Throughout history women have been working to change society and people's lives for the better, overcoming great gender inequalities and cultural barriers that make it even harder for them to achieve their goals. Often these transformative achievements have gone unnoticed or overlooked by the wider establishment.
We think it is timely to shine the spotlight on the trailblazing women and female-founders who have made an impact in the not-for-profit sector. Female leaders who have launched or led charities to challenge everything from gender inequality to the destruction of the world's wildlife.
These women are entrepreneurs, innovators and risk-takers. Female-leaders who are so driven to make positive changes they take action, and lead not-for-profit organisations. Organisations that whilst tackling some of the worlds most important issues also have all the complexities of running a normal business.
Given that around two thirds of those working in charities and voluntary organisations are women, we know this article only scratches the surface. But we hope it inspires the reader to celebrate the strong women who have been instrumental in driving change.
In 1889, before women had the vote, a courageous young woman from Manchester called Emily Williamson, founded the all-female Society for the Protection of Birds (now known as the RSPB).
Between 1870 and 1920, bird skins were imported to Britain by the ton to adorn hats and accessories. A lucrative business, at its peak the plumage trade was worth around £20 million a year (approx £200 million in today’s money).
Emily Williamson was horrified by the insatiable slaughter of birds for feathered hats.She asked her friends to sign a pledge to wear no feathers and together they grew her fledgling Society for the Protection of Birds to become, eventually, the UK’s biggest conservation charity: the RSPB.
Before Gabby Edlin launched the charity Bloody Good Period in 2016 periods, and lack of access to essential period products, were not discussed widely, but thanks to her pioneering campaigning this has changed. Gabby launched the charity whilst she was volunteering at a refugee centre where most of the attendees were women, yet she was told period products weren't “essential” items.
Bloody Good Period now provides menstrual supplies for asylum seekers and refugees across the UK, as well as to those who can’t afford them. They also provide menstrual education for those less likely to access it. They have now distributed just over 100,000 packs of period products since the start of the first UK lockdown and nearly 200,000 over the fives years of their existence.
“I love that giving pads is saying, ‘we’ve got this covered, you don’t ever need to worry about your period when you’ve got so much else to worry about.’” - Gabby Edlin, founder of Bloody Good Period.
The charity are also starting to see demand rise again due to the combined impact of the cost of living crisis and worsening refugee crisis, only exacerbated by the current situation in Ukraine.
Zainab Salbi, an Iraqi-American humanitarian, entrepreneur and author, founded Women for Women International at the age of 23.
Women for Women International supports women who live in some of the world’s most dangerous places. Women enrol on the charity’s year-long training programme, where they learn how to earn and save money, improve their family’s health and make their voices heard at home and in their community.
Since 1993, the charity has helped more than 479,000 marginalised women survivors of war in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kosovo, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, Nigeria, Rwanda and South Sudan.
My mission for the upcoming year is to continue to strive for a society where violence and abuse against women doesn’t exist.”
Farah Nazeer, CEO of Women's Aid.
Farah Nazeer has just celebrated a year as the CEO of the charity Women’s Aid.
As a life-long campaigner and political activist, Farah has fought and won campaigns on women’s rights, including human trafficking and tackling violence against women; on access to health including areas like end-of-life care and rare conditions; and on the environment including the use of plastic bags, food waste, and toxic chemicals in Europe.
Much of Farah’s work has been on women’s rights, with a proven history of success in policy and public campaigning at local, national and international levels.
Her extensive work to bring about change includes working as a Special Advisor on Advocacy for Lumos, an organisation whose mission is to end the institutionalisation of children globally by 2050 to being a local authority councillor for almost a decade working on local service provision, health, environment and accountability. Farah has also worked at ActionAid, the Motor Neurone Disease Association as Director of External Affairs and at the Women’s Institute, the largest women’s membership organisation the UK, as Head of Public Affairs.
Whilst filming Game of Thrones, actress Emilia Clarke ‘Mother of Dragons’ survived two life threatening brain haemorrhages. In 2019 she launched the charity SameYou.
Her goal is to increase awareness that 1 in 3 people will be affected by brain injury and of the gap between the need and the lack of recovery care.
