10 Minutes With…Red Umbrella Fund

Published: March 12, 2012

The Red Umbrella Fund (RUF) is a new global grant-making initiative designed to strengthen and ensure the sustainability of the sex worker rights movement by catalyzing new funding specifically for sex worker-led organizations and national, regional and global networks. The RUF will be governed by an International Steering Committee – comprised of seven sex workers and four donors to the Red Umbrella Fund – that will provide strategic policy and programmatic oversight. The RUF hopes to make at least US $700,000 in grants in the first year.

In the following interview, FCAA discussed this new and innovative collaborative funding model with members of RUF’s Interim Steering Committee Shari Turitz, Director of Programs, Public Health Program, Open Society Foundations (OSF); and Ruth Morgan Thomas, Global Coordinator, the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP).
Q. Can you tell us about the history and structure of the Red Umbrella Fund?
RMT: RUF came about through ongoing discussions between the staff at SHARP-OSF (the Sexual Health and Rights Project at OSF) and NSWP representatives about the difficulties that sex worker-led organizations have had in attracting funding, and the need for a fund to specifically support sex worker human rights and the development of sex worker-led organizations. Those initial conversations have carried forward into the structure of the fund, which is a partnership between donors and sex workers from various global and regional networks. The majority of the members of RUF’s governing body – the International Steering Committee (ISC) and the technical review panels – will be comprised of 51% sex workers who will bring their life experience to that process.

The remaining will be composed of some donors and others that can be useful voices in the development of this fund over time. It’s also important to note the diversity of the sex workers involved.  What we have done consistently is ensure their representation not just regionally but also across genders. We’ve included male and transgender sex workers who often get forgotten when we talk about these issues. It’s important that the diversity reflects the reality of those main groups engaging in sex work.  

ST: An ongoing challenge that we (OSF) have faced is feeling like one of the lone funders of organizations run by and for sex workers advocating for human rights. We did a report in 2006 that found that the five top funders supporting work with sex workers in 2005 contributed less than a total of one million dollars.  And much of that was support from OSF[i].  We felt a real interest and need to partner with other funders, and the sex worker community, to create a mechanism to help bring new money to the table as well as enrich our thinking and funding practices. The idea [for a formal structure] emerged during a seminar[1] in December 2008 where sex worker representatives, funders, and other advocates gathered to discuss sex work and trafficking. That was the first platform where like-minded donors, concerned about the conflation of sex work and trafficking, came together and started talking about the very difficult issues facing sex worker organization

RMT: That was the pivotal point in RUF’s “birth” – sex workers saying that whilst we recognize that trafficking is important, particularly in relation to human rights work, there are many other human rights violations that sex workers experience on a daily basis.  There was a beginning of an understanding that we need to broaden funding of sex worker organizations beyond the narrow focus of HIV, which is where many of the sex worker groups had received funding, and beyond the narrow focus on trafficking alone.

Q. What is RUF’s current status?

ST: Mama Cash (the oldest international women’s funds worldwide, and long-time funder of sex worker rights) has been identified as the administrative host of the Fund after a competitive process managed by the ISC. While Mama Cash has been a partner since the outset, their selection was based on meeting the criteria outlined by the ISC such as funding flexibility and a demonstrated experience in funding on sex work. Mama Cash has started the recruitment for a Fund coordinator to be located in their office, and who will work closely with the ISC.

Q. Can you tell us about the current donor partners and your resource mobilization plans?
ST: The RUF has been a process whereby at least 10 donors have participated in its design.  As such, as soon as Mama Cash was able to receive funds there were contributions in place from donors that had been involved from the outset. This diverse group of donors, including Global Fund for Women, Levi Strauss Foundation, Oak Foundation and Comic Relief, participated in the process that led to the launch of the RUF. Other donors including AIDS Fonds, American Jewish World Service and HIVOS actually sat on the ISC.  We’re at the beginning stages of broader donor outreach.  The future resource mobilization efforts will be very much a partnership between the ISC, the donors currently involved, and Mama Cash as the coordinating entity.
I think we’re finding that we have come upon an idea whose time has come. Donors are compelled by a fund whereby the community is intimately involved in the design, as well as the main power holder in the grant-making decisions. Finding a coalition of strong, like-minded funders is incredibly rewarding and it’s just the beginning. These partners have enriched our thinking and in turn improved our own grant making. At the same time, the RUF supports our approach globally on these issues – such as the need to address the negative consequences of the criminalization of sex work, supporting the idea that that sex work is work, and, as a general approach, supporting the initiatives of sex workers themselves to organize and design programs for their own health and rights. 

Q. What else does this collaborative approach provide funders?
ST: This can be a hard field in which to fund. To know who’s who and where the good leadership is within a population group that is often so marginalized, you have to be quite close to the ground and listening to groups to understand their needs, assets, and how as a donor you can partner with these groups.

