Philanthropists and for-profit investors alike today are apt to talk of using a gender lens when screening opportunities to fund social change. When my husband and I (Emily) began our foundation—the Imago Dei Fund—in 2009, I gravitated immediately to the idea of empowering women and girls. Little did we know then that it would grow into a powerful movement changing the face of philanthropy.

At the cusp of a new round of global gender goal setting, we find ourselves asking: Where is the gender-lens movement going, which now takes as conventional wisdom that gender balance is a lynchpin of global progress? The answer lies in moving beyond redress, mitigation, and even women’s empowerment programs—though these are still sorely needed—to more directly fund culturally led efforts to re-examine and transform underlying beliefs that systematically disempower females in the first place.

We believe that private philanthropy plays a critical role in strategically supporting networks of indigenous change agents working to create this deeper shift in gender norms. We call this type of work “belief-based social innovation.” In this article we will explore global gender progress to date, barriers to change, and three promising paths for philanthropists seeking to influence beliefs at the root of harmful gender norms.

Global Gender Rebooting

Globally, 2015 has been a critical year for taking stock of our progress toward meeting key development goals related to gender. It has been twenty years since the passage of the landmark 1995 Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, a comprehensive global roadmap created by 189 governments to set clear and achievable gender benchmarking goals.

This year is also significant because the global community, led by the United Nations, met in September to adopt a new set of sustainable development goals (SDGs) that build on the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Like the MDG’s, global gender-benchmarking will be woven throughout the SDGs. “As women thrive, so will we all,” said United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as he opened the fifty-ninth session of the Commission on the Status of Women, marking two decades of progress since the Beijing Declaration in 1995.

But report cards marking the anniversary show less-than-stellar progress on reaching gender equality. A bleak picture emerges of uneven and limited advancements, which the Secretary General summarized as “unacceptably slow.” The most shocking indicator showed that global gender-based violence rates—which the World Health Organization estimates effect one in three women—have remained unchanged over the past twenty years despite billions of dollars in private and public investments.

Gender-based violence is just one indicator, yet it is a proxy for stalled progress on multiple fronts and testimony to the difficulty of influencing gender norms. What happens behind the closed doors of huts and homes is harder to change than helping a woman open a savings account or apply for a microfinance loan. Gender violence is just one result of the power dynamics between men and women rooted in traditional norms, beliefs, and customs that govern day-to-day life, including roles in marriage, who makes decisions, who owns and controls family assets, how children are raised, whose comfort and wellbeing is prioritized, and most important, who holds power and what this power entails.

Belief—The Elephant in the Room

How can empowerment programs empower someone who is still seen by their culture and their religion as not possessing basic human agency to participate equally in their family, their community, and in all aspects of society? This is the “elephant in the room”—be it within international NGO’s, community-based organizations, religious institutions, or within the sanctuary of the home—that philanthropists need to address if we are to truly turn the tide on our world’s dismal gender record. The answer lies in threading the eye of a needle: respecting the sovereignty of other cultures and religions while also finding ways to strategically fund and empower grassroots change agents working from within their own cultural and religious contexts to transform harmful gender beliefs and norms.

As difficult as this task is, more and more philanthropists and NGOs are trying to find culturally appropriate, transformative ways to address the beliefs and social norms that are undermining humanitarian progress. Pioneers at the nexus of global development and belief include the Carter Center, the Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace, & World Affairs, Christians for Biblical Equality, and Islamic Relief Worldwide. The 2015 Skoll World Forum, a global gathering for social entrepreneurs and their funders, tackled the theme of “belief” last spring. Jacqueline Novogratz, founder and CEO of Acumen, posited to attendees at the opening session that our very capacity as human beings to create traditions requires us to continually recreate them: “What in our collective treasury of beliefs,” she asked, “needs to change and what is timeless and meant to be carried forward?”

