Feminist Leadership in a Pandemic

Surina Khan
9 min readMay 27, 2020

A Case Study in Adapting Organizational Policies, Practices and Programs in the Time of COVID

Women’s Foundation California Staff and Board on the now ubiquitous Zoom call.

In every crisis there is opportunity — to adapt, learn, redesign, and restructure towards a better, more sustainable world that centers wellness. At the Women’s Foundation California, our team acted boldly and swiftly to proactively support our staff and community partners as the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changed life as we knew it.

On March 5th I was in Sacramento at an event to celebrate International Women’s History Month at the California Governor’s Mansion. I was invited by First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom who encouraged me to bring five young women from our Women’s Policy Institute Network. We were greeted by Governor Gavin Newsom and First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom who moderated a panel with Mayors London Breed and Libby Schaff and Assemblymember Monique Limon. About 80 of us crowded into the parlor rooms of the Mansion’s first floor. We served ourselves from a buffet lunch made by a local woman chef and sat shoulder to shoulder as we ate together and celebrated the power of women. It was an inspiring and uplifting afternoon, even as coronavirus was on everyone’s mind. I happened to be sitting next to the Governor’s Chief of Staff, Ann O’Leary, who said she would be taking her lunch to go so that they could get back to the office and figure out their strategy for the pandemic.

Later that afternoon, I took the train back to San Francisco. The next day, on Friday March 6, I took BART to our Women’s Foundation California office in Oakland, as I did on most days, and at the end of the day I took BART home, expecting to return to the office the following week. But things were changing rapidly — just two days later, on Sunday March 8th, I sent the staff an email letting them know they should work from home until further notice. It was not lost on me that March 8th was International Women’s History Day. Since then, we’ve adapted our practices and policies to support our staff so we can in turn, support our community partners, consistently drawing on our feminist principles and values.

In terms of our team, we knew we were no longer conducting “business as usual” so we began asking ourselves, what does conducting business as unusual look like?

We put in place a number of changes in the first couple of weeks to promote wellness for our team:

  1. We went to a 4-day work week, working Monday through Thursday. We retained a flexible schedule and let staff know that this did not mean they would need to work longer hours on the days they were working, and in fact it might mean working fewer hours given childcare, eldercare, and distance learning responsibilities. Prior to COVID-19 we were a flexible workplace, and we retained that flexibility while structuring in an additional day to be with family or process how the world is changing. We circulated case studies and news articles that show that a 4-day work week increases productivity and work/life balance. This shift inspired other to follow our lead including the Pride Foundation, Funders for LGBTQ Issues, Funders for Reproductive Equity, the New York Women’s Foundation, California Latinas for Reproductive Justice among others.
  2. We lifted caps on sick time and vacation accrual letting staff know that if they did get sick, they could take all the time they needed to get well and while we encourage people to take time off, we recognized that we can’t actually go anywhere for vacation so we lifted vacation accrual caps.
  3. We increased our technology benefits from $50 to $100 month, recognizing that staff may incur increased costs working from home, like utilities.
  4. We switched our opt-in fitness reimbursement to an opt-out wellness benefit. Our previous policy was a $50 fitness reimbursement for a gym membership that required us to submit a monthly receipt. We revised that policy so that staff would receive $75 a month in their paycheck which they can use in any way — for physical or mental wellness without any requirement to submit a receipt.
  5. We moved our monthly staff meeting to weekly staff check-ins on Zoom, and within a few weeks started using the breakout functions to connect in smaller groups, and the polling functions to ask questions and solicit feedback to inform how and when we might come back together. Even as California begins to open up, we reassured staff that their health and safety was paramount and that we should expect to work from home for the rest of 2020.
  6. We opened up our monthly Board Executive Committee meeting to all Board members and staff as optional. The staff was wondering how the Board was being kept informed and the Board wanted to know how the staff was doing. In keeping with asking ourselves, “How do we do business as unusual?” we decided to open up the Board Executive Committee Meeting, which has been a wonderful opportunity to deepen relationships amongst the Board and staff. We are connected in an authentic way through sharing recipes on a Slack #food channel, holding optional happy hours, or “water cooler” conversations on Zoom and Slack.
  7. We’re centering reflection and learning by asking ourselves: of the practices and policies we have put into place, what do we want to carry into the future? We’ve learned that we all want to retain the 4-day work week, the weekly staff check-ins, elements of online trainings and gatherings, and sustain our trust-based, streamlined grantmaking process.
  8. We’re practicing kindness and mutual support grounded in compassion and generosity. We’ve been sending our staff monthly care packages as a way to appreciate them while supporting women of color-owned small businesses as well as our grant partners and other community-based organizations. Since March we’ve sent staff masks from Bay Area Border Relief and Masks for the Movement, hand sanitizer and a gratitude box containing at home spa goodies from our grant partner, FreeFrom which supports survivors of interpersonal violence.

