Interview with AWDF Special Programs Manager, Abigail Burgesson by Stigmata Tenga.
Tell me your current work and background.
As you know I work with the AWDF and I’m the special programs manager. My key responsibility is managing philanthropic partnerships and networks, and then also doing resource mobilization and donor relations. For the last two decades, I’ve been working in philanthropy in Africa, which is really global philanthropy because of the wide reach externally. AWDF funds women organizations in africa, but we are connected to African women movements and global feminist movements. Here at AWDF funding is our whole work, which we support with capacity building and movement building as well. In the background of all this work is the relationship we have with different funders and networks including that of APN and that’s what brings us into the philanthropic space. We are also a part of PROSPERA Africa funds, which is the international networks of women’s funds.
Our background extends into a range of activities through grantmaking – funding women’s rights organizations across the continent to do work that we believe in and that speaks to our values and thematic focus areas. Technically, I have an extensive background in philanthropy and feminist movements. I’ve also got democratic governance experience and that has been very helpful especially when we talk of creating an enabling environment for philanthropy across Africa, and building the systems and the structures to enable philanthropy in Africa to thrive. I see the role of knowledge and experience of democratic governance and working with governments and institutions in Africa coming into play for a holistic delivery of the work I do now in promoting African philanthropy.
How did you end up becoming an APN member ?
AWDF is a founding member of APN. I was part of the first meeting. I actually coordinated the meeting and planned out the activities that led to the launch of APN in 2009 and with the first Executive Director Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi and our last Chief Executive Officer, Theo Sowa, who was actually the consultant who facilitated the entire process. And, I recall you as well as part of that initial team. So AWDF was actually a mother and a midwife for the birthing of APN and this stems from the belief in working together with other like minded organizations on the continent, to give voice and action to African philanthropy as a whole. AWDF joined hands with them to enable APN to come up with and respond to resources in Africa to shape the development agenda of the continent. We didn’t enroll as a member but we came together as a parent and a midwife.
As a board member I know that you understand the work of APN. I’m curious which area in particular you are passionate about.
One thing I’ll recognize is how as Africans, our lives are intricately woven together and we must recognize our diversity and our uniqueness, within this concept of being woven together. I like the APN role in terms of bringing together institutions and organizations and individuals of all sorts that have a stake in philanthropy. The influencing role APN has in giving voice to our kind of philanthropy is very important. Also, working towards creating an enabling environment to let philanthropy thrive in Africa. So it’s so difficult for me to pick one role, but I identify with the role of us educating ourselves, raising our own awareness as to who we are and what our identity is in this case. And at the same time fostering a new chapter of embracing things that have worked from other places and then learning to enhance our own resistance processes. That is why engaging in training, workshops and the bi-annual Assembly spaces we create is very important. Maybe the other thing would be how we move these things we have learnt forward. How do we crystalize and make them a reality in terms of our practices? So yes, influencing philanthropic practices on the continent is a role I hold on to dearly.
Do you think the African philanthropy sector is changing or evolving on the continent? and if yes, how?
My answer would be yes and no. It feels like we’ve heard a whole lot of things but the practicalities of a lot of the things have not moved as fast. Over the years we’ve identified what would work for us, who we need to engage with, what we need to do, but I haven’t seen some of those things materialize into positive practices. Some of these things like creating engagement as well as creating an enabling environment for philanthropy to thrive on the continent. That means working together with our governments and institutions to make sure that giving on the continent and in the diaspora is easy, and putting in place systems and structures to enable that. The responsibility is on us here to make sure these things are done. From Accra, Ghana where I sit, I know there have been processes that have taken place over the years and we have seen moves, and engagement and talking to allies that we haven’t worked with before. The process is ongoing but it is slow. So yes, it is evolving, the systems are being put in place, conversations are happening and you can identify institutions that are in the lead of these processes. The ‘no’ speaks more to the fact that we have not started reaping the results of these things. When I look at events from last year, with COVID-19 and its impact on resources and organizations, it’s forcing us to look inwards. Inwards into the continent and inwards into our countries to see what are the low hanging fruits that we can use, in terms of engaging government and stakeholders within the continent to let us start drawing on the things we have spoken about for a long time. I think we need to evolve faster, especially now that countries are looking at how to move forward after COVID-19, we cannot exclude philanthropy from this conversation. We have to do the same, and we have to evolve. Fortunately we are an organized body, APN is able to take this up.
I want to understand a little about how you address the power structures that perpetuate poverty and marginalization in your work?
