As women’s global wealth continues to rise, philanthropists are turning toward an exciting new era of female empowerment and intelligent grantmaking in feminist philanthropy. At The Ruderman Family Foundation, a Massachusetts-based grantmaking entity devoted to disability inclusion and strengthening the Jewish community in the United States and abroad, leadership sits in the hands of two powerful and committed women: Sisters-in-law Sharon Shapiro and Shira Ruderman.
“Choosing a mission is based on values,” says Shira Ruderman, Executive Director of the Ruderman Family Foundation. “My Jewish values and who we are as people are have a great impact on choosing the topics you want to work on and how you want to conduct your business and philanthropy. We concentrated in the last 18 years on inclusion of people with disabilities and strengthening the relationship between American Jewry and the State of Israel. We believe in strategic philanthropy and do our best to lead through best practices.”
“Our mission is guided by our Jewish values of including all people,” adds Sharon Shapiro, the Foundation’s Trustee and Community Liaison. “With our disability work, just thinking back to my parents, it’s really what my father prioritized. He was a person who was successful and wealthy, yet was also very down to earth and approachable and inclusive, and taught us how to be respectful and inclusive of all people.”
A Foundation Led by Family Values
Founded by Morton “Mort” Ruderman, the Foundation grew from Mort’s personal experiences in grantmaking to Jewish day schools in Boston. Upon realizing that disabled children were absent from this school system, Mort set about creating a funding program to strive for disability inclusion in his family’s Jewish community.
“I grew up witnessing my parents’ philanthropy,” says Sharon. “Our local Jewish community and supporting Israel was a huge focus of our family. As we lead the foundation it’s a much more sophisticated and strategic way of doing things.”
Shira joined the Ruderman family when she met and married Jay Ruderman, Mort’s son and the President of the Foundation, but her family also espoused a commitment to giving that has shaped her philanthropic decisions today.
“I grew up in a house that knew and taught me charitable giving,” she says. “Although we did not come from means, my parents taught me the meaning of social commitment. You do what you can. I literally grew up in a house where you constantly give and volunteer. When I became an adult and met [Foundation President] Jay [Ruderman], I was introduced to the concept of philanthropy. Between my growing up values and my professional experience in strategy and meaning I was able to combine them together and channel it to the Foundation’s work. I believe that philanthropy is a combination of values and meaning alongside with rooted professional approach together you can perform in strategic and impactful ways. This led me to the person I am today.”
Balancing Family Ties with Social Mission
As sisters-in-law and coworkers, Sharon and Shira work hard to balance their personal values with the mission of the family Foundation, while furthering the mission of feminist philanthropy and disability inclusion. Shira’s responsibilities as Executive Director focus on planning, impact, and strategy, including shaping the impact of women’s rising global wealth, while Sharon’s role as Trustee and Community Liaison involves direct communications between the Foundation’s focus community, its grantee partners, and its trustees.
Because Sharon and Shira are direct representatives of the Ruderman family, they are able to use their personal experiences to further the mission of the Foundation. This doesn’t mean every board meeting is a family reunion, however — both women are committed to finding the best ways to provide the most impact for their community, while also staying true to Ruderman family values.
“We take our work very seriously and we’re very strategic,” says Sharon. “Even though we have our family relationship, we’re more working together and professional. I’ve learned that if I’m going to bring something to my sister-in-law and my family, I really need to know what I’m talking about — the organization, who’s running it, does it fit into our strategy, do they understand how we want to work. That is helpful, but also difficult sometimes, that you have to take off that hat of having your family relationship and then being professionals together. But it’s been a lot of years of doing that and it’s become easier and more comfortable.”
“When we met over 20 years ago, we were new to each other as sisters-in-law and colleagues,” says Shira. “We learned how to navigate between the personal and professional relationships, to get to know each other and appreciate each other’s strengths and skills. The more we understood how to work better and become clearer in our division of work and different roles, the differences in our skills and passions, we did it better.”