A lot, it would seem. A 2001-2007 survey by UNICEF of household attitudes toward domestic violence in 67 countries found that roughly half of female respondents believed that violence is justified to enforce a husband’s authority in the household. In Jordan it is as high as 90 percent. In Guinea 85.6 percent of girls and women ages 15 to 45 believed that their husband is justified in using physical force in certain circumstances. In Nepal, 88 percent of men and 80 percent of women responded that a husband beating his wife is justified as part of his role leading the family.

At a focus group on domestic violence that I (Emily) attended in Cambodia, a woman says: “Here in Cambodia, the man is seen as the ‘head of the house.’ So if he doesn’t like how his wife cleans the house, or burns the dinner, he feels entitled to beat her.” And Bongiwe Sibayi, a teacher I met in South Africa, told me that: “Even young boys feel they have a right to expect girls to serve them and tell them to clean up a mess on the floor or go get water.” Around the world we hear the same refrain from women’s rights advocates: traditions still exist that socialize girls to believe that they do not have the right to decide for themselves when they will become sexually active. Sex is something that happens to them versus something they enter into consensually.

Shifting the Norm

Some global development organizations, however, like Tostan, Beyond Border’s SASA programs, and World Vision, are finding paths to change these harmful gender norms that do not see females as full human beings possessing intrinsic agency and power.

World Vision, through a program called Channels of Hope for Gender (COHG) is influencing role definition in the family and community, and helping men and women to new norms. One man newly participating in COHG asked: “But if I love my wife and my children isn’t it my role to discipline them?” He was participating in an open-minded conversation that constitutes the first step of the program, designed to create a safe space for men and women to open their minds and hearts to how they treat each other. A participant in a SASA community dialogue says that as a result of community-based dialogue around gender roles and norms, he no longer sees men publicly hitting their wives in his community and that people have started to intervene when they hear things that sound like domestic violence behind closed doors.

Such unabashed and open exchange is an important first step to real change. If you can’t talk about the way things are, you can’t fix them. Says the same man after a year of COHG conversations: “Before I went through the Channels of Hope, I used to treat my wife as my slave, and didn’t realize that it was wrong to beat her. Now we make decisions together and share the work of our household.”

Three Ways to Fund Indigenous Gender Norm Entrepreneurs

Macro change happens within the microcosm of myriad individual hearts and minds. There is no way to short-circuit this slow, human process of change. It can be challenging to fund this type of social transformation, but thankfully, there are funding vehicles that are doing this and that have great potential for scaling up. Three approaches stand out as ways that grantmakers can support organizations transforming outdated gender beliefs and norms.

1. Fund “bell-ringers,” the networks of grassroots women’s rights organizations that are today’s pioneers

Even in the most patriarchal places there are grassroots women’s organizations leading their own women’s movement. Many are fledgling organizations run by passionate, brave women who put their own lives on the line to advocate for human equality and safety for girls and women. Every social movement has its “bell-ringers” that wake people up to a problem. Think of 19th century US reformers like Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton—who fought for the abolition of slavery and the suffrage of women. It is not easy to find and fund these organizations, but one can donate to a women’s funding organization like the Global Fund for Women (GFW) that makes grants and offers technical assistance to a web of women’s rights groups around the world.

For a window into the GFW’s approach to changing harmful gender norms, meet Immaculee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. “There is an alarming crisis in the Congo,” she says. “Although it is illegal, beating is very common in the schools. These are beatings so severe that recently a secondary school student was beaten to death by her teacher. I’m running a Global Fund for Women-funded campaign against violence in schools. What is most alarming is the young girls that are being raped. These girls are being coerced into having sex with their teachers by being told that they can’t stay in school or won’t pass their class if they don’t have sex with them. Or the teacher will violently have his way with the girl. Then when they do succumb to the teacher, he ignores the girl or kicks her out of class anyway so he doesn’t get caught. Many of these girls are becoming pregnant by their own teachers. They are forced to leave school and having babies as result of these rapes, even though they are children themselves. Often their families will abandon them out of shame so they have no support, leaving them to be vulnerable to more abuse or rape.”

