A Unique Vantage Point

26 June 2018

Throughout two decades in global women's rights philanthropy, Maitri Morarji’s work with land and property rights activists and women’s funds at Wellspring Philanthropic Fund, American Jewish World Service, and the Global Fund for Women has shown her that centering the experiences and expertise of those most affected by injustice requires approaching the work with curiosity, creativity, and humility.

In August, Maitri will join Foundation for a Just Society as the director of programs, a newly created position that will shape and strengthen our programmatic and philanthropic advocacy strategies. We spoke to Maitri about her approach to moving more and better resources to the women, girls, and LGBTQI people who catalyze change in their communities and countries.

How did you make your way to women's rights philanthropy?

Right after college, I started working with the Grameen Foundation. This is before Muhammad Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize, and when microfinance was just beginning to gain visibility. What became evident in that early work I was doing is that women are catalysts for change. At the time, I didn't frame it as a human rights or women's rights issue because I wasn't using that language then. But it became clear to me that women needed to be centered in debates about development and the advancement of social justice.

My first home in women’s rights philanthropy was at Global Fund for Women nearly twenty years ago. That’s where I started out. Since then I have seen the difference that supporting women’s rights makes in ensuring that all people’s rights are protected, that movements are vibrant, and that women have voice and visibility in national and global contexts. Women activists are weaving together the various issues they face and confronting them within the broader frame of women’s rights — whether that is conflict resolution, land rights, or LGBTQI equality — which shows us the many ways that each of us could contribute to the advancement of women’s rights.

What has twenty years of resourcing global women's rights movements taught you about philanthropy?

For me, as someone who lives in the United States, there are real opportunities to move significant resources to the activists and movements that are doing incredible work, especially in the Global South. Regardless of the type of foundation we sit in, the role we can all play in making the women’s rights movement ecosystem stronger is to position the voices, strategies, and solutions of local activists at the center of our grantmaking.

Funders have a unique vantage point: we are able to see trends in both challenges and new ideas that emerge across geographies, and it can sometimes be helpful to bring what we are seeing to local activists. On the flipside, we often think that when we see a solution work in one context that it can be adapted to another place, another community, another type of movement. I learned the lesson very early on that working this way often ends in failure, and I learned it the hard way. I tried to bring together women’s land rights organizations from different countries across East Africa for a learning and strategy exchange, and I had a particular model of what that should look like. Despite working with local organizations to develop the agenda and facilitate the convening, it wasn’t the right model at all. Now, I don’t start conversations with answers, I start them with questions.

What do you hope this new role will enable you to learn?

Until now, my work has been largely focused around two thematic areas: land and property rights and global women’s rights. Approaching women’s rights and LGBTQI rights through a regional lens, rather than through a particular issue, will be a tremendous opportunity for learning.

Another area I’m really interested in is the foundation’s work on strategic communications. I see that philanthropic institutions are thinking much more intentionally about communications. Historically, this was limited to how a foundation communicates about the work it has funded, but now some in philanthropy are using a more integrated approach. They are taking a more expansive view of what communications is and can be — both as an opportunity for social justice movements to increase the visibility of underrepresented communities and as a tool to advance philanthropic advocacy — but it's a delicate role for funders to play. I feel like a foundation’s communications should bring visibility to the work of movements in every way possible, taking into consideration the security concerns of activists in more volatile political contexts. I am very interested in learning about the catalytic power of strategic communications.

You mentioned the volatility that activists are facing, and in this moment of backlash, what opportunities do you see for philanthropy to partner with global feminist movements?

Given the challenging contexts that activists are facing, there's a lot of adaptation that philanthropy could be doing. Private philanthropy, in particular, could be nimbler and embrace much more risk taking. By risks, I mean supporting creativity in problem solving, cutting edge activism, and new ways of working that haven’t been proven effective yet. Philanthropy can also think more deeply about how grantmaking can respond to conversations that are happening around holistic security and well-being in both the day-to-day work of activists, organizations, and movements and also what is needed for their long-term sustainability.

There is a huge opportunity for private foundations to come together and think about how to leverage more support for local organizing through targeted advocacy to bilateral and multilateral institutions and others engaged in philanthropy. The landscape is huge, and we often only see it through the thin slice we're focused on every day. But there are many things we don't see, and things we can help shed light on for others.

It’s important to have a more expansive view on things, to listen to those who can be a counterbalance to what we are used to hearing instead of reinforcing the same perspectives and approaches. We need to be thinking in a dynamic way, and that requires engagement with people who may not be the ones we talk to in our everyday work, but that share our values and vision for change.

Activists often say that creating transformational change is lifelong work. And even within institutions of abundance, burnout and stagnation are real. How do you maintain your own drive and dynamism?

It's really important to step away from my desk, to be out in the world, and to see how women, girls, and LGBTQI people are engaging at local levels on the issues that affect their lives. To make those personal connections is really important, and with all the ethical dilemmas that come with working in philanthropy, it’s important to have really honest conversations about our power, our limitations, and how we straddle those things. As I said before, to do this work effectively we have to continue to center the people we’re trying to support through our work. They are who keep me motivated to make a difference in the world.