“When you suffer a brain injury your life is saved by emergency medical services, but in most countries, ongoing recovery care can be hard to find, extremely limited or simply unavailable. We need to change that. It’s why I founded SameYou and campaign for your support.” - Emilia Clarke
SameYou's purpose is for brain injury survivors to feel they haven't lost the person they were before. So far, the charity has delivered practical help and tangible improvements in recovery.
Lucy Wisdom, was a trapeze artist in Paris in the 1980s but after surgery for breast cancer, she found herself in Sumatra where she used her skills to teach young orangutans at a rehabilitation centre so they could cope in their natural environment. She went on to launch the charity Sumatran Orangutan Society which now works to protect orangutans, their forests and their future. Although Lucy lost her battle with cancer the charity continues it’s vital work.
Lucy was also a champion for environmental education , and in 2018 The Lucy Wisdom School for local children was built with funding from SOS.
“It has been 10 years since Lucy lost her battle with cancer. It was her illness that brought Lucy to Indonesia, where she fell in love with the rainforests, the people, and of course, the orangutans. When she was working and travelling as a trapeze artist, she could never have guessed where she would end up using her acrobatic skills.” - Helen Buckland, SOS Director
Charly Young was a secondary school teacher in North London when she co-founded the charity, with her colleague Becca, The Girls’ Network a mentoring scheme for secondary-school age girls. Time and time again both teachers witnessed the multiple barriers facing girls in their classrooms:
- The pressure to conform to ideals
- A lack of confidence and self-belief
- A lack of professional female role models in their networks
They now provide mentoring programs across the UK to secondary-school age girls to improve confidence, increase professional connections and encourage conversations about career prospects.
Twenty years ago Carmel McConnell MBE, interviewed five headteachers in East London for her first book, Change Activist. They told her that many of their pupils arrived at school too hungry or malnourished to learn.
Carmel started buying and delivering breakfast food to these schools, with remarkable results as children's concentration, behaviour, punctuality and educational attainment significantly improved. As demand for her help grew, Carmel took out a loan and time out from her business, registering Magic Breakfast as a charity in 2003.
Today Magic Breakfast provides healthy breakfasts to around 170,000 children in England and Scotland during normal term time, in over 1,000 primary, secondary and Special Educational Needs schools, plus Pupil Referral Units.
Just a year after she founded the charity The Hygiene Bank Lizzy Hall received the Woman of The Year ‘Wellness Warrior’ Award 2019.
In August 2018, after watching the Ken Loach film ‘I Daniel Blake’, she was so moved by a scene where a single mother is caught shoplifting for basic toiletries Lizzy sent a message to friends saying she was collecting hygiene products to take to her local foodbank. Driven to do more she set up The Hygiene Bank.
"Basic hygiene goes to the core of self-worth, self-respect, confidence and dignity. With hygiene poverty comes isolation, exclusion and shame and these impact our ability to participate in society and therefore what it means to be human." Lizzy Hall, Founder Of The Hygiene Bank.
The Hygiene Bank collects, sorts and distributes hygiene basics, beauty and personal care essentials to those who can't afford them, via Community Partners such as schools, local government authorities, charity and voluntary organisations.
Flamingo Chicks exists to give disabled children and those with illnesses like cancer the opportunity to explore movement alongside their friends. It was founded in 2013 by Katie Sparkes who was frustrated at the lack of inclusive opportunities for her daughter Poppy, who has cerebral palsy. Now, 15,000 children have danced with Flamingo Chicks!
Katie has won multiple awards for her contribution to the global community including Outstanding Young Person of The World, a Point Of Light Award from the Prime Minister and the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service. She also made the Independent Newspaper’s ‘Happy List’ of people who make the country a better place.
“You can be a kind leader, kindness and collaboration is really at the core of me and I never want this to change.” - Alex Wallace
Wanting to channel her both positive and negative experiences of sport, Alex Wallace (Paske) founded The Mintridge Foundation in 2015. The charity harnesses the power of sporting role models to help and influence young people.
Their team of Ambassadors includes Olympians, Paralympians and other professional sports stars who work with young people in schools, clubs and academies across the UK.
The Mintridge Foundation assists young people of all ages, abilities and physical capabilities to develop confidence and resilience, and creates awareness of the importance of mental and physical wellbeing through sport.