2. Fund “gender equality mainstreamers,” the reflective, dialogue-based programs that engage religious leaders in community-driven change around gender practices.

All too often religion serves as the social sanction for a host of harmful gender practices that subjugate women and girls. Yet faith also has the seeds within it to support human equality and a commitment to shared human rights for all. Tostan (which means “breakthrough” in the West African language of Wolof), now 25 years old, adapted a model that reform-minded Chinese used in the early 20th century to put an end to the harmful practice of foot-binding on young girls, and adapted it to eliminating female genital cutting (FGC) in Senegal. The organic process involves community-based dialogue that brings all members of the community together to discern their own core values and engage in a process of social transformation. This has led to many promising changes including the eradication of FGC as a socially acceptable practice in many communities. In Senegal, Muslim imams have been instrumental in officially validating this community-wide commitment and foreswearing the practice of FGC all together.

COHG uses a model very similar to Tostan to engage religious leaders and their spouses in safe and transformative dialogue about gender, power, and faith. This program begins with a four-day guided retreat with community leaders, typically pastors, to enable participants to delve into their own lived gender norms, often leading to reflection and healing from childhood experiences watching their mothers being routinely beaten, and from severe power imbalances in their own marriages. The process then cascades into the larger community as these leaders create discussions in their homes, places of worship, and across multiple social sectors. This program continues for four years and extends into the larger community, employing a grace-filled, dialogue-based approach to shift attitudes via deeper and more open study of religious texts to surface egalitarian messages. World vision is expanding COHG to more than 90 of its national offices with the help of philanthropists.

3. Fund “institutional disruptors, the networks of indigenous social innovators who are starting new enterprises or infusing existing organizations with an ethic of shared leadership between men and women.

Inspired Individuals is a global network that supports faith-inspired social entrepreneurs—many of whom are working to change laws, policies, and attitudes around gender. One of these social entrepreneurs is Domnic Misolo, an Anglican priest turned gender activist who is helping pastors read their Bibles to shift from a patriarchal to a partnership view of marriage. “I am the second born child of a polygamist family,” he says. “My father had three wives and my mother was his second wife. As a young boy, I watched her be beaten like a child. I grew up thinking that men and women were not equal to one another. However, my eyes were opened after reading an academic journal during my seminary studies. It showed me how to read the deeper message of the Bible that sees men and women as equal before God.” Misolo went on to found an organization called the Ekklesia Foundation for Gender Education “an organization that I feel is God’s calling for me.” He is doing what large Western-led NGOs cannot do: uprooting traditional beliefs that for centuries have categorized females as made to be subjugated.

Another disruptor is Consoler Wilbert, also a fellow at Inspired Individuals. She grew up as an unwanted girl in rural Tanzania and was sold for sex and exploited by multiple men by the time she reached adolescence. The social norms that helped shape her were that as a poor girl from a minority tribe she was less than human. But at a particularly low point in her life her inner voice reminded her of who she really is, inspiring her to shed these social norms and do something to change them. Wilbert founded and now runs a program serving girls like herself called New Hope for Girls, and is stepping into a leadership role within her church community. “Because I started and run an organization that is doing such good work, men in my church are now letting me attend leadership meeting,” she says. “I am so convicted by my work that I cannot help but speak my mind and have a voice, even though the men around me still expect me to serve the drinks and often warn me about the dangers of a ‘jezebel spirit,’ which is a woman who is seen as being too domineering. It bothers me, but I just let it roll off me and they are saying this less and less. They know I can get things done.”

