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Reproductive Health Funding Remains “Shackled” as Abortion Rights Are Decimated

During a critical election year, sexual and reproductive health, rights, and justice organizations risk losing funding.

People gather to rally on broad access to the abortion pill outside the U.S. Supreme Court as justices hear oral arguments in a bid by President Joe Biden's administration to preserve broad access to abortion pill in Washington D.C., on March 26, 2024.

In the months before and following the Supreme Court’s 2022 decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization that struck down the constitutional right to abortion, nonprofits that had long worked to advocate for sexual and reproductive health and rights found themselves fighting anti-abortion legislation at unprecedented levels.

Since 2022, the legal advocacy organization the Center for Reproductive Rights has filed lawsuits in multiple states on behalf of women who were denied medically necessary abortion care. In 2022, several organizations, including The Afiya Center and the Lilith Fund for Reproductive Equity, filed a federal class action lawsuit in Texas to protect the ability to help people access abortion out of state. In 2023, the state of Texas and an anonymous plaintiff sued Planned Parenthood over allegations that the organization’s affiliates defrauded the state’s Medicaid system. Also last year, Planned Parenthood Great Northwest filed a federal lawsuit against Idaho Attorney General Raúl Labrador’s office following a legal opinion issued in March 2023 that said medical professionals in Idaho could be subject to criminal penalties if they referred patients across state lines for abortion care.

But many nonprofits are unable to file lawsuits against politically motivated anti-choice legislation — even as the court system threatens their work. Nonprofits are bound by restrictions imposed by specific funders, including agencies associated with the United Nations or the U.S. government, such as the United States Agency for International Development. This is also true of funding from philanthropic organizations, like the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, which dictate how organizations use the money they receive. Additionally, anti-lobbying clauses and timebound and project-specific funding restrict the actions of sexual and reproductive health, rights, and justice organizations.

While this has always been the case, the upcoming presidential election, coupled with a continual uptick in abortion bans and restrictions, has left many nonprofits feeling “shackled” and unable to advocate for their work, according to employees who spoke to Prism.

Restrictions Abound

Following the Dobbs decision, the need for reproductive health organizations to enter the legislative space changed, said Fadekemi Akinfaderin, lead of global advocacy for change at Fòs Feminista. Formerly the International Planned Parenthood Federation Western Hemisphere Region, Fòs Feminista is an international alliance that provides reproductive health services.

“Take the shackles off funding — and that includes flexibility, removing certifications [and] lobbying clauses — so that the resourcing is truly transformative and can help us to get to the goal that we want,” she said.

Abortion is a key issue in the 2024 presidential election. Not only is abortion on the ballot in multiple states, but recent polls show that abortion is the single most important topic to suburban women voters in critical swing states. According to nonprofit leaders whose funding hinders them from participating in “electioneering” or engaging in partisan politics, they are at an unfair disadvantage during a critical election year that will have severe ramifications for their work.

“We know that we cannot sit on the sidelines in terms of issues related to policy and lawmaking. We know we can’t sit on the sidelines when it comes to elections,” Akinfaderin said.

But the funding received by sexual and reproductive health, rights, and justice nonprofits determines how much they can be involved.

Federal grants, cooperative agreements, contracts, and loans come with strict rules that mean the funding cannot be used to influence government workers or those in Congress. The organizations — categorized as tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organizations — that receive them may only conduct limited lobbying or advocacy that attempts to influence legislation.

However, many funders stipulate that their donated funds cannot be used for lobbying activities, fearing that doing so would jeopardize their tax-exempt status.

This is like “asking a nonprofit organization to have policy successes with one hand and arm tied behind their back,” said Christine Harley, the president and CEO of SIECUS: Sex Ed for Social Change.

“In some instances, folks have been more conservative around what’s advocacy, what’s lobbying,” said Sona Smith, the birth justice program officer for Ms. Foundation for Women, which distributed $5 million to more than 150 organizations working on birth justice in 2022.

“Some folks will consider [lobbying] to be community organizing only; that’s the advocacy,” said Yas Jibril, deputy director of organizational learning and practice at the National Network of Abortion Funds (NNAF), a network of 100 independent abortion funds that provide grants to individuals for abortion access. “Other folks think it’s policy and legislative change, specifically. Those two are definitely in a relationship and conversation with each other, but they can also be separate strategies.”

The Ford Foundation, one of the largest funders of sexual and reproductive health, rights, and justice work in the U.S., “supports approaches that defend and advance bodily autonomy, safeguard and expand abortion access, and strengthen community-based approaches to reproductive health care.” According to Silvia Henriquez, the Ford Foundation program officer for gender, racial, and ethnic justice, this funding cannot be earmarked for political or lobbying activity. But she said there are related areas that the foundation is able to directly support, “such as advocacy around issues that may or may not be the subject of legislation, non-partisan analysis on legislation, and nonpartisan voter engagement and education.”

Ms. Foundation enforces no restrictions in this regard—as long as it adheres to Internal Revenue Service guidelines, Smith said. The Ms. Foundation offers political education to partners on the distinction between direct legislative lobbying and advocacy.

“There is a lot of fear about what especially this year holds, and we’re in an election year. I think right now, organizations need to be fortified and strengthened before we even get there,” Smith said.

In the immediate aftermath of Dobbs, many organizations were inundated with donations, allowing them some breathing room and flexibility away from foundation funding. However, in the two years since, that “rage giving” has tapered off, according to Cerita Burrell, the director of programs at the Texas-based reproductive justice organization The Afiya Center.

