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The Transformative Power of a Grantee-Led Retreat

The Transformative Power of a Grantee-Led Retreat

As a trust-based grantmaker and learning organization, WomenStrong International has long embraced the principles of partnership and collaboration. We believe that real change comes when we support our partners in designing activities that address their needs and challenges. In September of 2023, we had the privilege of witnessing the impact that can be achieved when we hand the reins to our partners. WomenStrong’s Learning Lab Retreat in Marrakech, Morocco, was an eye-opening and transformative experience that helped me better understand how essential it is to reinvent the grantee-donor relationship so that power moves toward the grantees.

How do you disrupt an unhealthy power dynamic?

To begin, you must be willing to switch up the standard, hierarchical approach of interacting with grantees to one built on trust and collaboration. We started by hosting virtual community-building activities to develop meaningful connections not only among partners but also between partners and the WomenStrong team. Ensuring that partners felt empowered to share their thoughts and criticism with a funder was vital to developing the program for a meaningful weeklong retreat. From these conversations, we learned that partners wanted the opportunity to deepen their connections and learn from each other, leading to the design of our 2023 Retreat. Retreat planning started via Zoom, with a WomenStrong team member, consultant, and 10 staff representing 10 partner organizations forming a Retreat Advisory Board to determine the retreat’s objectives. Once partners understood that this retreat was “for them and by them,” they eagerly jumped into organizing individual sessions. They collectively decided that the retreat would focus on exploring and promoting collective care, building meaningful relationships, and fostering solidarity over a common goal. Partners set the agenda and then organized and co-led sessions on advocacy, storytelling, fundraising, monitoring and evaluation, restorative body practices, and collective self-care. All session facilitators were paired with a WomenStrong staff member or consultant, who served as a “thought partner” while partners developed their sessions.

After 6 months, 27 partners at all staff levels, representing 14 grantee organizations in 14 countries, arrived in Marrakech for a transformative week.

WomenStrong staff and grantees gathered together holding a banner in Marrakech, Morocco
WomenStrong staff and partners from 14 organizations gathered in Marrakech, Morocco.

The retreat was meticulously designed to create an atmosphere of trust, openness, and learning. Multiple modes of learning ranged from a “Feminist Evaluation” session co-led by Roots of Health from the Philippines and Women’s Justice Initiative from Guatemala, where partners discussed their participatory research and evaluation approach and offered advice on strengthening data systems, to a “Body Practices” session led by Mujeres Aliadas from Mexico, focused on cultivating body awareness and understanding.

“The experiences shared by different partners were so rich! The environment supported us to be vulnerable as leaders while reminding ourselves that we can do it together. Taking care of oneself is never easy. The retreat was a great learning experience on how best this can be done. With solidarity and movement building within the amazing team, I learned how to maintain a culture of self and collective care.”

-WomenStrong partner

These and other hybrid learning experiences encouraged vulnerability and trust. Partners embraced principles such as respect, listening, being open to learning from each other, acknowledging power and privilege, and recognizing individual biases. The emphasis was on knowing the personal before the professional, building deeper friendships, and understanding the “inner” you.

WomenStrong partners utilize headsets and microphones to allow for interpretation.

A key element to ensure meaningful participation was incorporating language justice into the retreat. All Retreat Advisory Board calls and subsequent activities had English, Spanish, and French interpreters who assisted us with bridging the gaps in communication. During the retreat, each participant wore a headset from which we could hear the simultaneous translation of our colleagues’ ideas. Office hours, breakout room sessions, and even an optional “Tour of the City” – all included interpretation.  Language justice helps to foster shared power, promote inclusion, and dismantle traditional systems of oppression that have disenfranchised non-English speakers (learn more about language justice at WSI here).

“I am usually used to prescribed practices where people come to engage through presentations. This retreat gave me an opportunity to personalize the experience through practice. The interpersonal discussions, the regional grouping, swimming time, happy hour, dinner outside, the tour of the city. Helping pack clothes for the survivors of the earthquake helped seal teamwork and the spirit of giving.“

-WomenStrong partner

One of the highlights of the retreat was the collaborative ideas and commitments made by partners. For example, Gender and Development for Cambodia and the Girls Empowerment Network (GENET) – Malawi decided to co-lead a session on advocacy to help share their skills and set the stage for partner-led advocacy efforts. The regional groups developed partner-led advocacy collaborations to address the following issues: child marriage, for the Africa group; the need for unrestricted funding, for the Asia group; and raising awareness about sexual and gender-based violence, for the Americas group. Most immediately, the Americas Regional Group is working together during this year’s ongoing “16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence” campaign to create and share advocacy videos highlighting different forms of violence against women and girls.

WomenStrong partners Andrea Tock, Director of Impact and Learning at Women’s Justice Initiative in Guatemala and June Omune, Director of Learning and Impact at The Action Foundation in Nairobi, Kenya sharing ideas during a break at the grantee-led retreat in Marrakech.

When I started at WomenStrong in 2019, there was no Learning Lab, no unrestricted funding, annual reports were required, and all activities were hosted in English. Today, WomenStrong provides unrestricted funding to 19 partner organizations all over the world. We have adopted a Language Justice Policy, and we do not require reporting from grantees. Being part of an organization that has consistently transformed itself based on partner feedback, has, to me, demonstrated the true embodiment of trust-based philanthropy. While there will always be steps we can take toward equity, the first will always be to listen to and trust your grantees. For us, by trusting our grantees and putting them in charge of shaping and leading their peer learning, we have unlocked a wellspring of creativity, connection, and collective power. The Learning Lab Retreat in Marrakech demonstrated the transformational power of relationships among our grantee partners and WomenStrong staff to improve the daily lives of women and girls in our partners’ communities around the world. It emphasized the importance of trust, shared leadership, and the value of WomenStrong’s unique approach to creating lasting change. This retreat was not just an event; it was a milestone on our journey toward a more equitable and empowered world for women and girls.

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