Change agents like Misolo and Wilbert exist around the world, in large and small NGOs and within networks that are working to support their capacity and impact. They are rising up from the wreckage of harmful gender practices with a passionate determination not just to alleviate suffering, but also to transform the beliefs and ideology that sanction and normalize a dangerous imbalance of power between men and women. And they are doing this in very real and tangible ways within institutions that comprise civil society. They know their culture best, and they love it enough to dare to change it. They are doing what the World Bank and the UN cannot do—disrupting norms from the inside-out to achieve gender equality and they are unleashing ripples of change at the grassroots level that are so foundational to any macro level change. What could be a better investment?

Tread Carefully, Yet Bravely

There is a reason that philanthropists tread lightly into this culturally and religiously sensitive terrain of changing social norms. It is not our job as outsiders to come in and try to change someone else’s cultural beliefs. But if we see our role as partners in helping others to “be the change they want to see” for their own communities, we can find ways to carefully, yet intentionally, support indigenous change agents doing this long, slow, transformative work. Yes, we still need to fund basic aid and relief to girls and women victimized by gender-based crime. And yes, we need to keep funding empowerment programs to give them a hand-up. Yet even with the most effective empowerment programs, girls and women can’t win if the rules don’t change.

The real solution lies in changing the operating system that continues to disempower the human agency and dignity of girls and women in the first place. This kind of change has to arise from deep within a culture, but it can be supported from outside with careful and strategic philanthropic support, by investing in well-placed networks of change agents.

Private philanthropy can play an important role in bringing attention to the issue and supporting this type of work. Small foundations can step in and work in tandem with larger players like the World Bank and the UN to support the capacity of these networks of bell-ringers, mainstreamers, and institutional disrupters. Any NGO, small or large, can incorporate reflective, dialogue-based programs that facilitate a transformative process of taking stock of gender norms. But this requires patient capital and a knack for connecting the dots between invisible ideas and more visible problems. Thankfully, there are social innovators rising up in every corner of the world who are working to transform gendered beliefs that perpetuate vicious cycles of poverty, injustice, and violence.

As we head into post-2015 global benchmarking, let’s find new inspiration to enlist all the assets within private philanthropy to invest in the transformation of stubborn—yet mutable—beliefs and norms that are impeding global progress. Let us each do our part to think, do, and fund in a way that makes gender equality a lived reality.


Gender-lens investing is the idea of moving beyond seeing women and girls as a separate programmatic silo in one’s giving portfolio, to evaluating gender impact across all programmatic sectors. Women Moving Millions, a philanthropic network, recently released a report titled “All In For Her,” that defines a gender-lens as “consider[ing] how gender norms affect women and girls uniquely when assessing funding opportunities.” And U.S. Trust, in its report, “Giving Through a Gender Lens: A Guide for Donors,” describes it this way: ”Men and women are often impacted differently and disproportionately by social issues such as poverty, health, domestic violence or education… When addressing social concerns, donors therefore must consider the impact that gender has on the particular issue.” 

Mainstreaming a gender lens into a foundation’s protocol gives one the license to dig around and ask those obvious yet still sometimes taboo questions: “So, I notice you don’t have any women on your board, yet your organization’s mission is leadership development at Ivy League universities… hmmm? Do you have any particular gender policies that in any way limit what women can do within your organization?”

Learning to phrase the question in a way that takes the conversation beyond the rhetoric of “empowerment” into the deeper contradictions between stated organizational goals and implicit, or tacit, gender norms can require artful probing: “So… you said you partner with local churches to provide mentoring to the trafficking victims in your program… What are the gender norms these partner churches bring to this work? Do they have any ideas or practices around gender that differentiate what women and men are able to do? Is their an ideal of spiritual equality between men and women in your culture or tradition that you can tap into to encourage men to share power with women, and help girls tune out some of the negative messages which do not see them as human agents in their own right?”

This is the very core of a gender lens: being aware of both personal and systemic gender imbalances so that we can more effectively work to re-balance and heal not just the false hierarchy of masculine over feminine, but also work to free both men and women to live as partners and allies in the home, in faith communities, in the work place, and in all parts of society.