Luminary: Lunch with Kavita Ramdas, CEO of Global Fund for Women

Kavita Ramdas at TED India, 2009.

Some fellow Princeton students and I recently had lunch with superstar Kavita Ramdas, CEO of the Global Fund for Women and Woodrow Wilson School graduate.  Kavita’s leadership of the Global Fund for Women is extraordinary not only because of what they do, but also because of how they do it. Kavita is out to empower women around the world, including those in her office, and she is also out to change the game of philanthropy by addressing some of the social inequities built into the system itself.

Below I’ve attempted to recap our fast-paced and wide-ranging discussion which touched upon:

  • How the Global Fund is redesigning philanthropy
  • Challenges of microfinance
  • Shortcomings of the increasing dependence on metrics
  • Ethical quandaries facing foundations
  • Redefining how to think about “scaling up” a cause or project

You will see why I loved speaking with Kavita. She certainly takes a “philanthromeme” approach and provides a great example of an organization fully applying its mission internally and externally, while also carefully weighing the positive and negative potential impact of different viral philanthropic ideas they are brokering across cultures.

(Caveat: these notes are a generalized accounting of the flow of the conversation at a lunch with a group of people, and should not necessarily be attributed as direct quotes from Ms. Ramdas unless identified with quote marks.)

QuickFacts about the Global Fund for Women:

  • GFW is a grantmaking foundation that advances human rights by investing in women-led organizations worldwide.
  • Over the past 22 years, the Global Fund has provided more than 7,000 grants totaling approximately $85 million, reaching more than 3,000 groups.
  • Since Ramdas took the reins, the fund’s assets have more than tripled — and so has the number of countries the group works in, now at 170.
  • In 2010 alone, their efforts reached 125,000 women and girls and benefited thousands more.


What does scale really mean? For example, the Nike Foundation’s model is borrowed from their business model, and they want to figure out if a good program for 300 girls in one community can reach 300,000 in multiple communities. The challenge: girls are not shoes, and with social and human development you cannot necessarily take a cookie cutter approach.

At the Global Fund, they sometimes push back against a purely mathematical model of “scaling up.” Rather than thinking of their mission and programs instead of  “taking Y to the power of X” they think of scale in terms of trying to create a ripple effect in people’s minds about what is possible. This is not always easy to measure, but true social change happens when people start to think differently about whether they can succeed at something. The women in one village may hear about an interesting program in the next village, and start to open their notion of what is possible and how to design something for their own community specific to their resources and culture. It’s as much about the number of women and girls you fund directly through your programs as it is about creating new and viral ideas that will ripple in sometimes visible and sometimes invisible ways through communities.


This conversation led us directly into a debate about the promise and perils of using metrics to measure social change. This is a hot topic in the philanthropic sector, as it fundamentally alters how foundations and philanthropists think about programs and grantees.

In the case of the Global Fund, they could just measure how many women they run through education programs.  But a the end of the day, it’s not just about the number of women they educate. It’s about something bigger. It’s about power and it’s about voice. How do you measure and increase in women in a community who feel they have voice? How do you measure an increase in self esteem in a girl who can hold her head high because of some training or accomplishment or a newfound belief in her own self worth? It is not that these things cannot be measured, but we do need better indicators for thinking about qualitative data.


As with most foundations, the design of their philanthropy stems from their thought culture. There is much to learn from organizations such as the Gates Foundation, but one must remember theirs is not the only model of philanthropic action. The Gates Foundation tends to seek solvable, measurable, technology-based solutions to social problems. This can work beautifully in some contexts, but the approach has its own challenges. For example, in addressing world hunger they give support to private multinational agri-business companies like Monsanto and Cargill to develop genetically modified disease/drout resistant seeds or explore the introduction of soy in Africa. The hope is that this will increase crop yield and decrease hunger.

But what if people aren’t hungry because there isn’t enough global food yield? What if people are hungry because of unequal, unjust, and unfair economic distribution systems? How does it improve the lot of the poor if private businesses angle to own goods which should belong to the commons (like Monsanto’s patent on the wheat used to make chapati, which Indian farmers have been growing, crossbreeding and producing for thousands of years)?

“In the end it’s not about philanthropy, it’s about an unjust political economy.”

While there is nothing inherently wrong with tapping into the brainpower of private companies with good ideas for new ways to provide essential services to the poor, grantmakers must be exceedingly thoughtful about the possible ethical conflicts which arise when supporting such companies.


