Recently, I got an email from Stephanie Gillis, Senior Advisor at the Raikes Foundation, wanting to “explore potential synergies” with the work we are doing at Philanthropy Women. Naturally, I was eager to do so, and soon learned about Givingcompass.org, a new team effort of several foundations and nonprofits, aimed at drawing on the chops of the tech sector in order to provide more resources for the philanthropy sector, particularly around how to assess the quality of philanthropy and get the most impact per philanthropy dollar.
“The more that philanthropy can do to encourage and support women in running for office, the better,” says Kate Coyne-McCoy, CEO of The Campaign Fixer, who has spent much of her career trying to bring more women into American politics. Coyne-McCoy has trained over 9,000 women to run for office, and she has a message for philanthropy.
“Do more politically, period,” she said in a recent interview with Philanthropy Women, when asked what her message would be to progressive women donors and their allies. “Until you make an investment in the electoral and political process, you’re never going to see the change you want.”
Editor’s Note: This piece is co-authored by Emily Nielsen Jones and Nickey Mais-Nesbeth
Emily: The circle is one of those timeless symbols—one that appears in nature, in mathematics, and in art of all kinds—that says something wise and true about the world. It is also a unique symbol, we think, for what philanthropy is all about.
Philanthropy on one level is about giving money away. Often if can feel sort of linear and transactional from a top-down grid: people with social capital at the top doling out largesse and using fancy sounding words about “scale” and “strategy” in an attempt to help the needy. But today, a powerful movement is on the rise in philanthropy to leave the pyramid of noblesse oblige in the last century and become more democratic. This new concept is about empowering a community to make change from within. To me, it feels very circular and connective, like the processes of change you see in nature.
In nature, circles emanate from an invisible source at the center which creates a spiral motion. This spiral creates a pattern of expansion and contraction, as you see in seashells, tornadoes, and in galaxies and throughout the micro and macro designs of our world.
So too, every community has within it the seeds of its own growth and empowerment–which are what this new approach to philanthropy/development seeks to unleash. This shift has even penetrated large NGOs that deliver aid around the world. Alongside or within their regular programming, organizations like World Vision and Opportunity International now center much of their work around small groups of people, often women, gathering in small collectives where they save money to loan to a different member each month, and also support each other in the ups and downs of life (e.g. a wedding or a funeral or death in the family).
I feel grateful to be a part of this shift happening in philanthropy and global development, which some call “community-driven” or “integral” development. Whatever you call it, it feels circular to me and is rooted in the belief that real change happens from an invisible center within communities themselves but that this can and should be supported and catalyzed from outside.
My own philanthropic journey has been part of this shift from top-down “aid” to circular “empowerment” even before I had language to name it. About eight years ago, my husband and I decided the time was right to ramp up our philanthropy. We created the Imago Dei Fund by taking a less-traveled path — bucking the professional advice to pick one thing to “do” and build a legacy around. Instead, we followed our intuition and decided to look for movements already happening that seemed worthy of more support and investment.
In many ways, social movements are circular in nature – sometimes you can’t tell where they begin and end and they have a way of growing and expanding in a non-linear fashion beyond any one programmatic silo or sector. Early on, we jumped on the anti-trafficking train and began engaging globally in faraway places like Southeast Asia and Africa. Very quickly this movement drew us outward (yet inward at the same time) toward the “hidden-in-plain-sight” problem that lurks beneath human trafficking: the ancient subjugation of women and girls which is still idealized and encoded in many of our cultural and religious traditions.
As we supported and engaged with some faith-based organizations in our own evangelical pond, we felt the circular nature of social change acutely. We saw many great organizations working to rescue girls from brothels in faraway places, yet in their own pews and their own boards, they were still operating from a gender pyramid which marginalizes and devalues women and girls.
We need to not just support change as if we are on the outside of the process as donors, but rather to be part of this change ourselves: this is the wisdom of the circle.
After a few years, we felt the circle pulling us inward again and and nudging us to attend more to the world in our own backyard: Boston, MA. In the process, I had the great privilege of meeting Nickey Nesbeth. Though I had lived in Boston for over twenty years, I knew little about the rich cultural tapestry of our city, and Nickey has been something of a gateway for me to learn more about the local/global movements in my own city. Every connection one makes expands one’s circle, and Nickey has truly been a force of nature in helping me expand my understanding and connection to diverse women’s groups in Boston.
