This month, I had the pleasure of speaking with Jess Tomlin, the executive director of The MATCH International Women’s Fund. This is the first in a two-part series about MATCH and their latest round of grantees.
The MATCH Fund is a grant-making organization that funds women’s rights organizations in the global south. They support projects that create lasting change by challenging perceptions, changing systems, dismantling barriers and transforming society. “Women are innovating every day,” says Jess, “but operating conditions prevent them from getting off the ground.” Women’s organizations are chronically underfunded, often working on an average annual budget of $20,000 USD.
The grants are a step towards equal gender participation, ensuring that more money and resources reach the women who are working for change.
Jess’s enthusiasm, passion for women’s rights and dedication to the work at hand is palpable. A mom with two kids, she has worked and lived internationally in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East for organizations such as the UN and the former Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), always focusing on women’s issues. However, she was quick to say that working at this small, community-based organization, where she has been at the helm for 2.5 years, is the best job she has ever had.
The MATCH Fund has come far in the past three years – from one staff member to launching Canada’s only social innovation fund for women and working in 25 countries – and their goals reflect the tenacity that allowed those changes to occur. It is their hope that in five years, they will be grant making women’s organizations everywhere. More broadly, the organization hopes to challenge the dominate narratives about women-led innovation.
The field of innovation has always considered itself to be “gender-blind.” However, this perspective has prevented attention from being paid to the ideas, innovations and inventions of talented women and girls. Speaking at TEDxElginSt, Jess said that “women’s rights organizations working in really complex humanitarian, political, economics contexts are of the greatest innovators around the world.” 
The Forefront of Innovation
MATCH believes women are at the forefront of innovating social change globally, but that the whole innovator space has a strong male-dominated gender-bias. It can be seen in the projects that are supported and the language used to talk about innovators – disruptive, independent, ambitious, and driven – that exclude many of the homegrown, nuanced, and collaborative projects that women are delivering.
Money provides leverage, helping women to break ground with new, innovative solutions and hold the ground already broken by vital women’s organizations. “True social change can’t come without sustained investment,” be that for all the organizations that MATCH funds or The MATCH Fund itself.
We come, in Canada, from a place of abundance. However, Canada has a limited dedication to supporting international women’s rights organizations. Of what Canadians give to charity, 92 percent stays in the country, 5-6 percent goes to humanitarian aid, 2 percent sustains long-term development, and a negligible amount of that 2 percent goes towards women’s organizations.
In 2014, Jess spoke about how MATCH’s “inability to fund but a fraction of the projects left [her] demoralized.” People are becoming more risk-adverse. Internationally, many countries need to be bolder in supporting charitable causes, but Canada in particular has far to go.
The rhetoric Canadians have about charity – What’s the overhead? How lean are they? – is extremely damaging to the long-term sustainability of the industry. Jess asks why we have no problem accepting multi-million dollar R&D investments by companies like Apple and Google, but yet we “aren’t we talking about investing in the greatest innovators to tackle the world’s greatest issues.” However, the growing women’s movement in Canada provides hope for change.
In all countries, anywhere in the world, the places where the women’s movement is the most vibrant is where we see the most progress.”
From attention being brought to the issue of murdered and missing indigenous women, to the sustained outrage at the Jian Ghomeshi case, to Up for Debate, an alliance of over 175 women’s organizations and their allies raising awareness about women’s rights in the lead up to the 2015 federal election, women’s rights are at an interesting moment in Canada. With this comes an opportunity to bridge the domestic and international movements, and to bring attention and support to women’s rights organizations.
Despite the lack of funding, women’s organizations are tenacious, and will continue on despite the challenges. Says Jess, “We [at MATCH] draw attention to and incubate what women’s organizations are doing with nothing. I think, ‘look at what they do!’ This is what drives me.”