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As Buffett’s NoVo Foundation Shifts Priorities, What’s Needed Now to Help Women (Letter to the Editor)

To the Editor:

The announcement of the NoVo Foundation’s apparent retreat from its longstanding support of women’s rights and gender-equality work has cast a shadow over an already difficult time (“NoVo Fund, Led by a Buffett Son, Criticized for Staff and Program Cuts,” May 19).

Many NoVo grantees, including feminist funds like the organization I lead, worry not only about a decline in funding at a critical moment but also about what the foundation’s radical shift will mean within philanthropy.

It’s hard to name another funder that has been such a champion of gender justice, particularly for women and girls of color in the United States and globally. That NoVo has long been cherished by grantees for its egalitarian, internationalist ethic makes the loss that much harder. The foundation’s pivot also makes it important to take stock of the lessons that philanthropy can learn from the legacy that Peter and Jennifer Buffett created with visionary leadership from Pamela Shifman, NoVo’s former executive director. Here are three such lessons to build on.

First, although many are reeling from the seemingly sudden “philosophical shift,” at NoVo, we should perhaps be less surprised by the shift itself. After all, as anyone familiar with private philanthropy knows, donors can and do change direction — with consequences proportional to the scale of their giving. It’s a perennial weakness in the business model of most nonprofits, and one that we’ve not effectively solved for.

As we contemplate the seismic impacts of NoVo’s reorientation, funders can take this opportunity to recommit to practices that protect grantee partners when the funders do change course, like long runways to wind down funding and clear, early communication. Nonprofits, for their part, would do well to grapple with some of the less sustainable aspects of our funding model, starting with the ever-present possibility of donors simply changing their minds.

Second, NoVo’s perceived move away from gender-justice funding starkly reveals how few other options remain to sustain this important work. From 2016 to 2018, NoVo funding made up a full 17 percent of domestic funding for women’s rights and services and 37 percent of funding in that category for black women. Similarly, for many of us working internationally, NoVo has consistently been our single largest funder. Moreover, the foundation has been among the few to fund and link movements in the United States and internationally.

There's a bitter irony to the timing of NoVo’s shift. It comes just as a worldwide pandemic forces greater recognition of the leadership of women and girls in sustaining communities, and just as women and girls bear the brunt of a global economic collapse. Funding with a gender lens is not merely a matter of addressing growing threats induced by the pandemic, like spikes in domestic violence and unemployment. Rather, supporting grass-roots women’s organizations, both in the United States and internationally, is a powerful solution to these and other crises, ranging from armed conflict to climate change and more.

That’s because local women’s organizations serve those who have always been the world’s essential workers, providing food, water, health care, education, child care, and eldercare.

In the global South, it’s women who grow the food and collect the water that most families rely on. This reality will only become more significant in the months ahead as economic meltdown and climate catastrophe conspire to threaten millions with starvation.

Even in the United States, the primacy of care-work has been put on full display during the pandemic and is increasingly understood as a basis for a sorely needed reorientation of national priorities. The foundation’s new direction doesn’t change any of that; it only makes it urgent for more funders to take up the mantle of resourcing women’s rights work across borders.

Third, NoVo understood that the long and winding path to social justice requires the kind of grant making that distinguished the foundation, namely, large, flexible, multiyear grants that transform the capacity of small organizations.

For instance, NoVo upended the practice, widespread in philanthropy, of pegging grant amounts to budget size. As Pamela Shifman points out, that approach perpetuates inequality, keeping smaller groups, disproportionately run by women, starved of resources.

NoVo also understood that to support those pushed to the margins, grant making must encompass both life-sustaining services and transformational advocacy — strategies that are siloed within too much of philanthropy. Perhaps this should be the most enduring lesson from these first 15 years of NoVo’s work: truly democratic, sustainable social change depends on feminist grass-roots mobilization that centers on the priorities and perspectives of the most marginalized.

The evidence is all around us, in the accomplishments of NoVo grantees the world over. NoVo demonstrated how philanthropy could help create and sustain wins like these. In this moment of global crisis, it’s time to double down on these lessons.

Yifat Susskind

Executive Director


New York

May 29, 2020