The story of contemporary feminist movements is a compelling story of hard-won, collective victories to expand the rights of women, girls, and LGBTQI people to live self-determined lives. It is also a story of persevering and resisting formidable backlash – a backlash that often plays out in the realm of storytelling, from book bannings in the United States, to disinformation campaigns about sexual and LGBTQI rights in countries like Ghana and Kenya, to “anti-gender” narratives in countries throughout Europe.
Indeed, well-funded anti-gender and anti-rights movements and narratives threaten the lives and well being of women, girls, and LGBTQI people around the world. The Global Philanthropy Project estimates that the anti-gender movement received $3.7 billion in funding from 2013-2017, more than triple the funding to the global LGBTI movement.
The realm of culture, symbol, and story has become a significant battleground for this struggle – not surprisingly. Stories are powerful tools for making meaning, and who tells the story matters.
Funding strategic communications: responding to feminist movements’ agendas
Foundation for a Just Society (FJS) believes that resourcing the communications needs of feminist movements is urgent. We hear from our grantee partners that they need deep and sustained support to strengthen their communications approaches. They know that their messages don’t always “land” with the audiences they aim to reach and that they have work to do to strengthen their communications and storytelling.
In 2016, as a response to what we were hearing, FJS decided to provide grants to strengthen feminist organizations’ and movements’ communications. We aimed to contribute to transforming the public conversation and to building support for movements that advance women’s, girls’, and LGBTQI people’s rights. We’re also conscious that this work is a journey of experimentation and exploration. We are keen to support our partners’ communications activities in the most useful and impactful ways possible, and we know we’re still in the early phases of a learning process.
We gave grants in three areas: 1) to strengthen the communications approaches of individual grantees, 2) to support capacity-strengthening organizations to strengthen movement communications work, and 3) to fund journalists and media organizations to fill gaps in movement communications and better enable movement voices to reach new audiences.
From 2016 through 2021, FJS made 122 grants and invested $20 million in a range of communications-strengthening grants. To take stock of what we have achieved, we commissioned an independent assessment. We wanted to know whether (and how) our support had been helpful, and how we could do better.
Even modest grants catalyze significant results for an activist organization
Communications work can be deeply transformative, yet organizations face steep challenges in securing essential resources. In a survey among our grantee partners, nearly 70% responded that they had not received dedicated communications support from any other funder. In addition, organizations’ senior leaders sometimes de-prioritize communications, especially when they are working with limited budgets.
In conducting this assessment, we reviewed grant write-ups and reports and conducted interviews with 15 partners that had received communications grants. Overall, partners found the accompaniment grants very helpful in supporting and improving their strategic communications. Allocating even modest resources to communications often dramatically affected an organization’s influence and impact.
For example, three accompaniment grants to the Mesoamerican Initiative of Women Human Rights Defenders (IM Defensoras), a network in Mexico and Central America, allowed IM Defensoras to assess its entire communications strategy. IM Defensoras concluded that it needed to implement new approaches to better connect with its audiences. The organization shifted from a more reactive style (e.g., highlighting a problematic political context) to framing its work and impact more affirmatively. IM Defensoras explained the concept of feminist holistic protection of women human rights defenders and celebrated the contributions these defenders make to their communities. Audiences responded positively to this new messaging and became more engaged.
As a result of its new approaches, the network more than doubled its coverage in national and international media. Its Facebook and Twitter reach also doubled from the previous year to five million impressions. The new communications approach clearly extended IM Defensoras’ media visibility.
Specialized organizations play an important role in strengthening movement communications
Specialized communications organizations play an important role in providing technical assistance and capacity building to individual feminist groups, as well as to improving broader movement communications. Partners tell us that they need support from communications experts that share their values and are familiar with their contexts.
FJS has supported a range of organizations that are playing these important capacity-building and support roles within feminist movements. For instance, we provided grants to ReFrame in the US and Puentes in Latin America, which offer mentoring, training, research, and other forms of strategic communications and narrative change support. We supported the Numun Fund, an initiative based in The Netherlands, that supports groups that use technology to advance feminist organizing, and the Samata Foundation in Nepal, which supports the development of new Dalit women-led narratives on caste, gender, and sexuality.
We also saw opportunities to facilitate communication within movements. Eyala is an African feminist blog, network, and online community operating in both English and French. The platform creates virtual and in-person spaces for African feminists to build community and share their stories. Eyala provides an important space for African women, including queer and transgender women and nonbinary and gender nonconforming individuals, to connect with one another, showcasing the diversity in culture, class, languages, and visions within African feminist movements.
Elevating movement voices through support to journalists and media allies
In supporting journalism focused on women’s, girls’, and LGBTQI people’s rights, FJS wanted not only to support more and better content, but also to train journalists from marginalized groups and to encourage the inclusion and foregrounding of previously excluded voices. We grappled with the dilemmas any donor would face in funding journalism (e.g., the possibility, or even the appearance, of compromising journalistic independence). We also thought about whether to support change within mainstream institutions or to fund emerging movement-focused actors. In the end, we did a bit of both.
In Latin America, we are seeing new groups doing ground-breaking work to build significant new audiences who have not felt included by legacy news organizations. In Guatemala, Prensa Comunitaria’s investigative coverage of a range of human rights violations against Indigenous communities led to collaborations with 40 journalists from around the world, including The Guardian, Le Monde, and El País. Prensa Comunitaria’s investigations exposed criminal activity by a Russian-Swiss nickel company operating in Q'eqchi Indigenous territory. The group earned accolades, but also experienced retaliation for this coverage.
Successful media startups are also pushing mainstream outlets to change their coverage. TransLash, a cross-platform media organization based in the US, uses storytelling to change popular narratives about trans people of color. TransLash’s staff members are sought-after by mainstream news organizations, and its founder Imara Jones has been frequently featured by the likes of the New York Times, Time, NPR, and MSNBC.
An invitation to act
FJS believes that our investment in supporting strategic communications and narrative change has been an important step in the right direction. In the current feminist movement ecosystem, communications capacity is relatively weak, and despite recent improvement, feminist movements still struggle to make inroads against an extremely well-funded and effective opposition.
Safety and security are growing concerns. As activist groups and individuals become more visible, surveillance and attacks may increase. Conversely, public visibility can be protective, as attacks may elicit outcry, and even sanctions, by governments, the public, or the international community. As donors, we need to better support the safety and security of the activists, journalists, artists, and storytellers exposing injustice and pushing for change.
FJS invites other funders to join us in supporting strategic communications work. If we are to support human rights, democracy, and social justice in the face of a strong and advancing opposition, funders need to invest in movement communications and narrative change strategies to reach beyond the already converted. We need to find more ways to collaborate and coordinate our efforts, across issue and geographic silos. We also need to provide sustained support; there is no point in a group building up its communications capacities one year, if the funding will run out the next. The potential for achieving change is great, but this work must be undertaken collectively. No single funder can do it alone.
Photo credit: Eyala Blog, 2022