Backed by rich and powerful Silicon Valley women, the world's largest global philanthropy fund for women's rights has hit a major milestone, raising $20 million in less than three years.
The Global Fund for Women celebrated the achievement during a San Francisco lunch at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, a world away from where the group spends its money in developing countries to support women-run initiatives to improve their health, education and economic well-being.
Though it was billed as a celebration, many of the group's leaders also warned that ongoing wars, destabilized governments and growing fundamentalist movements around the world threaten to turn back gains women have made in places as diverse as Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East.
"It's a real fear,'' said Kavita Ramdas, president and CEO of the fund, which has doled out about $44 million since its founding in Palo Alto in 1987 by a former Hewlett Foundation executive.
Underscoring the point, Global Fund board member Sumaya Farhat-Naset, who works with Palestinian women in Birzeit. "Women's rights are not a priority,'' she said.
Recipients of grants from the Global Fund, which is now based in San Francisco, also told of their successes: How they had worked in Latin America to provide women access to safe abortions, helped broker peace talks in the African nation of Liberia, and were running education programs in Afghanistan, where the Taliban once ruled and banned girls from schools.
"Sixty percent of Afghan women are widows,'' after years of war, said Sakena Yacoobi, director of the Afghan Institute of Learning, who traveled to San Francisco for the event to thank fund leaders for their help. "We are training women to be teachers, others to sew, weave carpets'' so they can earn a living.
"The Global Fund is a venture capital firm for the world's women,'' added Ramdas. "Instead of the garage start-up, it's a kitchen start-up.''
Although a global fund, high-profile Silicon Valley women, several of whose fathers or husbands are household valley names, have been major benefactors.
Half of the $20 million is earmarked for a "Now or Never'' fund to quickly get grants to women facing the most urgent needs.
"We want to be able to spend the money quickly, not have it sit in an endowment,'' said Laurene Powell Jobs, wife of Apple Chairman Steve Jobs, who traveled earlier this year to Egypt on behalf of the fund. She co-chaired the $20 million campaign, along with Diane Jordan Wexler, a Palo Alto-based career coach. More than 1,200 donors, from Uzbekistan villagers to the Ford Foundation, came through.
The organization has been criticized for not funding U.S.-based programs. Ramdas says that there are 90 women-focused philanthropies working in the United States, and large foundations often overlook women-backed initiatives in developing countries.
"The Gates Foundation is not necessarily going to give money to fight HIV/AIDS to a group run by women,'' Ramdas said. ``We will.''
For more information, go to www.globalfundforwomen.org
[By Mary Anne Ostrom, San Jose Mercury]