It’s not just a question of giving money or making investments. It’s time for us all to examine our work through a gender lens.

Long ago, in simpler times when donors roamed the philanthropy forest giving away money to causes close to their heart, often without a strategy or evaluation, the donor I worked for gave me a direction that most grant-makers dream of: ‘Put groups advocating for women’s human rights at the centre of our grant-making – there is no limit on the budget.’

This was welcome news as women’s rights were the Cinderella of the rights sector. Women were, and are, the victims of appalling human rights abuses and legally sanctioned discrimination. In no country in the world have women yet reached equality with men on all measures. But human rights were traditionally defined as civil and political rights, more likely, even now, to involve male actors. Tough issues like human trafficking, rape and violence against women were only beginning to be heard. The argument that economic and social rights should be included was novel, with some of the largest grantmakers setting their faces firmly against this as a form of mission creep which risked straying into political territory.

The need for an ecosystem

So, armed with good intentions and willing trustees, I set out. Fifteen years later my abject failure remains seared on my memory. What happened? Everything and nothing.

There was no ecosystem of grant-makers funding women’s human rights, which meant that every group was fragile and struggling to exist with an often exhausted workforce. The Trust could responsibly fund up to 20 per cent of a group’s total budget and that was too small to make a big difference.

As is so often the case in a poorly funded area, many leaders in the sector were at daggers-drawn. Negotiating the minefield of personal enmity was tough enough, never mind asking them to contemplate collaborating. One large human rights group with an effective women’s rights project looked like a good prospect, but its Executive Director told me, without a hint of irony, that it was ‘over-funded’ and couldn’t accept further donations.

Then there was the problem of gaps where groups were needed but didn’t exist: there were lots of NGOs delivering services to women, like family planning, maternity care or dealing with domestic violence, but few advocating strategically for women’s human rights. This was complicated by a dearth of experienced and effective female leadership.

My utter failure to increase spending taught me that no grantmaker can move a system alone. For this, different talents working loosely together in a functioning ecosystem over a long time are needed, and even then it’s not a sure thing.

The founding of Ariadne

To increase the odds of funders being successful I, and a group of committed funders including Oak Foundation and OSF, set up Ariadne – European Funders for Social Change and Human Rights. At the time, the idea that grantmakers of all kinds might communicate daily across languages, cultures and borders seemed extremely difficult, and I was warned many times that it wouldn’t work. But as the current Ariadne team have just completed their tenth Policy Briefing, the network looks pretty robust with over 570 members in 23 countries.

It is difficult to remember life without Ariadne and the ability it gives grantmakers to reach each other in as close or loose a relationship as they want, or the way it provides a starting point for funders seeking information. It dramatically lowered the cost of collaboration by providing the tools and reflective space for funders to think and act together. It is home to more than fifty communities of different kinds and has been an active participant in the creation of collaboratives such as the Funders’ Initiative for Civil Society and the Thomas Paine Initiative. It can also turn the light on funders themselves, looking at buried issues such as bullying and sexual abuse, gender and ethnic balance in grantmaking. Ariadne’s value lies in extending the ecosystem of philanthropy, making it more varied and ultimately more sustainable.

From grantmaking to investing

Another lesson learned from grantmaking is that no founder should hang around – it’s bad for everyone! So after eight years, I had reached my expiry date. In that time a big shift had taken place in philanthropy with ideas like impact investing and the inclusion of social enterprises added to the toolbox for change.

When Diana van Maasdijk – then working in the wealth management section of a big Dutch bank – rang me and said, ‘this bank moves millions every day – can we do that for women’s rights?’ I was hooked. As the co-founders of Equileap, we set out to shift the focus from grant-making to the power that lies in endowments, usually many times bigger than grant-making budgets. Was there a way we could support foundations to make a difference to women’s rights with their endowments, and at the same time make a return?

We needed to measure public companies in comparative terms of how good a job they do for women workers from the board room to the shop floor and onwards into the supply chain. From that, we could produce data for the financial sector to license and create a new generation of gender-lens investing products that foundations and other institutions could invest in.

We needed a universal measuring stick and a lot of data, which we duly collected and from which we created the Equileap comprehensive Gender Scorecard, with 19 data points which look at gender balance across organisations, gender pay gaps, parental leave, flexible working provision and any active legal cases on grounds of gender discrimination or violence.

Towards gender equality

Two years after it began work, it holds data on more than 3,000 public companies in 23 developed countries. Equileap data now underpins investments of over USD600 million and we have created a new way for foundations and investors to harness their capital to move towards gender equality. In the process of creating this system, we also discovered that, far from investors sacrificing returns by aligning their values with their investments, organisations that have a gender balance (between 40-60 per cent of either gender) tend to outperform, in terms of returns and lower risks, organisations without such diversity.

And although we didn’t know it at the time, we began this work at the start of a wave of interest and anger about the lack of gender equality, driven by the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements and the revelations that women in every country in the world are still earning substantially less than men, and are, as a result, doomed to comparative poverty, especially in old age.  It is not just the head of the IMF, Christine Lagarde who picks gender equality as the greatest opportunity for economic development in the world today.

Equileap provides a way for philanthropy to address this in many ways: the Equileap Scorecard’s measures are universal ones, and could be used to look at gender balance and gender equality in any organisation, including foundations themselves. I have yet to find a foundation publish its own gender pay gap data – which would make interesting reading!

The next challenge for me is to focus on economic justice for all genders and to take a harder look at how organisations actually achieve gender balance and gender equality, rather than just talking about it.

Jo Andrews is Co-Founder of Equileap and also Co-Founder of The Lark Rise Partnership