“Family philanthropy is based on a major decision to allocate your personal wealth for the use of the public,” she adds. “That decision requires an educational process and a true commitment because you give up your personal wealth, and its use cannot ever change. The wealth management industry can help educate women about investments and planning so when they reach the point that they lead their family’s wealth or their philanthropic entities, we do it from a place of strength, knowledge, and independent voice.”
Shifting Perspectives in Feminist Philanthropy
This attitude is a carryover from shifting perspectives both women see as the new way forward in philanthropy. More women in leadership positions, more financial and decision-making power in the hands of women, and a shifting focus in wealth management to offer more services to female heads of household.
These shifting priorities represent an important acknowledgement to the power of women as philanthropic decision-makers and grantmaking leaders.
“I truly think that we as women have the power to transform the world,” says Shira. “We have the ability to minimize ego, to see the case in front of us, and find ways to collaborate and bring other people in. From a management perspective, because we wear different hats as daughters and mothers, we are able to navigate between emotions and rationale, to multitask in a way that impacts our day to day in choices and decisions… We can manage our wealth management, do our philanthropy, raise kids, and we do not compromise on the outcomes.”
Sharon sees examples of female financial power in her role as incoming Chair of the Miriam Fund, a Boston-based giving circle facilitated by Combined Jewish Philanthropies. The Miriam Fund grew out of women’s desires to do more with philanthropic decision-making within a giving community that was male-dominated for 30-plus years.
“It was basically men gathering in a room and making decisions,” Sharon explains. “For me the next step was to learn about strategy and impact, especially because my parents encouraged Jay and I to learn through our own experience. Today, the women’s giving fund has been an opportunity to learn from a group of women in a broader way, as many of them are involved in their own giving with their families. It’s very interesting to learn from people who are coming from very different points of view. Nobody has any egos. We’re there to do what we have to do for the good of women and girls. I think that for the future of philanthropy, with women giving the majority of funding, there will be a lot more projects for women and girls.”
How Can Other Family Foundations Follow Their Lead?
For other family foundations, Shira recommends the appointment of more women to leadership and executive positions. “After all,” she says, “the statistics show that in the next 10-20 years, the majority of the world’s wealth will be managed by women.”
Both Sharon and Shira see the impact women’s wealth will have on the world. Their experiences in leading a foundation as a family color their views of the world at large, painting a positive picture of female financial empowerment in the future. As women’s wealth continues to grow, the Ruderman Family Foundation as a whole and Sharon and Shira in particular hope to see more leadership power in the hands of women.
Family foundations, many of which have been around for generations and led by the sons and grandsons of their (male) founders, can adapt and amplify their impact by shifting their power structures to put more seats at the table for female leaders.
“The most successful businesses and foundations are family businesses,” says Shira. “There is no doubt that it is a challenge that can be personal and emotional, but it can be sold with good communication and good infrastructure. We kept grounded to what brought us together, [and] we were extremely respectful to each other through the journey. The key to success is communication.“
“It’s a long journey,” she adds. “There is a saying, ‘do not go into business with your family.’ I’m a big believer in the opposite.”
About The Ruderman Family Foundation: The Massachusetts-based Foundation furthers its mission within the Jewish communities in Boston and beyond, based on the mission and values of founder Morton E. Ruderman. The Rudermans followed the pattern of many philanthropic families—starting with generous check-writing at the kitchen table and quickly moving into strategic investment. Founder and successful businessman, Morton E. Ruderman, had long been giving back to the Jewish community in Boston. In the early 2000s, Mort decided to make a major gift to local Jewish day schools. When they learned about the absence of children with disabilities in their classrooms, the family felt this systematic exclusion was an affront to their Jewish values. They agreed to focus on correcting this injustice and from the beginning understood their commitment to the inclusion of children and adults with disabilities as a social justice imperative. To learn more about the Foundation, visit their website here.
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