Nickey: When Emily and I met each other, we quickly bonded over our shared lament about the state of our world’s gender norms—which are still geared toward female submission, even in the 21st century. Despite these challenges, we marveled over how women have always found ways to progress through their own support circles.
These circles facilitated my grandmother’s emigration from Jamaica in 1968. She was co-sponsored by a group of women who helped pay for her passage abroad through their “Susu”— A 400-year-old Afro-Caribbean women’s micro-financing tradition. My grandmother, along with many other Afro-Caribbean women, immigrated to work as housekeepers for wealthy Americans. She later joined a circle of Caribbean immigrant women in Boston and once again, created a new women’s support circle and started their own Susu, to gather the funds needed to pay their children’s passages to America, reuniting their families against tough odds.
Using funds from her Susu, my grandmother later co-sponsored my passage to America, where I was able to complete high school, graduate from college, and build a career giving back to my community. As my grandmother did, I also found myself in various women’s giving circles, all geared towards one thing: lifting up women and girls.
In these circles, Emily and I found shared experiences as women of faith, seeking to create a more just world. A larger circle began forming around us, which has been expanding and building bridges across the challenging divides of race and ethnicity. It is a longer story than we can tell here, but my women’s network in Boston helped open doors for the Imago Dei Fund to get to know and support ethnic-based organizations that empower women and girls in our own communities.
Many women and girls in ethnic communities have the double burden of living with highly patriarchal gender norms and being immigrants, both of which create barriers to opportunity. However, these women and girls persist in their collective agency. They find ways to build new support circles and raise the financial capital they need to start businesses, sponsor relatives’ travel to America, and engage in charitable efforts in their homelands, thus carrying on our centuries-old system of collective impact.
Emily: In a recent conversation, we were talking about women’s giving circles — I am helping to start one here in Boston within the New England International Donor Network — which are a driving force within the larger women’s philanthropy movement. In giving circles, women across the economic continuum come together in living rooms and board rooms to connect, to learn, and to pool resources for greater impact in the world, often targeted toward empowering women and girls. As we were talking, Nickey paused and said, “Women in my culture have been doing this for centuries. It’s called a Susu.”
A Susu is an informal means of collecting and saving money through a savings club or partnership, practiced throughout Africa and the Caribbean. [...] The concept of a susu is used throughout the world and has over 200 different names that vary from country to country.The name is from the Susu from the Twi language to mean 'plan'. The funds are generally gathered with a set amount contributed from family or friends each week. An estimated three quarters of Jamaican immigrants in New York participated in susus during the 1980s.
Big News: The NoVo Foundation has narrowed down the scope of its focus for its $90 million in funding to empower girls of color, and the funder is now seeking regional partners to provide support to community agencies doing work for gender equality. NoVo is currently opening up RFP applications for community-based organizations in the U.S. Southeast to get grants for helping girls of color.
This decision was based on the outcome of a year-long listening tour across the country with girls of color, movement leaders, and organizers. During that time, NoVo employed its strategy of getting feedback and solutions directly “defined and driven by girls and women of color” in order to maximize impact for this population.
Girls of color continue to face deep systemic, societal, and institutional challenges girls face, and the situation is particularly pronounced in the U.S. Southeast, which has been historically neglected by philanthropy, especially when it comes to the work of girls of color. Though 40 percent of girls of color live in the South, less than 1 percent of foundation funding went specifically to programs focused on Black women and girls.
This investment also comes along at an important time when civil society organizations like women’s funds may need extra support, given that the current administration plans to further cut discretionary social spending. Places like the U.S. Southeast will be particularly hurt by these cuts, and will need the added support of private philanthropy.
“The movement for girls of color in the U.S. is being led by fearless women, primarily women of color, often working on their own time and dime in a severely under-funded field,” said Tynesha McHarris, Fellow for NoVo’s Advancing Adolescent Girls’ Rights initiative. “Girls of color and their advocates have powerful visions for how to create meaningful change in their communities, this country, and the world.”
