A mural of blue hands tinkering with the ropes of a net
Image Credit: Conor O’Nolan on unsplash.com

Together, we have worked in philanthropy for more than 35 years. In 2007, we co-created the Disability Rights Fund (DRF)—the first and only fund dedicated to supporting human rights advocacy by people with disabilities in the Global South.

Throughout its history, social justice philanthropy has generally remained organized around siloed identities, such as gender, race, and sexual orientation. The sector has largely ignored the ways oppression plays out across intersecting or fluid identities. In the 2022 report, Funding for Intersectional Organizing: A Call to Action for Human Rights Philanthropy, the Human Rights Funders Network provides a benchmark: less than one-fifth of grants explicitly benefit more than one population. The report is “​​the first comprehensive and global analysis of when and if grants for human rights reach beyond a single issue or community,” according to Alliance. The report’s very existence indicates how far behind the donor community is when it comes to acknowledging identity.

Three decades ago, in 1989, recognizing that discrimination can be complex and cumulative for groups with multiple identities, academic and activist Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” to explain the effect of intersecting forms of oppression like racism and sexism. White-led, traditional philanthropy is only now beginning to understand that those most affected by exclusion often have more than one marginalized identity, and this increasing awareness is thanks to activists for racial, gender, and disability justice. But recognition and action are two different things.

Throughout its history, social justice philanthropy has generally remained organized around siloed identities, such as gender, race, and sexual orientation.

Intersectional Identities Left Behind

Donor focus on identity groups is usually intended to support a historically underfunded, marginalized community, and address inequities. The problem, however, is that this approach can foreground specific identities at the expense of others. For example, women’s rights funding has historically ignored disability identity, despite disabled women making up more than one-fifth of all women. As Agness Chindimba of Deaf Women Included in Zimbabwe put it at the UN Commission on the Status of Women in 2019, “I want donors to stop telling me where I belong. If I apply for women’s rights funding, don’t push me off to a disability donor.”

By ignoring intra-group differences, identity-specific funding can perpetuate unfair and oppressive dynamics within groups, such as excluding trans folks from LGBTQIA+ and gender-based funding. While many of these donors now intentionally address transphobia, exclusion in the past delayed addressing some of the most egregious attacks and on bodily integrity and resulted in only partial policy wins. The current attack on healthcare for trans youth is one tragic example of this. In a recent New York Times article, Lydia Polgreen poignantly explained these connections, “My experience tells me that these laws are really about something else: a step along the path to a rigid enforcement of gender norms, roles and presentation.” Ignoring layers of identity also misdirects the majority of funding to those most privileged. In 2018, for example, less than a quarter of women’s rights funding supported Black feminist advocacy.

Even when donors recognize diversity within populations, they may not explicitly name or frame these differences regarding power and resources. At DRF, we created mechanisms to address intersecting systems of oppression, such as including advisors from other movements and providing grants for cross-movement collaboration. Yet, it took eight years to publish our position and strategy on gender, sexuality, and disability, using general support funding. Doing so resulted in an increase of DRF’s gender justice funding by 25 percent and acknowledgment of DRF as a feminist funder.

How might we move beyond static identities?

Identities can shift over our lifetimes (think child to parent, victim to survivor). Singer Demi Lovato, who came out in 2021 as nonbinary, recently said they are reclaiming she/her pronouns, recognizing how her identity is changing across her lifetime.

While disability identity is also frequently fluid, it’s more often conflated with a medical diagnosis and stark demarcations that rarely exist. Scholar and activist TL Lewis stated, “Disability is often misunderstood as an objectively defined static identity,” and narrow conceptions of disability “enable and exacerbate all forms of inequity.” Author Rachel Aviv wrote, “Mental illnesses are often seen as chronic and intractable forces that take over our lives. . . .People can feel freed by these stories, but they can also get stuck in them.”

Disability labels have also been used to maintain power, like the creation of drapetomania to pathologize enslaved Black people who sought freedom. For centuries, including through recent policies in major cities like New York, the label “mentally ill” has been used to legitimize forced detention or “treatment.” Ableism discourages disability identification and keeps us from accessing needed support, as experienced in our own lives:

Catherine: While a traumatic bike accident in 2003 catapulted me into the disability world, I often questioned if I was disabled enough and only formally claimed my identity in 2021. My severe osteoarthritis, diagnosed five years earlier, qualified me for an accessible parking placard allowing me to access support. Yet, it was my doctor’s advice to quit my job and “do yoga” that flipped the switch for me. Whether due to gender bias or disability, I’ll never know why a physician so blithely dismissed my pain.