Microfinance has received a lot of attention lately, but Kavita encouraged us to remember that it is just one of many necessary strategies. She noted, “Dr. Yunus himself will tell you that microfinance works for extreme poverty alleviation, but it doesn’t effectively eradicate poverty.” The most successful microfinance programs overall go beyond being a better money lender, and also address some of the systemic issues in the communities like oppression and lack of education and access to healthcare, etc. Yes, it’s complex.

“Human development is messy — it has sex and death and blood and disease and cultural practice — it is messy.”

There are not always magically efficient, antiseptic technological, scientific or economic solutions to human problems. Kavita’s reminder challenges those in philanthropy and development to expand our ability to comprehend these complexities and work gracefully and humbly with intercultural human messiness.


Global Fund for Women addresses inequity in the world and in their own offices.

  • Governance: 2/3 of their board is comprised of women from the communities in which they run programs
  • Bearing the Burden of Access: In order to lower the bar for entry, Global Fund accepts grant proposals in various formats and in any language. GF bears the full costs of translation as a part of their mission.
  • Shared leadership: Internally they ensure that inputs on projects are received from all levels of the organization — from senior project managers to new office assistants. It takes more time to run an organization this way, but the Fund isn’t interested in simply extracting the most efficient labor from their employees — they also care about fostering them as thinkers and as human beings.

“Make your processes reflect the values you say you hold.”

If we’re going to think of philanthropy as a design problem designed to solve human problems, we need to hold onto such reminders and keep them front and center as we do our work. As Martin Luther King Jr. noted,

“Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.”
Organizations and Luminaries mentioned during lunch:

One response to “Luminary: Lunch with Kavita Ramdas, CEO of Global Fund for Women

  1. First, let me say: Kudos for putting this new blog out here. All of it to date has been top quality; this last post in particular is provocative and inspirational. Your site contains some of the most compelling thinking that’s being developed around these issues.

    Now I’m going to hold forth for a minute about the Great Metrics Debate, and the current paradigm within which it’s being carried out:

    “How do you measure an increase in women in a community who feel they have voice? How do you measure an increase in self esteem in a girl who can hold her head high because of some training or accomplishment or a new found belief in her own self worth? IT IS NOT THAT THESE THINGS CANNOT BE MEASURED…”

    These things cannot be measured. Not in any meaningful way.

    Within the current metrics paradigm, about the best that can be done in situations like the ones you describe is to develop particular measures to satisfy the particular requirements of a particular Group-That-Is-Seeking-Measures. This allows that group to 1) justify it’s outlay, and 2) satisfy the imperative it feels to legitimize said outlay with a metric. These two items could also be called 1) cover its ass, and 2) cover the paradigm’s ass. While going this route (of developing measures designed to give ’em what they’re looking for) is do-able, it’s an arduous task, and usually non-transferable to other groups. Usually non-scalable, too.

    The Metrics Debate is raging across many fields in the applied social sciences. As such, it is susceptible to–and ripe for–a large scale, substantial viral transformation (the “Social Sciences” is itself a conceptual framework in need of viral transformation). Currently, even the most sophisticated debates about metrics tend to boil down to deconstructionist considerations about what “objective measures” are and aren’t good for, what they do and don’t reveal, what they do and don’t conceal, etc etc etc. These compromise positions rarely challenge the basic reality we’re granting to the construct of metrics in the first place, so the debate remains mired in meek, conservative thinking.

    I suspect that in any of the fields which are currently engaged in The Metrics Debate, the next viral idea to gain ascension will contain within it a radical mutation of the “metrics” meme itself; it will radically re-vision the value, purpose, and meaning of metrics. The question is: who among the various practitioners of these disciplines will have the real-world balls and the skill to wage a sustained, compelling campaign against the taken-for-granted utility of metrics as currently conceived? I wonder if Ramdas will step into the gap. Or if Lord will.

    Whether in philanthropy, applied economics, applied psychology, or what-have-you, the next evolutionary phase change will include a dissolving of the current, inadequate conceptual boundaries which frame the debate around metrics. The framework as it stands will need to be replaced with one far more suited to addressing the new kinds of questions you’re raising in philanthropy–it will need a re-visioning and a re-enacting of “metrics” that is far more aligned with the direction in which your work is pointing.

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