28/05/2015 11:30 BST | Updated 27/05/2016 06:59 BST

All the Things We Could Do, If We Had a Little Money: The Costs of funding Women's Rights Work - Part One of Three

"Women constantly work without being paid, without being recognised and without being honoured, it's the same old stuff and we need change" (Activist speaking at ATHENA event)

All organisations depend on funding. From major international organisations with multi-million dollar budgets to small community collectives surviving on small change, funds are what keeps things going, allow work to thrive and scale up, and ensure you can make a difference. In the HIV field where I work, funds may come from government development agencies, international foundations, the Global Fund, or national sources, as well as private trusts and foundations. Who gets money, how much, and what for are all contentious issues. Rarely transparent, funds often come with hoops and loopholes that make it hard to get a clear sense of how well they are allocated and used. Some funds also come with ideological conditionalities such as the "global gag rule" on US government funding, first imposed by the Reagan administration, which prohibited organisations in receipt of funds to provide or be seen to "promote" abortion. Small, locally and community led organisations are squeezed out of bigger funding opportunities because they are small, but are often unable to access sustainable funding at smaller levels. This has a huge impact on what is done, and for whom.

For women, and women's rights, this adds up to a picture where progress on achieving gender equality is limited by a lack of funds. Women aren't at the decision-making tables, women's voices aren't heard on the big platforms, and the ability of women-led initiatives to achieve change is limited by lack of money. There are lots of reasons for this, which I aim to explore in a series of blog posts, of which this is the first part.

Big money

Making big change, at scale, takes big money. Often, governments and foundations identify an area where there is an opportunity for significant change, and allocate big funds to target it. Sounds good? The problem is, that it takes lots of work to identify an area for change. It is impossible to access funds without evidence of need and potential impact, but gathering evidence also takes resources. This can lead to the problem of huge areas in need of changes being overlooked because there are no funds available to evidence this need.

Often the work to gather evidence is led and done by grassroots and community organisations, with little funding or support. Then, once they have begun to build an evidence base and a case for the specific area of intervention, big funds open up, for which they are too small to be eligible. So large national and international organisations come in and get the funding, and small local organisations are left to operate on a shoestring.

A recent analysis of access to funding for HIV by women's organisations in Uganda noted that:

"... even with organisations that have had access to funding, this has not been without numerous challenges. Highly technical proposals are required by the donors yet most women organisations lack the technical staff or funds to hire consultants to develop proposals. The donor also requires organisations to possesses several years' experience of managing donor funds and robust financial, monitoring and evaluation and governance systems in order to grant funding. This perpetually keeps women organisations stunted since they cannot get the experience unless they are funded in the first place."

This final point is especially important - without sufficient, core and sustainable funds it is impossible for an organisation to establish itself and develop, and without funds to deliver work, it is impossible to get the experience needed to access funds to deliver work (think of it like someone looking for their first job, constantly told they need experience to apply).

The analysis also found a range of restrictions on donor funding, including limited overheads that are insufficient to cover staffing and office costs. Limitations on staff funding lead to over work, stress and burnout, and can limit the quality and impact of the work organisations can do.

This lack of access to big funds restricts the ability of women's rights organisations to lead the big, transformative changes it take to address harmful gender norms and achieve gender equality.

In the next blog in this series, I will look at the problems of smaller pots of funding, as well as the hoops and hurdles set up by funders for grantees to get through.