Microaggressions, together with finding a community of disabled colleagues, moved me to embrace my disability identity. Ableist comments, whether from healthcare professionals or others, gaslight disabled people, discouraging us from asking for and using the help that makes our lives easier.

Where Is the Edge of Identity and Who Decides?

The heated debate about whether trans women are women and fear about the word “women” vanishing in abortion debates highlights a focus on exclusionary definitions. Philanthropists like JK Rowling, a disability funder, favors this exclusion. And there are similar debates surrounding Indigenous identity. At times, colonization and assimilation, rather than personal belonging or tribal lineage, have defined Native identity:

Diana: I am blonde and hazel-eyed. I am also a member of the Kansas Delaware (Lenape). My tribe is one of multiple divergent groupings which lacks larger tribal or US government recognition because membership in the main Delaware tribe is based on familial relationship to a list of Delaware recorded by a White male official in the late 1800s in Oklahoma.

My great-great-grandmother, Rosanna Grinter, was one of 19 Delaware who married White settlers and “stayed” in Kansas when the tribe was pushed to Oklahoma in the 1860’s. My great-grandmother Sybil studied at Kansas’ Haskell Indian Institute as an “Indian blood descendant of an enrolled member of a federally recognized tribe.” My grandmother Eugenia, together with other descendants, successfully sued the government in the 1970s for recognition of past land rights, and my brother and I were assigned “Indian money accounts” for the $1400 we received for appropriated land.

This identity was critical to me in initiating DRF’s cross-movement work with Indigenous leaders with disabilities at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in 2012, yet it is officially denied due to colonization and assimilation.

Who determines identity? The answer often depends on whether it’s about accessing social protection or services, building community, reinforcing exclusion, or determining political representation. In Kenya, a recently elected Member of Parliament with albinism recounted hearing the slur “Mzungu” (a pejorative term for a White person) to question his right to stand for office.

A sense of fear or scarcity can drive group definitions. As we’ve worked to deepen the inclusion of women and girls with disabilities in feminist funds, we’ve often heard there isn’t “money for women with disabilities.” It’s as if the word woman is deleted with a disability identity.

At the ever-moving edges of identity, things get interesting. Our identities are not stagnant; they depend on where we are, who we’re with, and when we’re asked. Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has spoken about becoming “Black” only once she came to the US. Interestingly, she also has been criticized for making transphobic comments, illustrating the point that our views on certain identities are often juxtaposed with biases about others.

Philanthropic efforts to address injustice must account for the multiple and fluid marginalized identities so many of us hold. We can have the most impact here because the need is the greatest, and the creativity in surviving and thriving is the highest.

To illustrate the problem, consider these facts:

  • Candid’s grantmaking database, which aims to educate users about “where that money comes from, where it goes, and why it matters,” does not allow users to examine data across two populations.
  • The Council on Foundations recognizes more than 30 funder affinity groups, and only one—Change Philanthropy—unifies identity-focused groups.

Our current philanthropic structure is at odds with the collaboration needed across and within identity groupings to achieve justice—for example, in response to abortion rights in the US, an issue that cuts across diverse communities concerned with bodily integrity. How can our funding strategies and grant tracking change to consider intersectionality and identity fluidity

What Can Donors Do Right Now to Embrace the Edges?

Philanthropic efforts to address injustice must account for the multiple and fluid marginalized identities so many of us hold. We can have the most impact here because the need is the greatest, and the creativity in surviving and thriving is the highest. If there is money for women, it should prioritize women living at the margins, whether due to gender, race, ethnicity, disability, sexuality, Indigeneity, poverty, or all the above. In addressing human rights, such as violations of bodily integrity, we can be most effective when we connect all those most affected: persons with disabilities, trans and intersex people, women, and more.

As practitioners of participatory philanthropy say, the work is the process. We are all on a learning curve because times, people, and identities change. And we cannot wait; we must learn while doing.

In that spirit, we share five ways funders can recognize the intersectionality and fluidity of identity. Other suggestions by donor Bosch-Stiftung, are available in their newly published The Transformative Power of Intersectionality: Intersectional Practices to Promote Social Justice and Reduce Inequalities.

