Teresa Bonner on Ageism, Othering, and Ending Broken Systems

 Editor’s Note: This interview in our Feminist Giving IRL series features Teresa Bonner, Executive Director of Aroha Philanthropies.

Teresa Bonner, Executive Director of Aroha Philanthropies. (Image Credit: Teresa Bonner)

What do you wish you had known when you started out in your profession?

The short answer is “everything!” By the time I began working for foundations, I had spent about ten years on the public charity side of the table, and prior to that, I worked as an attorney for a number of years. When I reached the philanthropic stage of my career, I had quite a bit of experience in the workplace and in the nonprofit sector. Despite that, I had no idea that private foundations were subject to many more rules and requirements than public charities are, or that institutional philanthropy had its own established culture and norms.

What is your current greatest professional challenge?

Over the past several years, I’ve been working with Aroha Philanthropies to promote creative aging, which gives older adults the chance to dive into an art form in an environment designed to empower creative expression, strengthen social networks and build friendships. Older adults are hungry for the chance to connect, to create, and to live with purpose, and research has demonstrated that creative aging programs have clear benefits to their health and wellbeing.

Aroha is working hard to inspire other funders and organizations that could develop creative aging programs. Ageism, which is omnipresent in our culture, keeps us from seeing older adults as simply people – our future selves, but in new packaging. Ageism pervades the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors, and you can hear it justified by the concept of working “upstream.”

We’ve even heard of foundation staff who have said, “Why do you want to support older adults? They’re just going to die anyway!”

There’s a lack of recognition that due to our increasing longevity, we might be “older” for 50 years. Ageism is the biggest challenge we face as we work to improve the lives of older adults.

What inspires you most about your work?

The resilience, optimism and passion of the people in the nonprofits we support. Here’s just one example:

During the pandemic, many of our grantees had forged relationships with the older adults who were part of their creative aging programs. As we all know, older people were most vulnerable to the pandemic and most affected by the social isolation that accompanied it. Our grantees were determined to find ways to continue to inspire and connect these older people and quickly adapted their programs to Zoom. They not only had to become proficient in remote learning themselves; they also had to help their older clients do so.

This transition required creativity, tenacity, a willingness to experiment and the belief that older adults could quickly become comfortable with new technology. That belief was justified, and participants were universally grateful. Many called these sessions a lifeline during the lockdown.

How does your gender identity inform your work?

As a woman, it is easy to resonate with other women’s issues and needs. The majority of older adults are women, and so they figure prominently in our work in promoting creative aging. Many older women find themselves alone due to the loss of spouses and friends. There’s strong evidence that social isolation is linked to earlier mortality and health issues. Creative aging programs are designed to create community and bring purpose and joy to people in their later years.

Do you think your gender identity has affected your career?

Women have been a strong force in philanthropy during my entire time in this field, so it’s not one where my gender made me an outsider. Before I worked in philanthropy, however, I worked as a litigator at a large law firm, and that was a different story.

Although many women were joining law firms at that time, we were still clearly a novelty, and women weren’t viewed as having the same potential as men. The culture of the large law firm reflected this reality, and I found myself shying away from what I observed to be a culture dominated by “roast and boast” and “win/lose.” The philanthropic sector has been a great fit for me for reasons that I believe are partially gender-related.

How can philanthropy support gender equality?

There are so many answers to this question. We need to listen to the voices of women with as much respect and deference as we give men’s voices. We need to stop “othering” people based on their identified gender, abilities and disabilities, races and religions. We need to equalize pay for women. We need to be sure we aren’t “rewarding” a nonprofit for paying women below-market compensation.

In the next 10 years, where do you see gender equality movements taking us?

Hopefully, we will begin to understand how deeply unconscious bias affects everyone by limiting our belief in the capabilities of members of any group. We’ll see pay equity between men and women. We’ll see a broader understanding of gender and the many forms gender identity can take. I hope that society in general and philanthropy in particular recognize the contributions and needs of older women, who make up a large proportion of our population.


Shayna Hetzel’s Vision for Gender Equality: An Open Sky as the Norm

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Nicole Small: Supporting STEM Women with the IF/THEN Initiative

Author: Maggie May

Maggie May is a small business owner, author, and story-centric content strategist. A Maryland transplant by way of Florida, DC, Ireland, Philadelphia, and -- most recently -- Salt Lake City, she has a passion for finding stories and telling them the way they're meant to be told.

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