All the Things We Could Do, If We Had a Little Money: The Costs of Funding Women's Rights Work (Part Two of Three)

05/06/2015 14:03 | Updated 03 June 2016

In the first blog in this series, I looked at the challenges of big funding streams, that locally led organisations are too small to access. But small pots of money also come with challenges.

Small money

Unable to access larger funds, local, community, and other small organisations, including new and forming organisations rely on smaller funding pots. These are often project-based, and one-off. The challenge with this is that they often don't cover core costs, such as office and staffing costs, and don't provide any sustainability or certainty in the funding base to allow the organisation to develop and grow. The one-off nature of project funding can also limit impact and reduce the ability to reach and engage people. For example, a community based organisation is given $3000 to run a series of community focus groups to discuss a particular issues. The funds cover venue costs, refreshments, participant expenses, and a few days of staff time to prepare for the focus groups, write up the results, and evaluate the project. There is no cover for staff time to actually develop the project idea and seek further funding for it (the free labour inherent in all funding bids, see below for more). No money to keep to office running and the computers working, which is nevertheless essential to the project. No funds to cover the ongoing work to build and maintain links between the organisation and individuals and communities, to ensure that participants can be recruited into such project. And no funds to develop the skills or capacity of the organization, or for any follow up. All these associated activities, accrued in each project, are unfunded.

Jumping through hoops

All funders have requirements, many of them stringent and challenging. Lengthy and complex funding applications, and monitoring and evaluation forms are time-consuming and often difficult to complete. There might be financial requirements - such as the funds representing no more than a given percentage of your organisational income. This can be a big barrier for small organisations, who are able and working to grow but prevented from accessing medium or large grants because, effectively, they haven't already received one. For example, if a given fund, of $50,000, can be no more than 25% of your overall income, only organisations with incomes of $200,000 a year can apply, preventing a smaller organisations from accessing the funds they need to grow. Other requirements, such as having external audits, formal accounting systems, and similar, prevent community and grassroots organisations accessing any funds, including funds they need in order to get formal systems in place.

It costs money to get money

Applying for funding is an onerous task, which takes up a significant amount of staff or volunteer time, with no guarantee that any funds will be realised in return. This adds up a significant loss of the individual applying organisations, but is even more troubling when we calculate how many hours of unpaid women's work go into seeking funds.

For example, UN Women stated that:

"In response to its 16th Call for Proposals, which closed on 23 January 2012, the UN Trust Fund received 2,212 applications from 121 countries for a total value of nearly $1.1 billion. Civil society organizations made up nearly 90% of these applications, attesting to the largely unmet demand for resources to address violence against women on the ground."

Based on my colleagues' experience at ATHENA, submitting a first round funding application to the UN Trust Fund took about 10 days to develop, working with partners, gathering background materials, as well as developing the proposal, work plan, monitoring and evaluation framework and other essential materials. That is 10 days of unfunded staff time, in an organisation with no core cost funding.

Only a fraction of applications are taken forward to grant-making. In the 2012 funding round, 17 of the 2,212 applications eventually received, after developing another "fully fledged" proposal which involves even more work than the original. Work that doesn't retrospectively get compensated. That leaves the approximately 10 days of unpaid work of 2,195 organizations resulting in no resources. 21,950 days / 365 = over 60 years of work going in to attempting unsuccessfully to get resources ... on one call for proposals! If you view a working year as more like 250 days, allowing for people to have weekends and holidays off, then the number of unpaid years goes up to 87! Let's say not everyone does as much work on their initial application as we did, perhaps only 5 days' work. That's still 43 years of unpaid women's time for no resources, for one grant submission on an annual funding cycle. Let's imagine that on average each organization does 3 applications a year - at the skinny figure of 5 days per application, that's over 120 years' worth of women's unpaid resources being put into seeking resources every year, the vast majority of which will not translate into any funding. Or any impact in realising women's rights.

In the next and final instalment in this blog series, I will look at how having money helps to get more money, and what can be done to start addressing some of the funding challenges I have described.