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“Philanthropists have power”: listening to lived experience

12 September 2022 at 5:03 pm
Danielle Kutchel
Including lived experience in philanthropic endeavours is vital, according to the CEO of the International Women’s Development Agency.

Danielle Kutchel | 12 September 2022 at 5:03 pm


“Philanthropists have power”: listening to lived experience
12 September 2022 at 5:03 pm

Including lived experience in philanthropic endeavours is vital, according to the CEO of the International Women’s Development Agency.

COVID has exposed many of the cracks in civil society but philanthropic endeavours can help to mend them, the CEO of the International Women’s Development Agency (IWDA) tells  Pro Bono News.

Speaking to Pro Bono on the sidelines of the Philanthropy Australia National Conference, Bettina Baldeschi said thoughtful and inclusive philanthropy could address the challenges women face in a turbulent world.

Although the IWDA works primarily across Asia and the Pacific, many of the issues it deals with are common to women globally, Baldeschi explained.

There’s COVID recovery and the associated shadow pandemic around gender-based violence, climate change and climate justice, and the increasing shutting down of civic space in the region.

Taken together, these elements are having “really significant consequences for women”, Baldeschi said.

Since the pandemic, for instance, some countries have stagnated or gone backwards on women’s rights, with girls in some countries not going back to school or being forced into marriages to deal with financial issues.

“These things together are working to reinforce one another to create very difficult conditions for women’s rights,” she said.

How philanthropy fits in

The IWDA is the largest funder of women’s rights organisations in the region, and Baldeschi said through its work, it aims to get to the root causes of inequality.

IWDA has never sought to take what Baldeschi calls a “colonial approach” in its work, in that it has never had country offices in the region.

Instead, she said, “we fund women’s rights organisations, we fund their expertise; we don’t import our expertise to them”.

This is critical for achieving positive work in philanthropy, she added.

Reflecting on the Philanthropy Australia National Conference, Baldeschi said she had been heartened to hear other philanthropic organisations and not for profits agree that lived community experience needs to be centred at all times in charitable work.

“We do need philanthropists to be placing the expertise of… the communities and constituencies they are serving… at the centre,” she said.

“In the words of feminist scholar and activist Srilatha Batliwala, social change is rocket science. If you were to be doing rocket science, you wouldn’t be thinking ‘I have solutions, I have the money, I want low risk and I don’t want this to fail’. You know that you’re going to need to bring people who actually have the expertise. You are going to need to take some risks and you’re going to have to step back and enable those scientists.”

She said funders often want to be “part of the solution in ways that is colonising of the space”.

“I’m very deliberate in the choice of that word,” she added.

“Not only are they not necessarily bringing the expertise that is needed, but they are actually potentially making issues greater.”

New principles for better philanthropy

She said IWDA would welcome more feminist principles in philanthropy, including deep listening, collaborating, accountability and intersectional analysis.

“Bringing lived experience is about decolonising the space, but it’s also about sharing power, relinquishing power, understanding when we need to step out of the room because others are better placed to bring about the solutions,” Baldeschi added.

IWDA is governed by a framework called the ‘three Ss’, encompassing when to step up, when to stand with, and when to step back.

Baldeschi said this approach helps IWDA identify where it can add value and how it can appropriately help women’s rights organisations to achieve their goals.

“Being able to make organisational decisions through that lens of stepping up, standing with and stepping back is something that is grounded in some of the feminist principles of really deeply thinking about power sharing and power distribution, and I think something that is relevant for philanthropists to be thinking about in their practice,” she said.

Baldeschi said she finds it helpful to think of philanthropy as being part of civil society. Civil society, she explained, can drive accountability of government and progressive thinking on social issues.

“When you apply thinking about what are the narratives, what are the discourses, what are the policies you’re trying to shift, it does take some collective action and critical mass for that to happen. And that’s where philanthropists have power.

“They have a collective power to be able to shift that dialogue, to shift the narrative, to shift the focus, and in doing so, make government stop and listen,” she said.

Danielle Kutchel  |  @ProBonoNews

Danielle is a journalist specialising in disability and CALD issues, and social justice reporting. Reach her on or on Twitter @D_Kutchel.

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