Story and photo by Allegra Mangione
It is a sunny winter day in Dhapakhel. The usual haze and dust that chokes the city has cleared enough for the ghostly silhouettes of the Himalayas to be visible from Tewa’s patio, which today serves as a makeshift motorcycle parking lot. It is a busy day for the only women’s fund in Nepal. Around 3 o’clock, staff, grantees, board members, well-wishers and over 100 volunteers begin to gather. Today is the annual volunteer awards ceremony. The programming takes place in Kamla Hall, with participants sitting on cushions on the floor. After a few words from Tewa’s Executive Director and its Founder, the Community Philanthropy Manager begins to dish out awards—for commitment, for amount of funds raised, for networking. Around 20 volunteers receive wooden placards and necklaces made up of orange carnations. Afterwards, the group shares samosas and milk tea, chatting, greeting each other, laughing– building community.
Tewa has been practicing community philanthropy for more than 20 years. It is an organization created for and by Nepali women. With the money it raises locally, Tewa makes grants for women’s organizations throughout Nepal. It also offers frequent capacity building opportunities for its grantees and volunteers, both to develop them professionally and to expand their knowledge of the social justice field—especially pertaining to women in the context of Nepal.
Tewa was first built on an endowment, but when political instability rendered the Nepali Rupee unreliable, the board decided to invest the endowment in the development of land, which has been filled with guesthouses, offices, event spaces and gardens. The beautifully designed grounds have not only become a source of income that funds Tewa’s operating expenses, it is also a space for local women to access opportunity to support their peers. The combination of the income from renting retreat and conference space and Tewa’s community philanthropy work has given Tewa an advantage when it comes to obtaining money from international donors: it can match all of its grant money. For Tewa, this means it has the freedom to stick to the values, strategy and priorities developed by Nepali women in Nepal, instead of sacrificing these things to accommodate international donors’ funding priorities and procedures.
As a funder itself, Tewa understands how difficult it is to ensure adherence to its strategy and vision with its grant making efforts. Working in Tewa’s Learning, Monitoring and Evaluation Unit, I see first hand the frustrations of funding projects on their own terms. But Tewa also understands the importance for Nepali women to assess their communities’ own needs, design and implement their own projects and develop their own indicators based on the impact they seek to achieve.
Tewa built this into its rights based, feminist approach, which recognizes that the people who are best positioned to bring about change for women in Nepal are Nepali women themselves, despite lack of education or resources. Words like “beneficiary” have been edited out of Tewa’s vocabulary; women project participants are seen as stakeholders who are at the center of the discourse for impact. They are not service recipients, or vehicles for change. Tewa understands that its main objective is to transform oppressive power structures—how is it to do so if it maintains the power dynamic between the funder and the grantee that has existed in the non-profit space for years?
And so Tewa refuses to let international donors’ priorities supersede the priorities of its stakeholders. It instead builds credibility with international donors by showing that its philosophy and values work, when put into action. How does it do this? Firstly, the strength of Tewa’s community is unquestionable. Whether it is to sell tickets, fundraise door to door, or show up to a women’s march, Tewa has hundreds of local volunteers in its network to leverage and show support. Tewa’s deep roots in its community alone enhance its credibility.
Second, Tewa has developed its own brand of learning, monitoring and evaluation rooted in process instead of results. Tewa understands that change takes time and numbers alone do not demonstrate impact. Instead, it carefully records its grantees’ processes for impact and learns from them. These lessons are dispersed to Tewa’s networks through its capacity building programming.
So how well does this work in practice? A few weeks ago, I accompanied my supervisor on a site visit to a grantee that has set up a sewing training center and single women’s group. Manju has converted her home to a safe place for women to come and fulfill their needs. A year ago, an evaluation visit had proved disappointing. With a focus on economic empowerment, Manju was disinterested in women’s rights, and how she could leverage her programming so that stakeholders could build social support and empowerment. This time, however, we sat and listened as a group of widows talked about their changed attitudes towards their and their peers’ positions in society. In Nepal, widows are traditionally restricted from wearing red, or tikkas on their foreheads. These women wear what they please and support others to do the same.
Although this change seems small to an American audience, it is a significant step in a Nepali context. Which is exactly what international donors miss as they set their funding priorities and their project indicators. Context matters. And those who live the context have the best idea of what needs to happen to incite change.