The Women’s Catalytic Fund (WCF) is an East Bay-based giving circle with a mission to fund California-based organizations working towards gender equity. The fund prioritizes investing in female-identifying, non-binary, and gender non-conforming leaders in primarily BIPOC communities. One of the main goals of WCF, made up of nine members, is to fund smaller organizations with budgets under a million dollars. They are also interested in catalytic projects that may not have received funding from other foundations.
As a group of women who are passionate about intersectional feminism, WCF aims to provide funding for work happening at the grassroots level. Each biannual grant cycle, they allocate one-time $15,000 grants that can be put to use immediately, enabling innovative, experimental, and transformative work in California. They believe in supporting the many incredible individuals and organizations that are working to improve gender justice in their communities. WCF member Ali Sirkus Brody elaborated: “We try to challenge ourselves to fail more often. We feel like if we’re not making grants that don’t succeed in some way, maybe the organization isn’t able to execute, then we’re not taking risks and we’re not really living into our vision. So, it’s not always about the successes it’s about funding organizations that might otherwise not have access to capital.”
By being willing to take risks and fund less-established organizations, the Women’s Catalytic Fund demonstrates its commitment to supporting a diverse range of projects and initiatives.
Collaboratively Choosing Grantees
The Women’s Catalytic Fund operates as a giving circle because it allows its members to leverage their resources, collaborate, and learn from one another. The members appreciate the opportunity to make a more significant impact by pooling their gifts and discovering new organizations working on causes they care about. Each member contributes a minimum of $5,000 to a donor-advised fund (DAF) at EBCF and the members work collaboratively to select grant recipients through a request for proposal (RFP).
To review the grantee proposals, WCF uses JustFund, a grant-giving portal that simplifies the application process for grantseekers and helps sort applications. The fund looks for interesting ideas that have the potential to create a ripple effect on the community. They also consider the geographic location of the organization and whether it has a diverse and innovative board and staff.
While there’s a rubric to score the proposals, the decision-making process also involves deep conversation and reflection to assure it aligns with WCF’s values. Sirkus Brody explains the importance of challenging their own understanding and considering the nuances in the communities they serve, stating, “It starts with a baseline so we can quantitatively measure, but that’s just the beginning of the conversation. We add nuance and challenge ourselves and each other and ask questions and try and lift up what we might not be considering about this community. We also acknowledge that we have limitations in what we understand.” To make well-rounded, consensus-based decisions, the members engage in small group discussions, conduct research, and even reach out to prospective grantees to better understand their ideas and motivations.
A Commitment to Learning
Over time, the Women’s Catalytic Fund has adapted to changes in the philanthropic landscape to acknowledge unconscious bias and equity. One way they have done this is by streamlining their proposal process. Every grantseeker is asked two essential questions: “How is the project catalytic?” and “How does it work on gender equity issues?” Out of respect and consideration of capacity limitations in the nonprofit space, the application is intentionally streamlined, embracing principles of trust-based philanthropy. In other words, they believe a gift should be just that—a gift—and the people doing the challenging and important gender equity work should have the flexibility and full autonomy over how the funds are used.
They have also tried to mitigate bias in their grantmaking process by remaining aware that unconscious bias has an effect on the traditional grantmaking process. For example, because grant writing is a unique learned skill set, the fund acknowledges that not everyone is skilled at writing grant proposals or has a dedicated team member to perform this task. As a result, they must make an effort to consider multiple sources of information when evaluating potential grantees, rather than favoring one application over another because of the style in which it’s written. By maintaining a thoughtful and mindful approach to grantmaking, the members of WCF aim to fund grassroots gender justice movements and help improve the lives of female-identifying people and their communities. Member Betsy Cotton expressed their mission, stating, “There are so many incredible people out there who are trying to improve the lives of women and girls in their community, and they have great ideas and they’re creative. What we’re trying to do is give people the opportunity to try some new things and prioritize folks who might not have access to more traditional philanthropic resources. This can help people get started and hopefully improve the lives of people in their communities.”
Importantly, the fund acknowledges the limitations of their membership composition. All current members of the fund are white cisgender women and that has led to discussions about the need for more inclusiveness and ways to make decisions to better represent the communities they serve. The members question their approach and remain open to new ideas to increase access to funding for BIPOC-led and BIPOC-serving groups.
As members of the fund have learned more about catalytic giving, they have shifted from focusing on specific topic areas to embracing more nimble and flexible giving strategies. This shift has allowed them to respond more effectively to the needs of the community and better support the initiatives and organizations they fund.
WCF member Catherine Lyons reflected on the advantages of being a small group, saying, “That’s part of why we’re a small group. We challenge ourselves, we challenge our thinking, and we challenge our definitions as we move forward.” By remaining open to change and constantly reevaluating their approach, the Women’s Catalytic Fund ensures they can better serve the communities they aim to uplift.
Celebrating the Grantees and Their Projects
The Women’s Catalytic Fund administers two rounds of grants per year. Typically, these are one-time $15,000 grants to California-based nonprofits with budgets of less than $1 million.
By providing funding opportunities to those who may not have access to traditional philanthropic resources, the members of the Women’s Catalytic Fund strive to give these community-driven projects resources that can help them succeed.
One of WCF’s Spring 2021 grant recipients was Kitchen Table Advisors, which works with small organic farmers in California to give them technical support and help develop their business. WCF provided funding for a pilot project, the Salinas Region Latina Farmers Network. Three convenings brought Latina women in agriculture together to discuss their challenges and experiences, both personal and professional, and to empower one another to overcome barriers unique to women in the industry. The women found the convenings so helpful that they continue to meet and are now raising money for a revolving loan fund to support each other.
A Spring 2020 grantee, Oakland Bloom, supports poor and working class immigrant and refugee chefs in the East Bay. WCF’s funding supported the writing of by-laws for a community-based, cooperatively owned restaurant group. During the pandemic, this led to the establishment of a cooperatively run restaurant, bar and community space in downtown Oakland, The Understory.
WCF recognizes the importance of expanding definitions of gender. In Fall of 2022, they made a grant to The Brown Boi Project, a collective of individuals collaborating across racial and gender lines to eliminate sexism, homophobia, and transphobia while fostering healthy concepts of masculinity and societal transformation. The grant from WCF funded the Liberatory Accountability Institute, a weeklong experience where transgender and gender non-conforming community builders of color deepened their understanding and capacity for addressing interpersonal violence with transformative justice-based tools and resources.
These are just a few examples of catalytic projects that WCF exists to support.
The Women’s Catalytic Fund has also strived to maintain relationships with their grantees, following their progress on social media, attending community events, and occasionally collaborating on projects. Although the interactions may be limited, they believe in the importance of being part of the tapestry of work supporting women and girls in the community.
The members of the Women’s Catalytic Fund are honored to support grassroots organizations leading the movement for gender justice and are committed to supporting unique and catalytic projects that help to create a more equitable world.
As the Women’s Catalytic Fund continues to grow and adapt, it remains dedicated to its mission of supporting innovative and empowering initiatives for gender justice. By staying attuned to the evolving philanthropic landscape and fostering strong connections with the community and following their lead, they will continue to make a meaningful impact in the lives in the East Bay and beyond.