Restructured UU Women's Federation turns to grant giving

Restructured UU Women's Federation turns to grant giving

UUWF now funds women's social justice projects instead of providing direct services to congregations.


In 2004, the Unitarian Universalist Women’s Federation—motivated by a declining membership but inspired by a long history of service to UU congregations—made a dramatic change.

The federation, once focused on direct service to congregations, transformed itself into a grant-giving organization that helps congregations and other UU-related groups help others.

The change, said Ellen Spencer, UUWF executive administrator and staff member since 1977, followed a 2003 survey that revealed that while women were busier than ever and might not have as much time for “direct service,” they were willing to support a social justice advocacy mission for the organization and would contribute financially to this work.

The “new” UUWF now provides financial support—through grants—to projects dealing with women’s social justice and gender equity issues. The first round of grants was made in January 2006.

The restructured organization made a pilot grant of $4,000 in 2005 to Spiritual Youth for Reproductive Freedom, a part of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, a group that UUWF cofounded with the UUA and a number of other denominations.

The first substantial round of grants was made earlier this year with $5,000 going to the Carbondale, Ill., Unitarian Fellowship in support of a handicrafts workshop that employs women with AIDS in Zambia; $2,500 to the Church of the Larger Fellowship’s women’s prison ministry; $2,500 to the Florida Migrant Interstate Program and the UU Church of Fort Myers, Fla., for public service announcements to help migrant women avoid becoming victims of human trafficking; and $5,000 to republish the UUA’s groundbreaking feminist theology curriculum Cakes for the Queen of Heaven. The Rev. Dr. Shirley Ann Ranck, author of Cakes, was also given the Ministry to Women award of $1,000.

“We decided that when we made the grants, we wanted to do it in significant amounts,” said Spencer. “The research showed that our stakeholders preferred to fund fewer projects with larger amounts.”

Carla Feldhamer is a coordinator of the Africa AIDS project funded by the UUWF. She said the grant of $5,000 helped build a workshop where a group of African women meets daily to make crafts which they sell to support themselves, relatives, and others with AIDS. The workshop was completed in June. “This is making a tremendous difference in the lives of these women,” said Feldhamer, who has visited the workshop. “So many times these groups don’t get the funding they need. The women at UUWF were so supportive and encouraging and they’ve given us wonderfully positive feedback. This project wouldn’t have happened without them.”

Spencer said the UUWF grants are based partly on the hope that UU groups that receive funding will collaborate with non-UU groups, thereby helping to spread knowledge about Unitarian Universalism and helping UU groups become more aware of other groups that support their interests.

“We’re changing from an organization a woman or man joins in the expectation of doing direct service, to one they will support because it supports important social justice work,” said Spencer. She compared the UUWF to the UU Service Committee. “People don’t join it to necessarily do work for it, but they join because they support how it uses its dollars to do good work in the world.”

Spencer said the UUWF once had 8,000 to 10,000 members and now has 3,500.

“We’re very actively working on our visibility and increasing our membership,” she said. “We’d like to develop a network of active supporters across North America who could promote our justice programs in their own congregations. We want them to tell people that we have grant money available so that people will come to us with their projects.”

The UUWF has also founded an annual internship devoted to women’s issues at the UUA Washington Office for Advocacy. Meredith Schonfeld-Hicks is the second intern to hold the UUWF Clara Barton Internship. The internship, which began in 2003, was partially funded by the sale of some Massachusetts property formerly owned by UUWF.

The federation’s transformation started when UUWF President Linda McAffrey commissioned a task force in January 2003 to study the organization’s history and structure and to envision possible changes. The task force presented its findings at the 2004 General Assembly in Long Beach, Calif., and UUWF members approved the bylaw changes that would support the organization’s new structure.

Many of the services that UUWF used to provide directly to congregations, such as leadership training, are widely available elsewhere, Spencer said. Women also have less discretionary time to commit to a cause but still want to make some contribution, she said. By financially supporting UUWF, they can support a number of projects dealing with women’s social justice issues.

UUWF has a long history stretching back to the nineteenth century with two main roots: the Association of Universalist Women, founded in 1869, and the Alliance of Unitarian Women, founded in 1890. When the Universalist Church of America and the American Unitarian Association merged in 1961, a new organization was formed in 1963 called the Unitarian Universalist Women’s Federation.

The UUWF and its leaders were instrumental in promoting feminism within the UUA. In the 1970s and ’80s they helped the UUA remove sexist language from its bylaws and Principles.

The UUWF continues to promote feminist theology. Its annual Margaret Fuller Award is given for projects in UU “religious feminisms.” This year’s winners include Dr. M’ellen Kennedy, who received $3,000 to create a small group ministry program to introduce people to feminist theologies; Lisa Paul Steifeld, who also got $3,000 to research the Greek concept of sacred marriage, hieros gamos; and the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual, which was given $2,000 to develop liturgical and ritual resources for women with breast cancer.

One of three “associate organizations” of the UUA, the Women’s Federation sponsors programs special importance to women at the UUA’s annual General Assembly. This past year Dr. Azza Karam, senior policy research advisor at the UN Development Program in the Regional Bureau for Arab States, was a featured speaker.

With its new grant-making program a reality, one of UUWF’s main priorities now is fundraising. Spencer said that the organization has created the UUWF National Development Council to help the board with fundraising efforts.

“My dream is that when UU women and other women think about contributing money to women’s social justice issues,” said Nancy Van Dyke, UUWF president and longtime member, “that they think about contributing to UUWF.”

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