Ahead of the Curve: Women’s Funds and Youth-Led Social Movements

Are we finally listening to the children? An estimated 185,000 youth walked out of school and onto the streets on March 14 to protest the lack of adequate gun control in America. Thousands more will descend on Washington, D.C., today to raise their voices and most importantly lay out a responsible path forward. Youth-led social movements are demonstrating that they are the force to be reckoned with.

Kalisha Dessources, director of the National Coalition for Young Women’s Initiatives. Photo courtesy: National Coalition for Young Women’s Initiatives

Funders ready to acknowledge and bolster youth-led movements are in the right place at the right time to help chart a new path for public safety. Among the funders who are well-positioned for this niche are women’s funds and foundations.

In key respects, many women’s funds have already done groundbreaking work for youth-led movements in recent years. Scaling these movements up could be an effective way to fight back against a government currently held hostage by the powerful moneyed interests of the gun lobby.

The growth of youth-led advocacy supported by women’s funds started because they recognized the essential value of young women’s voices and experiences. This work was cultivated further in 2016 with the launch of Prosperity Together, a collaboration of 32 women’s funds across the country who have committed to investing $100 million over five years in improving economic security for low-income women, particularly young women.

A breakout group of women’s funds within Prosperity Together deepened the work by forming another coalition – the Young Women’s Initiative (YWI), a national multi-sector partnership focused on prosperity for young women of color and other marginalized young women.

In 2017, YWI hit the ground running in seven states: New York, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Alabama, Tennessee, California, Texas and Washington, D.C. Women’s funds in each of these states recently launched their own initiatives led by, and centered on, young women.

How are these initiatives engaging young women in the process of leading social change? Each has a unique blend of strategies that embed young women’s leadership into the plan, but one common thread is engaging partners from every sector of society.

Kalisha Dessources, director of the National Coalition for Young Women’s Initiatives and a former adviser to President Obama’s work for women and girls, puts it this way:

“We’re bringing new allies to the table and expanding what allies look like — to corporations, to national philanthropies, to local businesses. We need to make sure that the voices of girls of color are heard around the country.”

The Women’s Funding Network (WFN), a community of more than 100 women’s funds from across the globe, also recognizes the unique power of girl-led social movements. In 2014, WFN launched GirlsGive, which supplies high school girls with the tools needed to implement programs where girls are the grantmakers.

In 2017, research collected by WFN found that across its women’s funds that responded to the survey, more than $10 million was invested in girls and leadership – approximately 21 percent of the overall funding that these women’s funds provided.

As the United States witnesses more youth-led movements like the #NationalWalkOut, strategies employed by women’s funds will bolster these grassroots movements. Now, more than ever, foundations should fully embrace the youth-led models for social change that women’s funds have successfully employed.

By doing so, we might finally reach critical mass with advocacy for social policies that are truly responsive to the safety needs of the community.



Kiersten Marek
, LICSW, is a clinical social worker and founder of Philanthropy Women, which publishes news and information on how women donors are funding progressive social change.

Ed. Note: Women’s Funding Network is the fiscal sponsor for Philanthropy Women.

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