At the same time, the need for funds has only grown. According to NNAF data, in the year following the Dobbs decision, there was a 39% increase in requests for support to access abortion. Meanwhile, abortion support groups that have called for a ceasefire in Palestine have faced pushback. Many more have chosen to remain silent for fear of losing their funding.

In contrast, organizations in the anti-abortion movement are better funded, receiving far more money from private donors — funds that are less likely to come with restrictions, allowing anti-choice organizations to lobby in the legislative space.

Outside of lobbying clauses, there are other restrictions that limit sexual and reproductive health, rights, and justice organizations’ ability to support their work and community needs. A big part of the problem is how confined foundation funding is. There are few opportunities for general operating grants, or funding that isn’t time limited or tied to a single project.

“The reality is that, in terms of resourcing, we are not necessarily provided with adequate long-term and flexible funding,” said Akinfaderin. Working to uphold human rights and ensure people have access to the abortion care and contraception they need is about social change — and this work requires more than the typical two-year project donors like to fund, she explained.

“Imagine a situation where you want to do work around decriminalization of abortion. There is no way you’re going to be able to deliver that in a one-year project or even a two-year project. You really need to be able to get a donor that is willing to invest. This is like a 10- or 20-year project,” Akinfaderin said.

The Ford Foundation gives general operating, multi-year support, Henriquez said. But this is unusual, and very few new funders are willing to enter into a long-term commitment. According to Anu Kumar, president and CEO of Ipas, a nonprofit working to advance reproductive justice by expanding access to abortion and contraception, almost every funder imposes a restriction either by project, geography, or time.

“It is the rare donor that makes unrestricted grants to organizations,” Kumar said, adding that funding up to three years would be considered “generous.” Even through organizations that provide more expansive support, similar funding timelines exist. Smith said that the Ms. Foundation’s birth justice grants typically range from one to two years, with the option to renew.

Short Term vs. Long Term

According to Akinfaderin, funders’ reluctance to provide support beyond a year is because donors don’t like uncertainty — and what is more uncertain than social change?

Elizabeth Arndorfer, the director of reproductive health at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, told Prism that part of the reluctance to grant individual organizations larger amounts of money is because it reduces the overall number of organizations a foundation can support.

“Given the current environment, that is difficult to do — the needs are great everywhere,” Arndorfer said, adding that another challenge is that the foundation operates its grantmaking budgets annually. “We are trying to make progress in this area by using tools such as pay-out-based budgeting.”

Rather than fund broad work, Harley said donors also prefer to fund one aspect of sexual and reproductive health, rights, and justice: sexual health education, for example, or perhaps maternal care, contraception access, or abortion access. And since the Dobbs decision, Harley said many foundations are making strategic shifts to prioritize abortion care to the detriment of other issues.

“We have programs that we know are teaching young people the information that they need to actually be able to make the best decisions for themselves in terms of their reproductive health care that private foundations are now moving away from supporting,” Harley explained. “Foundations need to have a clear upstream assessment of the [sexual and reproductive health and rights] and freedom landscape, and think more broadly about the types of solutions that over the short term and long term will protect our sexual and reproductive rights and freedom to the best of our ability.”

What would be more supportive, said Burrell, is the funding of general operations rather than projects. “Trust us to navigate the funding in a way that is not only best for the organization, but best in delivering the resources and the programming that our communities need,” she said.

Smith told Prism that she believes many foundations are moving toward “trust-based philanthropy,” which is more of a partnership model among funders, nonprofits, and communities that takes into account the unique needs and capacities of all stakeholders.

A report for the Ms. Foundation, titled “Living With Pocket Change: What It Means To Do More With Less,” outlined the need for trust-based philanthropy to combat the scarcity that many nonprofit leaders have been forced to contend with — especially women and nonbinary leaders of color.

According to the report, these leaders are tasked with fighting for short- and long-term goals in tandem; called on to hold space for grief, trauma, and despair while also uplifting hope, courage, and vision; and must navigate “the scarcity created by economic, racial, and gender inequality while tapping into an abundance mentality to demand what we need.”

According to Smith, there is a great deal of “internal organizing” currently happening within philanthropy.

“[It’s] coming from program officers and people like me who come from lived experience, who come from movement spaces, who may not be in decision-making roles within their foundation, but can create innovative ways to fund projects that their foundation may not have otherwise funded,” Smith said.

Ultimately, grantees want to cultivate positive relationships with foundation donors rather than have them “give them money and leave them alone,” according to “Pocket Change.” “They want to be able to be authentic and open about their needs and experiences without fear of losing support.”

Already, progress is being made. The Packard Foundation has increased funding for general operating support as well as project support and capacity strengthening, according to Arndorfer. Henriquez said that the Ford Foundation mostly gives general operating, multi-year support for work about gender equality across the spectrum, including abortion access and access to health care for trans people. The Ford Foundation program officer said this political moment is an opportunity for funders who work on issues of civic engagement and democracy to center bodily autonomy as a core pillar and indicator of a strong democracy.

“This means investing in groups with a long track record on advocating and organizing around reproductive justice and broader gender justice issues,” Henriquez said.

It appears as if donors are starting to listen. Burrell said feedback is moving up the chain at foundations, and it’s shaping funding conversations.

But at a time when many abortion support organizations are experiencing a funding crisis and anti-abortion legislation continues to limit options and access to care, Burrell said “decisions are not moving as swiftly as the landscape is shifting.”

Prism is an independent and nonprofit newsroom led by journalists of color. We report from the ground up and at the intersections of injustice.

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