AWDF as you know is a grantmaking organization. We make grants to support women’s rights organisations across the continent. We are funded in over 43 african countries and we have our extension under a special initiative called ‘Leading from the South,’ which enables us to fund in the Global South. From when we were founded until now, we have given grants of about USD $58 million, and AWDF has been mindful from the onset on the way power relations can easily define the relationship we have with our partners. We are grantees to our donors and that itself is a power relation, and we have grantees and they also see us as their funder and therefore we have to be mindful of that. As part of that, we are not oblivious of the fact that funding women’s rights organisations and coming as a feminist women’s funds means there are many intersections to the work we do. When we fund women, we are mindful of the fact that we are funding a group of marginalized women due to their economic and social status, and their disability and other identities. And, we know that as an organization that is part of the women’s movement in Africa, our response to the needs of the various intersectionalities within the movement makes us whole. That is why we do not determine what our partners do. They know what is right for them, what their needs and interventions are. Our role comes in once they meet all the criteria; we meet them on the other side with a grant to ensure that they deliver. We are not implementers, we are funders. They are the implementers and we believe they know and understand their terrain better than we do.
I just wanted to address another layer: we realised that with COVID-19 that flexibility of funding is so important now than ever before. To address the issue of power relations to partners, we need to get them to have that flexible reach of resources to enable them to function without coming back to AWDF all the time. They need to be able to pivot quickly to change and to accomodate the current context- and that in itself allows us to enable the power relations we have with our partners. To mitigate COVID-19 implications, some organizations needed to instantly get into virtual work, so buying laptops, internet access etc. basically devices that would allow them to remain functional. We negotiated with our funders so we can help them be who they need to be during the COVID period.
What do you think differentiates AWDF and other funders on the continent?
Structurally, most women’s funds were set up by women to address issues pertaining to women. And for most women’s funds, the organization is mostly managed and led by women. For AWDF that the management is women, and that key positions are filled with women are part of the criteria. The other part of the criteria is that our beneficiaries cater solely to women. That is not to say the rest of the community will not benefit, because for the 20 years I’ve been in this space, I have seen communities thrive because resources went into women’s hands, and women are much more judicious when addressing issues in their hands. I also want to add that women’s funds benefit greatly from being in spaces where other grantmakers are because our voice helps to shape and change the narrative. We have the experience and practical knowledge. When we find ourselves in those communities, as the human rights funders network and general grantmaking organizations, we bring the perspective that ties into our realities, to shape the discourse and influence who/what/how donors are thinking of funding and how they interact with women with their funding. We find ourselves in places where we can tell donors who want to fund women’s organizations how to approach them, who they listen to, and what are the key areas that are trending in terms of women’s rights issues. This is all part of our advocacy agenda. We are very happy to be unique and we are very adamant about our focus irrespective of how others want to define us.
Dependency on external funders, including international NGOs, reinforces a perception that many organisations are disconnected from their roots, have no obvious impact, and have no long-term viability. In a changing development landscape, what are some of the strategies you are exploring as an institution for sustainability?
Sustainability has been on the AWDF strategy from day one because we always ask ourselves how long can we be dependent on our co-funders. As much as they have been good to us, we know they can’t put us on life support. We also know what comes with these kinds of partnerships and the restrictions and conditions, and change of terrain. If a key donor tells you they are no longer interested in women’s rights and all that, what does it mean for your grantees tomorrow. These are key things that have always driven our thoughts and work around sustainability. Until we sustain ourselves, it’s going to be hard to sustain our grantees. In the early stages, AWDF started putting together thoughts and actions in relation to that. We appreciate all the support we get but sustainability is key. In 2008, AWDF launched own endowment and that came at the heels of the global economic crunch, which actually inhibited the growth of endowment and response. However, that’s a long time ago, things have changed. AWDF in the last few years has had a study on what our next phase of life would be, what are the key areas we need to focus our resource mobilization on in terms of sustainability to strengthen our organization, and we have gone through a number of financial resilience training, which is all linked to our sustainability plan.
Over the years, we have been looking at getting to a comfortable place where we can slow down our daily search for funding to keep us going, and see how we can diversify our funding into other areas. Areas that include building a core cadet of individual givers for AWDF, having a social enterprise project that will generate income for AWDF, building strong corporate partnerships that will enable AWDF to get some resources one way or the other, and then fostering strong partnerships that are actually key to our sustainability. I would say, in terms of being adequately resourced, we have been able to achieve that. We can confidently say that we are at a place where resources are guaranteed in the next five years to enable us to focus on other elements. We are at this comfortable place now where we are going into a new strategic plan this year and our current work is much more focused on building the architecture for alternative resource mobilization. This includes social enterprise, individual giving, corporate giving and investors that can help us grow. Last year was the biggest break in the history of AWDF. We raised the biggest amount of money: USD 45 million in one year and that guarantees sustainable income to cover us into the five years. It’s given us freedom to dive into new areas.
That’s huge, congratulations. We really need to see how to support sustainability especially in grantmaking organization. Ok, lastly, with all your wealth knowledge, can you please leave us with one inspiring quote?
One thing that is speaking to my soul is that “as Africans, our lives are intricately woven together and therefore, we are each other’s keeper.”