In normal times one in three women around the world (and in the U.S.) experience abuse by an intimate partner; for one in four that abuse is extreme and physical. But in times of stress, like recession and pandemic, the United Nations reports a “horrifying surge,” and one that disproportionately affects women of color.

“Abuse calls to 911 are increasing,” Leslie Quilty, COO of Cleveland’s Domestic Violence & Child Advocacy Center (DVCAC), told me in an interview. “And calls to DVCAC’s Helpline have decreased because there is no safe space for persons in need to reach out." Similar stories are lighting up hotlines around the globe.

As a result, COVID-19 threatens to silence voices of women that grew in confidence and self- advocacy since the Women Deliver, Me Too, and Time’s Up movements amplified calls for women’s rights. Gender equality funders rightly concerned about protecting women in the near term will need to dig deep to also maintain pressure for social change. Here, individual and family donors are proving critical at a time when a pioneering foundation funder of gender equality, the NoVo Foundation, has let grantees know they are shrinking programming amid market-driven fluctuations in their budget.

Elizabeth Barajas-Román, president and CEO of the Women's Funding Network, the largest philanthropic network in the world devoted to gender equity and justice, told me, “We are seeing women’s financial losses ahead of the curve because more women are in low-wage jobs to begin with. Organizations that were focused on systems change are shifting to address basic needs – food and rent.” The current risk is gender equality will slide backward, emphasized Barajas-Román, and impact the long-term stability of families, the shape of civic engagement, and employment opportunities.

Balancing the Urgent and Important

How can gender justice funders balance the urgent and important to prevent negative consequences for women, their families, and society as a whole?

Near-term needs require help, and include funding alternative safe space and virtual infrastructure so organizations can shelter at a social distance and reach women where sheltered. As a trustee at the Anna B. Stearns Foundation in Boston, which funds nonprofits that support women and girls, we did what others, too, are seeing makes sense: Dug into our capital to send unsolicited emergency grants to grantees providing emergency services to women. Community COVID-19 response funds, too, are focusing on such services, as are long-standing place-based funds like the Washington Areas Women’s Foundation Stand Together Fund.

Indeed, nonprofits combatting domestic violence like DVCAC, Enlace Comunitario in Albuquerque or Hagar Sisters in Boston and many others need more financial support than ever. Enlace, like other shelter operators, now rents hotel rooms for women in real danger, and DVCAC is expanding its teletherapy. Hagar Sisters, which offers a continuum of support for safety planning, healing and empowerment, has begun to convert all services to digital, starting with Zoom support groups.

Having considered digital services to scale impact before COVID hit, Hagar Sisters launched its pilot. “We let the [women] know they needed to be away from their abusive partner when they plugged in,” said Executive Director Joyce Shelter-Holt in an interview, noting this often meant connecting from their cars. “For some, there is fear nonetheless that someone will see them. Safety is the big issue. We need to shift our focus to being much more digitally intelligent.”

Keeping the Pressure on Oppressive Systems

Meanwhile, the solution to permanently improving women’s lives lies in changing systems that oppress them, and here funders need to maintain pressure. In the U.S. this means changing laws around family leave and child care supports to enable women to manage needs at home and work (where Times Up leader Tina Tchen sees COVID is increasing gender discrimination). Global consultancy McKinsey & Company reports that 27 million Americans will need child-care support to go back to work. Barajas-Román points out this is where urgent and long-term needs align: “Women are being asked to help reopen the economy, while most childcare is shut down.”

With Novo cutting its Initiative to End Violence Against Girls and Women and discontinuing multiyear grantmaking, Barajas-Román said that individual donors have become gender equality’s lifeline. Public foundations like the Global Fund for Women, Ms. Foundation and Time’s Up Foundation, and place-based women’s funds, which raise money from the public and channel them into strategic grants, have become linchpin investors in systems change. At stake are trillions in benefits and cost savings to society across fields including reproductive health ($120 benefit: $1 invested), maternal-child health ($16: $1), ending violence against women ($110 billion cost of global inaction) and closing the workplace gender gap ($28 trillion additional GDP in 8 years.)

It’s hard to imagine better returns.
By Katie Smith Milway, columnist for Giving Compass. She is principal of Milway Consulting, an advisor to philanthropy and nonprofits, and trustee of the Anna B. Stearns Foundation. Follow her @KatieSMilway. Cost-benefit calculations come from the Lancet/Women Deliver’s 2017 report “Investment Case for Women and Girls.”)