up new strategies and approaches. Moreover, doing this work well requires a keen application of best practices—digging deep with multiple lenses, building strong partnerships with diverse, cross-sector stakeholders, and trusting known methods that deliver proven results. 

Evening the Odds with Collaboration

Collaboration at the deepest and most extensive levels can distribute the burden of complexity by establishing a greater diversity of voices, stakeholders, and solutions, with the opportunity for progress at the systems level by working on many fronts at once. But to produce intended results and prevent additional problems, it’s important to have clear governance models and high levels of organization. So while collaboration is an often messy and long-term effort, it can ensure that we learn, take risks, and make great strides together—as long as we are willing to do the work and quickly build trust in new ways. 

Collaborating with Deep Trust

Dr. Katharine Wilkinson, co-founder of the All We Can Save Project, observed during TPW’s Global Summit session on feminist climate leadership, “Sometimes trust isn’t where you start; sometimes, trust is where you end up.” Building trusted relationships with partners and communities takes time, and getting to that point typically involves establishing mutual commitment, a shared vision, and experience working together towards common goals. Throughout this process, listening well is paramount—particularly in terms of understanding the needs of communities and what success looks like to them. This helps balance strategic principles with trust-based practices, and also helps funders ensure they remain, first and foremost, accountable to those closest to the problem.

Trust Informed by Justice and Equity

Who we collaborate with should be reflective of who is most affected by the problem and who is on the front lines facing it. But because we tend to trust people somewhat like us, trust itself—and the many accompanying decisions about who to collaborate with and invest in—doesn’t go far enough in philanthropy, where white people overwhelmingly hold power, resources, and control. Progress will require an honest, careful accounting of how injustice and inequity shape our decisions on who to trust.

“How you invest your dollars really does reflect what you value and who you trust. And so the ask is for us to really put our money where our mouth is and demonstrate trust with who we invest in, who we support, and who we give platforms to,” asserts Gloria Walton, CEO of The Solutions Project, who spoke about women’s leadership and movement-building at our third Women & Climate session. Grassroots and nonprofit leaders have been asking for trust in this way for decades, and the onus is on the philanthropic community to shift the skewed balance of trust across portfolios. But we must thoroughly examine the power imbalances at play as we do; otherwise, we risk perpetuating injustice rather than rectifying it.


Photo by Abbas Jamie on Unsplash

Getting Aligned and Taking Action, Fast

So what does taking the plunge into funding at the nexus of women and climate look like in practice? A few good places to start and best practices to keep in mind:

  • Prioritize solutions from local leaders. Go in with curiosity, ask questions, and practice deep listening.
  • Acknowledge power imbalances and start from a place of trust.
  • Seek to understand your blind spots and then do the work to address them. 
  • Invest directly in women—they represent some of the lowest-risk investments possible.
  • Act with urgency and engage in “radical” collaboration.

Regarding that last point: while there’s no denying the urgency of the climate issues facing us today, that pressure brings with it the potential to achieve more, compared with less extreme circumstances. Climate change “could destroy entire communities and entire countries…. But I also want people to recognize the possibility of the solution. We can do this if we’re as collaborative as we need to be,” emphasizes Tom Skirrow, CEO of Tree Aid, who spoke alongside Anushka Ratnayake and Meagan Fallone in the second session. For anyone aspiring to transformational climate leadership, this means commitment to making change over being in charge, to deep listening (especially of less-heard voices), and to healing systemic injustices rather than exacerbating them.

Inspiring and maintaining a sense of urgency in fighting the climate crisis is critical. Then trusting, collaborating with, and funding the people most affected is where you accelerate impact.  

Charting a Path for a Greater Progress

That gender equity and climate change are both broad, global, and intractable issue areas does not mean progress is impossible. The right approaches will help us carry out climate justice, which represents an important opportunity to reconfigure the global economy away from the structural inequalities it perpetuates. And according to Quam, philanthropists “have the opportunity to bring the kind of agility and urgency that this work requires.” By embracing complexity, collaborating deeply, and investing in the communities closest to the problems with greater trust, philanthropic dollars can go further in sparking the systems-level shifts our societies need.

As we move forward on this sort of monumental undertaking, we will do well not to limit ourselves with a failure of imagination. A speaker shared this sentiment with the TPW Community during a program early on in the pandemic, and which still rings true: “You are much stronger collectively than you ever can be individually. But through your individual actions, I think you are pointing the way towards a better world.” 

We have more power than we think; if we can balance humility, which asks us to create space, with responsibility and ownership, which asks us to take up space, we shouldn’t underestimate what we’re capable of. Because then we can step into spaces that we didn’t see before, and perhaps those new spaces are where we make truly transformational change happen.

By: Gabriela Buentello, TPW Staff

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