Red Umbrella Fund

Founded in 2012, the Red Umbrella Fund is the first global sex worker-led funding institution in the world. Its formation was the result of the recognition that sex workers’ rights groups were under-funded, under-supported and largely misunderstood. A three-year collaboration among sex workers’ rights activists and social justice donors led to the creation of the Red Umbrella Fund to identify new resources to create sustainable support for sex workers’ organisations seeking to secure their human rights.
An autonomous philanthropic entity, the Red Umbrella Fund is hosted by Mama Cash. Globally, sex workers face widespread human rights violations, and are frequent targets of state and non-state violence as they often live at the nexus of many forms of discrimination, stigmatisation, and criminalisation. Given that sex work is often not regarded as work, sex workers’ organisations are often not on the radar of funders.


The main objective is to strengthen and ensure the sustainability of the global sex workers' rights movement by providing and catalysing new funding for sex worker-led organisations and national, regional and international networks.
The Fund has a vision of a world where all societies uphold and respect the health, human and labour rights of sex workers of all genders. Sex workers would not be at such high risk of violence if they were respected as people and as workers, and felt free to seek help and protection without fear of being stigmatised, jailed and abused. The Fund believes sex work must be decriminalised and recognised as work, with entitlement to safe and secure working conditions, good labour practices, and fair wages.


Self-determination is key to achieving the Red Umbrella Fund’s objectives. The Fund provides flexible financial support through a participatory, sex worker-led process whereby a global peer review panel comprised of at least 80% sex worker representatives reads all eligible applications and selects the grantee recipients.
The participation and leadership of sex worker representatives in this grant-making process is pivotal. The selection process takes all forms of diversity into account, ensuring the inclusion, not only of women, but also of men and trans* sex workers who are often overlooked.
The Red Umbrella Fund staff administer and monitor all grants, collecting and analysing impact information annually and improving its work continually. As part of its communications and donor advocacy strategy, the Fund actively engages in the philanthropic sector to influence donor policies, priorities and processes to achieve more and better funding in support of sex workers' rights.


The Red Umbrella Fund is one of a new wave of organisations that put people who have experienced oppression in the driving seat of funding organisations, rather than relying on elites who claim to act on their behalf. With a strong emphasis on participatory decision-making, sex workers make the funding decisions, because it is they who understand which projects or groups will be effective in securing positive change; the Fund is guided by the maxim ‘nothing about us without us.’
This unique and innovative peer-led governance structure ensures the Fund’s accountability to the movement it supports. The participatory decision-making dynamic feeds into the grantmaking process, keeping the fund responsive to its beneficiaries and transparent.


Since its creation in 2012, the Red Umbrella Fund has made 78 grants to sex worker-led organisations and networks in 45 countries. These groups were selected by the sex worker-led Programme Advisory Committee (PAC) out of over 1860 applications across four rounds of applications.
Over the long term, the impact and success of the Red Umbrella Fund is assessed on the strength and sustainability of the sex workers’ rights movement - including its ability to secure new resources - and on the changes this has achieved for sex workers across the globe. In the medium term, progress is assessed by monitoring and evaluating the following outcome areas:
1: Stronger sex worker-led organisations
2: A stronger sex workers' rights movement
3: Living and sharing values: as a learning fund, the Red Umbrella Fund is committed to developing and implementing effective learning, monitoring and evaluation processes and sharing its findings and recommendations with the philanthropic community.


Many governments take one or more of the following approaches to sex work:
• Sex workers seen as victims of violence, exploitation and/or trafficking
• Sex workers seen as the cause of social problems, responsible for the spread of HIV or other STIs and/or as participants in illegal activities such as the drug trade
• Sex workers are ignored and excluded from relevant policies and legislation, such as those related to labour rights, health care, or other social services.

Seeing sex work as work is less common, and this is one of biggest challenges that Red Umbrella Fund faces. Due to the stigma attached to sex work, and a lack of understanding surrounding the associated human rights violations, it is difficult for a sex worker-led international fund to maintain its own operations and change the terms of the debate among movement peers, policymakers and donors. To mitigate this challenge, the Fund works closely with Mama Cash staff to identify a diversity of donors and allies.


The Red Umbrella Fund, in supporting the agency and human rights of sex workers, faces a range of challenges. Sex workers' rights groups are notoriously left out of philanthropic and development conversations; the funding that is available for providing health care and education to sex workers often prescribes a "rescue and rehabilitation" approach.

The Red Umbrella Fund seeks to challenge the dominant view that sex workers are victims and advocates, instead, that funders and policymakers recognise the agency of sex workers. The Fund challenges a predominant orthodoxy in philanthropy, that ‘efficiency in achieving impact’ should drive giving, by demonstrating that impact is strengthened by involving those most affected by discrimination.


The Red Umbrella Fund experiences the reality that sex workers' rights groups continue to be marginalised within the philanthropic and development sectors and linked/overlapping social movements. Support for sex workers to organise themselves, build their capacities, and engage in policy advocacy is lacking, yet it is an essential part of pushing states towards creating legal frameworks and justice systems that are responsive to the discrimination and violence sex workers face.

The Fund has learned the importance of developing compelling external communications, meanwhile pushing into new philanthropic arenas and donor spaces. Demonstrating impact is crucial in accessing larger, longer-term funding. In 2014, the Fund finalised its first Learning Monitoring and Evaluation Operational Plan. This plan outlines the key outcomes and indicators that the Fund works towards, and clarifies the relevant data sources/collection processes, responsibilities, and how information is communicated.




In contrast to “return on investment” philanthropy, the Red Umbrella Fund’s radical model of activist philanthropy is the first of its kind within the sex workers’ rights movement. In reversing the power dynamics of funding decisions, it challenges assumptions about accountability: funders expect their grantees to be accountable to them, but it’s equally important to ensure that funders are accountable to the groups they support.
The Fund contributes to building a movement by recognising sex workers’ leadership within the Fund, supporting self-led groups and offering flexible grants. It welcomes groups with no bank account or registration. This type of funding is scarce and urgently needed to build emerging organisations and movements.