In 2020, Mackenzie Scott made international headlines with her powerhouse giving as a leading female philanthropist. While impressive, it is important to remember that there are many women donors who have been engaged in a trust-based philanthropic process similar to Scott for many years now. These women have invested in vulnerable communities, given multi-year support, and pushed to influence other donors to give with an intersectional lens by participating in giving communities, campaigns, and platforms that lead with those values.
In honor of International Women’s Day, five of those women donors share their advice to the next generation, challenging traditional notions in and about philanthropy.
Suzanne Lerner, Cofounder and President of Michael Stars
“Start small. I remember a brief item in Marie Claire magazine many years ago about an NGO called Women Thrive that was doing women’s rights advocacy around the world. I was so inspired by it that I wrote a check for $250. It was the first big donation I had ever made. I said, ‘that’s what I want to be a part of.’ I began going to events and when I was in Washington, DC, I worked up the nerve to call Ritu Sharma, the founder of Women Thrive. I remember feeling apprehensive because I didn’t think I had any skills to offer. But I called anyway. As we talked, I began to understand that my voice and experiences as an entrepreneur had value in the world. Eventually, I joined their board and after that I became involved in many more gender and racial equality organizations. My point is – just get started! You’ll see that you can make the time for the things you care about. You’ll see that your experience is valuable, especially to smaller grassroots organizations. And, if you think you don’t have enough money to spare, try cutting down on expensive coffee and smoothies (laughs) and put those resources into the world you want to see instead!”
“What advice would I give to younger women getting started on their philanthropic journey? I would start with a plug to just get out and learn, learn, learn from people on the front lines of great work being done around the world. If you are able, go on vision trips with organizations that are proximate with the world’s needs which can become your teachers. Philanthropy is really a means to an end not an end in and of itself so find ways to plug in relationally with inspiring people and organizations that can help you learn. Center your philanthropy in movements happening in the world to both end suffering and get to the deeper roots of the problem. Allow your heart to enter into the despair and heartache of our world’s injustices and also the deep longings of people to be their own change in a way that you feel them as your own. There is a role for giving out of a sense of generosity, a sense of having way too much privilege, or just wanting to be of help. But the most transformative type of philanthropy, to me, grows out of a deep sense of solidarity with both the struggles and the longings of the human family. I guess you might call this ‘love’ or ‘empathy’—whatever you call it, it has the power to heal, to awaken something deeper in our shared humanity to lay down one’s advantages for the collective good, and motivate a deeper level of change to transform the deeper roots of the oppressions humans have inflicted on each other for too long. Allowing one’s heart to break and leak into your work can help to remove the transactional nature of philanthropy and get you to want to do more than what those ‘rules of the road’ around money and investing say you should do. Continue to strive to learn best practices from experts and mentors in the field but also listen to your own intuitions. Find a way to stay connected in some way with the work your philanthropy is investing in, not to center yourself in it in a way that gives too much credit to the giver, but to feel joy in just being a vessel, a cog in the wheel, to help make stuff happen. Allow yourself to just keep learning as you go and allow yourself to take detours and twists and turns as your philanthropy unfolds. Look for ways to democratize and share the power inherent in philanthropy—this is way more fun and smart and enables one to stay humble and navigate the contradictions inherent in philanthropy. Most of all stay centered and human. Let it unfold in a way that helps you stay in touch with your own soul and larger movements afoot in the world that are moving the world forward toward the more free and just world where all human beings and the earth itself can flourish and where philanthropy is not so needed.”
“A women’s fund in my area holds an annual fundraising event called. ‘the Power of the Purse.’ The title is a reminder that women hold power through how they spend their money. No matter what, whether we contribute $10 or $100 or $1000, we are making a choice: to invest in solutions to problems or in someone’s long-held dream. We invest our cash and our intentions in a person, a place or a vision outside ourselves.
When I was in college I ran a fundraising campaign for Oxfam. When I graduated, I raised funds for Planned Parenthood. Later I raised money for an orphanage, a school, and finally for all sorts of international causes. I love helping people give as a way to exercise their power — no matter the size of their gift.”
Farida Kathawalla, Cofounder Circle of Hope
“When I was younger I had the notion that one had to be rich to be a philanthropist, which I soon realized is not true. Effective philanthropy is not what you give but the way in which you give. The first step is to find a charity or an organization that promotes the welfare of others and then what you do with the resources is what truly matters.”
Mona Sinha, Board Chair, Women Moving Millions
“You have the power to be the change you want to see in the world. You can be the catalyzers, the equalizers and the influencers because you have a unique lens into imagining a just world. As the beneficiaries of the multi-trillion dollar wealth transfer that is happening right now, rise up to the responsibility of creating a gender equal world. We are here to cheer you on, mentor you and light your torches for future generations. The world is ready for your leadership.”