Donating Effectively To Feminist Projects
Header image: “Money” by Martina TR. CC-BY.I work in an industry where women are underrepresented, undervalued, and underpaid. Even the notorious boys’ clubs that are corporate board rooms and venture capitalist firms agree that something ought to be done about it, and plenty of people are happy to donate to projects that seek to address the problem.
When you’re interested in donating money to help improve conditions for women in tech, however, you need to be aware that clueless and unscrupulous people will take advantage of your good intentions to line their own pockets. Before you donate, assess projects with a critical eye. What is the project runner’s track record? What’s their angle? Who are they centering? Who’s getting paid?
The answers to these questions will help you separate ethical, effective attempts to change our community from attempts to cash in on feminist activists’ years of unpaid labor. How? Keep reading to find out.
There’s a thing about feminist activism. Our years of hard work have made it at least sometimes embarrassing to be caught discriminating against women, but the people who’ve built our culture of exclusion and discrimination are still not interested in giving up their power. Nor are they interested in changing the sexist practices they both benefit from and enjoy. They are happy to throw money at people who will tell them it’s not their fault–that it’s a ‘pipeline problem’ or that ‘women don’t ask’ or that we need to ‘lean in.’ For them, cash is cheap.
This creates an environment where it is very easy for people to trade on the unpaid work of feminist activists while at the same time undermining us for a cash reward. The people who move the needle on these issues are the ones telling uncomfortable truths–usually without getting paid for the work. By making meaningful progress, we make room for others to sweep in behind us and set up shop on the ground we’ve gained; to pass themselves off as the kinder, more palatable alternative to women who actually get things done.
Many of the people who do this don’t even realize they’re appropriating other people’s labor. They often don’t know the space well enough to know that their proposal will be ineffective or actively harmful. But whatever their intentions, their watered-down activism is a form of modern-day simony. It offers donors a chance to feel good about themselves and brag about their feminist credentials without meaningfully changing their behavior or interrogating their own role in our industry’s toxicity.
If you want publicity or an easy stamp on your ‘ally’ card, donating to these projects is right up your alley. If you want to contribute to people who are making a real difference, however, it’s important to be able to spot the differences between effective feminist activists and feel-good counterfeits.
When evaluating a project that’s seeking donors, ask yourself the following questions:
What’s their record?
Feminists don’t generally spring fully-formed from the toxic cesspit that is the tech industry. Most of us have to learn the hard way that the industry stinks and that bland corporate feminism can’t fix it. Once we understand that, it doesn’t take long for us to rack up experience as activists–whether it’s from serious talk about the problems in our workplaces or telling irreverent jokes on twitter.
Feminist activism can take many forms, and some women try to keep a low profile on these issues because this work is an often-unpaid second shift that can cost us professionally. But if someone can’t point to any personal record of feminist work, ask yourself if their project is the most effective use of your money.
What’s their angle?
Does their project take power differentials into consideration? Does it acknowledge that fixing sexist systems requires people who have power in those systems to change? Or is it suggesting that women can eliminate sexism on their own, by ‘being more confident’ or employing other strategies that only work for white men because gender and racial bias are giving them a giant leg up?
Anyone can paint victim-blaming pink and sell it as ‘girl power.’
Who are they centering?
Intersectionality plays a major role in activist funding. The more marginalized someone is, the less likely it is that they’ll get paid for their activist labor. The more privilege someone has, the easier it is for them to co-opt the work of other (often more more marginalized) activists.
Be cautious about projects that center the most privileged people. Projects that look at sexism in isolation, without considering how it intersects with racism, cissexism, ableism, and other forms of systemic discrimination, are likely to benefit only white cis women of means. Likewise, projects that center privileged men–for instance, by treating discussions around systemic discrimination as debates where ‘both sides’ have valid points that should be respected–are only going to benefit privileged men.
It is normal to focus activist labor on a specific subset of marginalized people. We can’t all fight every battle at once. But ethical projects are specific about their scope and realistic about their limitations. They don’t pretend to speak for all marginalized communities, and they don’t promise to deliver results for ‘women’ when they mean ‘rich white women.’
Who’s getting paid?
Most activists are so used to volunteering our labor that we don’t even blink about contributing to projects for free. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this as long as everyone’s clear going in that they’re not getting paid. But when you’re looking for projects where your contribution will have the biggest impact, pay attention to where your money is going. Are the people doing the project’s heavy lifting getting paid?
For some reason, this is a particularly common pitfall when it comes to books of essays about women in tech. I can think of several cases where someone has raised funds to cover their labor and expenses in editing and producing a book without saying a single word about paying the contributors.
This is important, because while activist labor is often essential to marginalized people’s survival in a particular community, it’s also emotionally exhausting and has high rates of burnout. Paying the people who actually do the work doesn’t just show respect for the value of their labor; it also enables them to make time for it so that they can continue to contribute without burning out.
There is no checklist of right answers to these questions. It’s possible for a project to get all of this ‘right’ while still exploiting other activists’ labor, or failing to produce any meaningful change. But with no rigorous, objective way to accredit activist projects, it’s imperative that we do our homework before donating.
Research feminist projects’ organizers. Find out their track records, their angle, who they’re centering, and who’s getting paid. If the answers to these questions make you suspicious, voice your concerns. Point other potential donors to this article, and encourage them to assess the project critically. It’s up to each of us to make sure the projects we support do more than stroke our egos or absolve us of wrongdoing.
This post is sponsored by Frame Shift Consulting, a new diversity and inclusion in tech consultancy specializing in the Ally Skills Workshop. Founder Valerie Aurora teaches people with more privilege simple, everyday ways to support people with less privilege. Aurora’s background as an open source software engineer gives her unique credibility and experience when speaking to technology companies. Find out more at http://frameshiftconsulting.com/ally-skills-workshop.