We’ve learned that working a 4-day workweek has increased productivity, creativity, strengthened our organizational culture, and brought us more joy. In addition, this shift has promoted work/life balance and wellness, and increased our commitment and capacity to proactively support our partners and adapt our programs to online learning and community building. Though we might be working a shorter work week, our output has been inspiring:

  1. That first week we began working from home, we immediately augmented existing general support grants to our core grant partners to help them offset the immediate impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic including loss of fundraising revenue and adapting to working from home in the cases where they didn’t have laptops or Zoom accounts. We see this flexible trust-based funding, with no application and reporting process, as the best way to support our partners who are on the frontlines supporting our most vulnerable communities. These first round of grants became the genesis of our Relief and Resilience Fund as a way to resource racial, economic, and gender justice organizations who will be responding to the pandemic in the short and long-term as we move from relief and resilience to redesign and restructure.
  2. Amidst the challenges of COVID 19 we saw an opportunity to accelerate a number of changes to our grantmaking process at Women’s Foundation California that brought our investment strategy into closer alignment with our values. Our Director of Community Investment Huong Nguyen- Yap wrote about the core changes to our grantmaking work which can roughly be slotted in the following four categories (1) Ask for What’s Needed, Leave the Rest, (2) Trust the Experts, (3) Stay Curious + Connected, and (4) Expedite.
  3. It quickly became clear that the health and economic impact of the pandemic is primarily affecting women and girls of color. Two-thirds of California women are minimum wage workers, part-time workers or tipped workers primarily in service and retail industries who are losing jobs at a rapid pace. One in three jobs held by women are “essential.” Women are the majority of our grocery workers. Almost 80% of healthcare workers are women. Household management, homeschooling, cleaning, and cooking responsibilities are disproportionately held by women. Meanwhile we began hearing reports that interpersonal and domestic violence was surging in California counties by 40–80% and we realized that not everyone is safer at home.
  4. Because our Relief and Resilience Fund was up and running early in the pandemic and our infrastructure that enabled us to be proactively supportive, we formed a deeper partnership with our longtime partner, Blue Shield of California Foundation. This partnership allowed us to distribute $1.4M to every domestic violence shelter organization in California. Our current goal for the Relief and Resilience Fund is $5M. We continue to welcome additional partners including the Levi Strauss Foundation, the Stuart Foundation, and many individual donors. We requested minimal information from grant partners, and wired funds to 130 domestic violence organizations across California. In total, since the beginning of March, our team has made 160 grants, which is more than we have done in any given year since our founding in 1979.
  5. We adapted to new circumstances by redesigning our programs to be delivered online. Through our Women’s Policy Institute and Funders Policy Institute we continue to train and connect hundreds of community leaders and philanthropists through an online curriculum training.
  6. We redesigned California Women Rising Summit, a partnership with the Office of the First Partner and Governor and The California Endowment. Originally scheduled for June 6, in Los Angeles, we are now redesigning the Summit to be a series of online conversations starting in September 2020 and culminating in March 2021 to celebrate Women’s History Month. We’ll use the California Women Rising: Partnership, Power, Transformation platform to develop a Feminist Agenda for a post-COVID California.
  7. We are holding online gatherings to bring our communities together. These include a Leading from the Heart series, which convenes our California Women Rising Advisory Committee, our Grant Partners and Women’s Policy Institute (WPI) Network to build community and learn about wellness strategies. Another online series: Feminist Leadership in a Pandemic brings together our donor community, our grant partners and WPI Network to hear from each other and share what we are learning and how we are responding to the moment.
  8. Through our Culture Change Fund, we are partnering with artists, culture change strategists and funders to leverage culture as a strategy to inspire civic engagement, defend democracy and advance racial, economic, and gender justice
  9. Since we knew our team would not be traveling, through a longstanding partnership with Southwest Airlines, we made travel vouchers available to our grant partners and WPI Network, in case they had family members or others who they needed to be reunited with to shelter in place.
  10. We began sharing our favorite home pastimes that are bringing our team comfort and connection including a quarantine recipe round-up because we learned our team was taking to the kitchen — not just to feed ourselves but also to provide homeschool chemistry lessons. We created a list of what we’re watching, listening to and reading as a way of sharing the things that are keeping us grounded and inspired.
  11. We continue generating creative ideas and started an online shop where we are making masks available. Donations allow us to send masks to our community partners and to our supporters — 100% of the money we raise from our masks will go directly to our COVID-19 Relief and Resilience Fund. We also created fun Zoom backgrounds and made them available for download.
  12. We shared our learnings and model and have been featured in Forbes, Ms. Magazine, Inside Philanthropy, and several webinars.

We know that there is no going back to normal. If we have learned anything it is that the coronavirus pandemic is shining a light on all that is wrong with our state, our country, and the world. The systemic barriers and inequities that were already there have only become more pronounced. Women are at the center of this impact as essential healthcare, grocery, and care workers. Women bear the brunt of the economic impact of coronavirus as they are the majority of restaurant, retail, hotel and service workers who have lost their jobs and are struggling to feed their families and stay housed.

Our response of adapting our practices to support our team and our partners has affirmed that our approach must be rooted in trust and center gender equity. We trust our community partners and want them to remain focused on their work, not in the bureaucracies of applying for and reporting on funding. Similarly, we have trust in our staff and take a trust-based approach to management, allowing staff to take care for themselves and their loved ones. We are confident that we will all follow-through on our commitments because our organizational culture reinforces that we are all rowing in the same direction, guided by the same north star of justice.

This piece was updated on July 19th, 2021 to reflect changes to our grantmaking processes at Women’s Foundation California.



Surina Khan

is the CEO of Women’s Foundation California, which invests in, trains, and connects feminists advancing racial, economic, and gender justice.