How We Helped the

World’s Leading Philanthropists Give $3 Million to Hard-to-Reach Grantees

In 2017, a group of leading philanthropic institutions came to us because they wanted to support the efforts of community-based organizations to end child marriage around the world. They recognized that community-based organizations (CBOs) have in-depth knowledge of the contexts where child marriage occurs and can be powerful local agents of change by helping to address the root causes that lead to child marriage. Yet, these organizations are often overlooked and underfunded. The partners’ goal was to mobilize new funding to CBOs, particularly to those organizations that are historically underfunded, led by women and girls, and serve the most hard-to-reach populations.

With our track record of establishing and running several successful philanthropic funds—in addition to our expertise in finding and working with CBOs—the partners chose us to help them launch this ambitious initiative, called the Girls First Fund.

The partners chose to focus on learning in the 2019-2020 granting cycle to allow the fund to gather feedback and insight across various geographies and contexts. Serving as the program manager, we are collaborating with girls, grantees, local stakeholders, and the fund’s board to accelerate its grantmaking and co-create a multi-year strategy. This approach enables the fund to test grantmaking criteria, structures, and processes that will shape the fund’s long-term plans.

We are piloting grantmaking in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Dominican Republic, India, Nepal, Niger, and Uganda. The fund deliberately chose countries with high prevalence and absolute numbers of married children that also represent different regions of the world, cultures, religions, and levels of progress toward addressing child marriage so that it can learn and evolve our grantmaking.

The Girls First Fund’s 2019-2020 Grantee Partners

After months of reviewing the nearly 1,400 applications that were submitted to the Girls First Fund, the fund will distribute grants, ranging in size from $5,000-$50,000 to 150 organizations—over 90% of which are led by women—for a total of about $3 million. Many of these grants will be core support grants.

To address the issue of early unions and child marriage, we sought to tackle many of the underlying and associated issues. Therefore, grantees are implementing a variety of locally-relevant strategies to affect child marriage and its drivers, including:


  1. Advancing girls rights and girls’ leadership through a wide range of programs that work directly with girls by investing in them, their participation, and their wellbeing.
  2. Mobilizing families, communities, and influencers to change attitudes, behaviors, and norms related to child marriage. In some communities this will include gender transformative approaches that engage boys and men as well as mothers and influential women in the community, to transform cultural norms, promote gender equality, and end child marriage and early unions.
  3. Providing direct services to at-risk, married, and formerly married girls so they can have access to quality resources, education, information, and services across sectors; these services reinforce one another and are tailored to the specific needs of their beneficiaries. The fund is particularly interested in education and sexual and reproductive health services, including abortion rights (where legal) and post-abortion care.
  4. Advocating for effective laws and policies to ensure a robust legal and policy framework for preventing child marriage is established and effectively enforced.


How the Girls First Fund Found Promising Grassroots Organizations

With the goal of finding and supporting the best grassroots organizations and women and girl-led groups, we wanted to create an application process that reached a wide variety of organizations and had as few barriers as possible.

We created an application that was easy to read and available in five languages, since we didn’t want varying levels of literacy and English proficiency to be a deterrent. Applicants submitted their information through an online portal, over email, and through a WhatsApp channel, and in some cases applicants even provided handwritten applications. A Girls First Fund program advisor in each country served as a local resource, helping to answer applicant questions and providing necessary support throughout the application process.

We also got creative in how we disseminated the application. In addition to using the Girls First Fund’s email distribution list and Geneva Global’s own social media channels and contacts, our program advisors made country-specific announcements through newspaper and radio ads, social media, forums and speaking events, and spread the word through networks and contacts.

We received nearly 1,400 applications, which far exceeded our expectations. From there, we whittled the applications down by shortlisting those who demonstrated their commitment to addressing the key drivers of child marriage and keeping girls at the center of their work, whether through program planning and implementation, decision-making, or monitoring and evaluation, among others.

Those that met the criteria were asked to provide more detailed information in a second application. Our Girls First Fund team reviewed the applications, contacted references, and facilitated workshops and meetings with applicants to conduct additional due diligence.

In three countries, we tested using panels to review these second-phase applications. Panelists were made up of local experts with vast knowledge of the local context and experience working on issues related to child marriage. One country panel was comprised of girls and young women. These particular panelists met with shortlisted applicants to understand their organizations and approaches to addressing child marriage. The panelists found these meetings to be crucial to making well-informed and thoughtful recommendations for which grantees the Girls First Fund should support.

By creating an inclusive application process and involving local experts and community members through panels, the Girls First Fund was able to find a promising set of innovative and passionate grantees who are championing gender equality and stopping the practice of child marriage and early unions. We are excited to see the transformative change these 150 organizations and leaders will bring to their communities.

To get future updates on the Girls First Fund, including our next application period, please visit the Girls First Fund’s website regularly and sign up for our email distribution list.