Another opportunity is also the learning and clear communication strategies that will emerge from this initiative. We’ve already developed – with the Levi Strauss Foundation –  a document that helps funders talk to their constituents, boards, and donors about this work in a way that can convince them that their organization should engage. These are difficult questions and people come to the table with very strong, often uninformed, opinions.  So we hope part of our future coordinated advocacy and communications efforts will be focused on helping funders to understand the nuances of this work.
Also frankly, the field of sexual rights is quite divided and political. Being part of a group of funders speaking with a unified voice can be a safe haven for donors interested in exploring how to best support the human rights of sex workers. Many may find it difficult to access good information about sex worker rights, and only hear the perspective of  those who support a criminal or punitive approach to sex work.
Q. Advocacy and building linkages will be an important aspect of RUF’s programmatic work. What new leverage will donors bring to this work?
RMT: Building the relationships and engaging in collaborative advocacy with donors will strengthen the voice of sex workers.  It’s quite easy for policy makers to dismiss a small global or regional network of sex workers. But, when human rights, sexual health and women’s rights donors come together and join us in saying let’s start recognizing sex workers rights are human rights, and that sex work is work, it adds a great strength to the voice of sex workers. Working together amplifies their voices greatly.

ST: From a funder’s perspective, we do our best work when we are sure that we are responding to the most pressing needs identified by the groups we want to support. In this case, the sex worker organizations are committing through this process to help guide us in identifying the most pressing advocacy opportunities that arise for the sex work community over the next several years. As a funder, the initiative also offers a strong platform to connect other advocacy efforts. For example, at OSF, that includes work on the public health issue of police confiscating condoms to use as evidence of sex work. Clearly, this practice has a detrimental effect on sex workers’ ability to protect themselves against HIV infection and other health risks.  OSF will highlight this important advocacy work at the International AIDS Conference (AIDS2012). 

Q. Can you describe the four types of grants that you will prioritize for sex worker-led organizations and initiatives?
RMT: The basis of the four grant streams came directly from the feedback of the sex worker representatives that sat on the Interim Steering Committee – the experiences they’ve had on the ground, and the real challenges for sex workers to organize, and for their organizations to be sustainable.

The challenge we heard most often, from every region, was that sex worker organizations find it very difficult to access start-up funds, which then limits their ability to apply for funding from donors who require a registered group. So we wanted to be able to offer a start-up fund for small groups of sex workers trying to become legal entities. The second is that, although there are often project or activity funds out there that you can apply for, they don’t include sufficient funding or an overhead percentage to sustain the infrastructure that all organization need.  What we specifically identified was for the need for groups to have multi-year, core funding to help them build their infrastructures and create sustainable organizations.
The next area we identified is that you can often go to a funder to request technical support, but that quite often means an external consultant coming in and providing advice.  One of the things we know across the global network is that we have groups in every region that have been around for decades. We have Durbar (DMSC) in Calcutta, India that started in 1995 and is now a collective of 65,000 sex workers that runs its own cooperative bank. In Mali, Danaya So has been around for three decades now as an HIV and social support service that runs its own financial support services and clinics for sex workers. In Latin America you have groups like Davida in Rio-de-Janeiro that have been around for decades providing services to communities and doing local and national human rights based advocacy.  What we wanted was to support peer-led capacity building and exchanges to enable sex workers to invite one of the more experienced, and importantly peer-based, groups in rather than having to turn to external consultants all the time.

Last, and incredibly important, is an emergency fund to enable capacity for immediate response to incidents such as in Macedonia where sex workers were rounded up and tested and their HIV results were published with the sex workers put on public display.  This fund would allow groups to respond to those situations, get the legal advice they need, and to get someone in to help them draft briefing papers so that we can raise the profile of those incidents.

Q. Why is sustained funding for policy-related work so critical for the sex work community?
ST: Most sex work organizations only receive year-to-year funding – if they get any at all – and no core support.  Most of that funding is linked to HIV prevention activities. The point of this Fund is to enable these organizations to have the space and infrastructure so that they can more strategically, and in a more coordinated way, engage in advocacy on the issues they identify as priority, including engaging on issues around criminalization.

RMT: We are also trying to tie local groups into whatever relevant national or regional work is on going.    We can’t expect every organization on the ground to devote most of their time to policy work, but for me at the global level, without the participation of local grassroots groups on the ground, we wouldn’t be able to do the global advocacy work that we do.  It’s sort of a chicken and egg situation in terms of achieving our long-range goals of stopping the violations of sex workers rights, and looking at decriminalization of sex work, and looking at getting sex work recognized as an occupation – all of these efforts will only succeed if we have a vibrant grassroots community.   And, if we have that community engaged, we’ll be more effective in terms of advocating for the needs of sex workers, which we hope in turn, will attract more donors.

Q. What are the next steps for RUF?

ST: In terms of immediate next steps, Mama Cash will be recruiting a fund coordinator. That person, Mama Cash, and some consultants we’ve been working with, will be then putting plans in place for the launch of the first global request for proposals, as well as the RUF’s first annual convening.   Mama Cash and the ISC will also start a process for naming the program committee, which will have an even higher percentage of sex worker representation. That body will be responsible for reviewing proposals and determining where the actual funds will go. We’ll be reaching out to the funding community soon to join us in this new effort.

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