More of these visions are about to become realities, thanks to the NoVo Foundation making this work a priority. “NoVo will deeply invest in community-based organizations that center girls of color as agents in their own decision-making and create spaces for connection, healing, and consciousness-raising with and for girls of color,” said a press release announcing the new opening for RFP’s.
Along with emphasizing grantmaking in the U.S. Southeast, NoVo is also opening grantmaking to community-based partners nationwide, and will be providing grants that way to make sure there is still impact for their work in other regions.
“A vibrant movement to build power with and for girls of color already exists, and it is time for philanthropy to follow its lead,” said Pamela Shifman, Executive Director of NoVo. “Meaningful change for girls of color in our country is only possible if we shift power to those who are most affected.”
“We are ecstatic about NoVo’s community-based approach to grantmaking,” said Joanne Smith, Founder and Executive Director of Girls for Gender Equity. “Placing girls of color at the core of its grantmaking strategy will help NoVo direct resources where they are most needed and to those who are best positioned to lead social change efforts.”
NoVo’s Listening Tours also helped to affirm that some area of philanthropy are still very underfunded, including investments to end sexual violence and confront racism.
As the press release details, NoVo plans to provide flexible funding to organizations that:
Partner with regional grantmaking and movement building infrastructures, starting with the Southeast: In addition to prioritizing community-based organizations across the country, NoVo has issued an RFP to identify a regional infrastructure to partner with on grantmaking and movement capacity building, starting in the Southeast. The regional partner will house efforts that provide grant making to existing organizations and help seed new organizations, with the goal of eventually also supporting individuals and collectives outside of formal c3 structures. In addition to grantmaking the regional partner will provide the healing, political education and organizing capacity needed to sustain a healthy field.
She’s young, she’s highly educated, and she likes to be involved in funding strategy — all traits that suggest Priscilla Chan will be making an enormous impact on philanthropy over the next decade and beyond.
“Chan is a hands-on leader of Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), taking charge of many of the day-to-day operational details of scaling up a large philanthropic enterprise,” David Callahan recently told me. Callahan is founder and publisher of Inside Philanthropy, and interviewed Chan for his new book, The Givers, due out in April 11th.
“Unconditional love for people is what’s needed,” says Justine Bevilacqua. She speaks with a calmness that somehow also conveys how strongly she feels about this. “Of course, you have to draw the line sometimes,” she adds, “and there are bad people in the world, but just seeing people as humans, I definitely think the world needs more of that.”
Bevilacqua was 3 years old when her maternal grandmother Dorothy Jungels and several of Dorothy’s children acquired the carriage house that would become a place dedicated to the arts and social justice in Providence, Rhode Island. Doing most of the renovation themselves, they turned the neglected building into a studio and theater and named it Everett, after Everett Weeden, a fellow artist and family friend.
Last Friday, I participated in a media roundtable hosted by The Clinton Foundation to discuss the future direction of their work.
At the roundtable, President Shalala said that the level of future involvement for Mrs. Clinton at the foundation is unclear, but that former President Bill Clinton and Chelsea Clinton have both re-upped their commitment and are ready to take the foundation in some new directions.
Clinton Foundation President Donna Shalala headlined the phone conference roundtable with this quote from Mark Twain: “Rumors of our demise are greatly exaggerated.”
In fact, said Shalala, “We’re alive and well and thriving.”
Shalala said former President Bill Clinton’s letter, which charts the Foundation’s path forward, depicts a “re-energized foundation, better positioned for the brave new world we’re going into.”
The plan going forward, in broad terms, said Shalala is to “build on what we know works,” while also “spinning off some of the programs that have grown to maturity.”
With grassroots activism on the rise across the country, we are seeing more and more funders step up to address populations who face multiple forms of marginalization, especially the combination of both gender and race.
Now, the NYC Fund for Girls and Young Women of Color (the Fund), a collaboration of 16 foundations, has announced grants totaling $2.1 million, awarded to 28 non-profit organizations across the five boroughs.
These organizations are the ground-level hubs where young women and girls of color go in communities to engage in leadership development, health and employment advocacy, educational support, and help with community safety issues including violence against women.