1. Make clear commitments

Make clear and transparent commitments toward an intersectional approach. This can involve staff learning, grantmaking targets, or hiring goals that connect communities and identities. Most importantly, donors must make these commitments transparent through a website, a public relations strategy, or a published article. Assessing our commitments over time and as we learn is also critical to strengthening accountability to the communities we’re funding.

We are all on a learning curve because times, people, and identities change. And we cannot wait; we must learn while doing.

For example, DRF committed to ensuring that marginalized populations within the disability community receive at least half of the funding.​​ To do this, it developed a flexible definition of “marginalized” that can adjust to political and social contexts. Program officers—grounded in movements—have agency in applying this definition in context and over time.

2. Rethink “expertise”

“Many of us assume that our so-called expertise is more valuable or relevant than the experience of the communities affected by today’s crises,” noted Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation, discussing how we must reform the global order. Too often, expertise is a synonym for elites or those with the most power or visibility. Donors must consider who is left out or not in the room, especially when setting strategies and making decisions.

International Funders for Indigenous Peoples, a philanthropic network, has invited both disability and LGBTQIA+ funder and grantee representatives to their gatherings and onto their board. This amplifies conversations about who is part of the Indigenous community and reimagines expertise. Further examples of participatory philanthropic practice include funds focused on disability, Black-led organizing, trans rights, and their interconnections.

Compensated advisory groups can help build relationships and foster foundation learning from affected community members. Rotating membership helps ensure diversity in decision-making and adaptation of defining who “belongs” in the group. Communal power is built by ongoing engagement, as underlined by Olúfemi O. Táíwò.

3. Interrogate funding

Collect enough information about how grantees and beneficiary communities identify so you can target resources to those truly at the margins. At the Disability Rights Fund, we developed grants coding to identify diversity within disability groups, including impairment, gender, age, Indigeneity, LGBTQIA+ identity, refugee/internally displaced person status, urban/suburban/rural setting, and more. The coding also differentiated between groups led by people with these identities and those serving them. At first, this served to strengthen interest from donors focused on other identities. Over time, however, the data opened pathways for internal discussion about expanding the disability community’s boundaries and employing a justice-based approach.

Grants coding might not be the sexiest topic. Still, it tells us a lot about who and how we fund, what types of organizations and issues we support, and who specifically receives our support within these communities.

4. Invert outreach

We all know that funding begets funding, but getting in the door is the hardest for the most marginalized communities. It’s why the strongest equity approaches have open application processes. Reaching out to current grantees and those we know reinforces the structural barriers our funding seeks to break down. Ask some key questions: Who knows about the funding? What outreach are you doing to reach those most in need of your resources, and how are you illustrating a focus on those at the edges or with overlapping identities in your outreach?

As part of a recent inclusive outreach initiative, feminist funder Purposeful gathered multiple donors supporting young women and girls to advise on a new fund for diverse young feminists. Using intentional and targeted outreach, they built inclusive communications, images, and processes that connected young women most impacted by multiple marginalizations. Purposeful then facilitated meaningful collaboration among these different groups.

5. Require collaboration

As donors, we can encourage and support grantees to reach across divides and expand their constituencies. This does not have to be a wholesale shift in funding priorities. DRF developed a Strategic Partnerships funding stream to focus on cross-movement efforts such as women’s rights organizations seeking to be more inclusive of women with disabilities. The Fund also provided coalition funding to include groups from other movements if led by an organization of persons with disabilities, giving the latter organizations the wherewithal to lead human rights coalitions. In another example, the Ford Foundation added questions in their application process about how grantees include persons with disabilities.

Broadening the definition of who’s “in” and encouraging linkages across identities strengthens and grows movements. By embracing complexity, philanthropy can accelerate intersectional and inclusive practices and policies. As TL Lewis eloquently writes, “We expand, complicate and connect our efforts, prevent dominant forces from pitting marginalized people against one another, and advance together, leaving no one behind.” How is your foundation using power analyses to connect and center multiple identities?

Nikole Hannah-Jones, founder of The 1619 Project, reminded us that we can either hoard or share power. We have the resources—financial and otherwise—to expand our understanding of inequities and their disproportionate effect on those at the ever-changing margins and intersections of our communities.