Tomorrow brings us another cool event for women’s history month. From 3 pm to 4 pm EST tomorrow, Prosperity Together will hold a Twitter chat to celebrate the collective impact of their funding.
Prosperity Together is the coalition of 32 women’s funds across 26 states and Washington D.C., which has invested $58 million since 2016 for grassroots organizations growing gender equality and economic security for women.
Philanthropy Women will be there tomorrow, to hear about how these women’s funds are pushing for social change, particularly by using participatory grantmaking strategies and paying extra attention to diversity and inclusion. Women’s funds are also doing some of the most groundbreaking work with supporting youth-led grantmaking and youth-led social movements, so it will be great to hear more about that, too, since we are living in the midst of the largest child-led social movement in America, the movement for gun safety.
It’s a busy week for me, as well as for a lot of other gender equality advocates. Some big names in gender equality are coming out for Valentine’s Day. Here’s a list of a few of the events going on to give voice and power to gender equality movements on February 14th.
Tarana Burke Will Speak At Brown University: The recently rediscovered leader of the #Metoo movement, Tarana Burke, will be hosted by both RISD and Brown University for a discussion on February 14th. The title of the discussion is, #MeToo: What’s next in Healing and Activism, and the event is already sold out, but if you want to get on the waitlist, you can go here.
This is our first year here at Philanthropy Women, and these our inaugural awards. They go to recipients who have demonstrated exceptional leadership in the field of gender equality philanthropy. These awards draw on the database of Philanthropy Women’s coverage, and are therefore inherently biased toward the people and movement activity we have written about so far. As our database grows each year, we will cover more ground, and have a wider field to cull from for the awards.
Bridge Builders Award for Network and Collaborative Giving Leadership
When I became interested in women’s philanthropy, one of the first questions I wanted to answer was about who started the funding of feminist-strategy giving. It was surprising and disheartening to learn that there were very few accounts of the history of women’s funding for women. So imagine my delight when I heard about the publication of Joan Marie Johnson’s book, Funding Feminism: Monied Women, Philanthropy, and the Women’s Movement, 1870-1967. Her work in creating this history performs the desperately-needed public service of raising the profile of historical women who paved the way for gender equality, and a world where feminist leadership would set higher standards for civil society.
Leaders from eight women’s funds across the country that spearheaded the Young Women’s Initiative received the 2018 Leadership and Diversity Award, given by the The Women’s Funding Network at their annual summit, taking place this week in San Francisco.
The New York Women’s Foundation is a 2017 recipient of The Women’s Funding Network’s Leadership and Diversity (LEAD) Award, for launching the first Young Women’s Initiative in partnership with the New York City Council and inspiring similar efforts by women’s foundations across the country.
“The presidents of these foundations have shown ingenuity and fortitude in their vision of young women and focus on young women of color as advocates, and spokespeople with direct access to legislators and other decision-makers,” said Cynthia Nimmo, Women’s Funding Network CEO.
The LEAD award celebrates leaders who have increased funding for programs that promote gender equity and diversity through their innovation and risk-taking in the philanthropic sector.
“We are proud that New York led the way in creating the nation’s first-ever Young Women’s Initiative and I am honored to receive this recognition with seven colleagues who have launched similar programs,” said Ana Oliveira, President and CEO of The New York Women’s Foundation. “We look forward to welcoming additional locales to the effort in the coming year.”
The 2016 White House Council on Women and Girls spotlighted the Young Women’s Initiatives at their 2016 United State of Women Summit, where they announced a new partnership called Prosperity Together, which would invest $100 million over five years in advancing rights and opportunities for young women and girls of color.
2017 LEAD Awardees:
Jeanne Jackson, Women’s Fund of Greater Birmingham
Surina Khan, Women’s Foundation of California
Roslyn Dawson Thompson, Dallas Women’s Foundation
Ruby Bright, Women’s Foundation for a Greater Memphis
Lee Roper Batker, Women’s Foundation of Minnesota
Ana Oliveira, New York Women’s Foundation
Irma Gonzales (CEO) and Elizabeth Barajas Roman (former CEO), Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts
Jennifer Lockwood-Shabat, Washington Area Women’s Foundation
“We see our members—grass roots organizations—as the experts,” says Emily Bove, Executive Director of the Women Thrive Alliance.
Women Thrive comprises 285 organizations in 53 developing countries. Based in Washington, D.C., Women Thrive supports its member groups in advancing women’s rights globally. “We only work with groups that are engaged in advocacy,” says Bove, citing Women Thrive’s expertise in this area. The other criteria for Women Thrive membership is that the participant organization have female decision-makers at the helm. Given its expansive membership roster and skeleton staff, much of Women Thrive’s work is virtual, including online courses aimed at helping member groups organize around gender and poverty issues.
While Women Thrive prioritizes women’s rights and equal access to education, Bove stresses that all aspects of development are interconnected, and breaking them up into discrete parts is somewhat arbitrary. “Women don’t wake up and say, ‘today my focus is on my child’s education and tomorrow it’s on clean water.’” The goals of women holding political power, controlling their own bodies, receiving fair pay and having access to education are interrelated, and all are key in furthering development.
Women Thrive was founded in 1998; Bove joined the organization in 2014, and has been leading it since 2016. When I spoke to her by phone in late August, she had just returned from a long-delayed visit to her native France. Bove grew up the town of Annecy in the French Alps, attended university in Lyon, obtained a master’s degree in Migration Studies from the U.K.’s University of Sussex, and subsequently came to the U.S. for a graduate exchange program at Georgetown. Along the way, she has worked in Cameroon, the Caribbean, and the Indonesian province of Acheh. “I’ve always been interested in development, but over time found I was increasingly drawn to its connections to women’s rights,” says Bove. Prior to joining the Women Thrive Alliance, Bove worked for the World Bank on climate change issues.
Women Thrive is an umbrella organization, and prospective members typically learn of it from the internet, conferences, and—“most exciting to me,” says Bove—being recruited by current members. While Women Thrive does not engage in direct service or distribute grants, it has provided tailored support to groups in Sierra Leone, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Nigeria. A team from Women Thrive recently returned from the small west African nation of Sierra Leone where it delivered a “Raise Your Voice Workshop” on female genital mutilation. Helping local groups eliminate such practices is a key focus of Women Thrive. The UN has long campaigned against what it has termed “harmful practices” toward women and girls (which, in addition to body mutilation, include early and forced marriages, and “honor” crimes directed at females).
Bove says that one way of pushing governments on issues such as female genital mutilation is to leverage the United Nations’ “Sustainable Development Goals” (SDGs) which were adopted by 193 countries (including Sierra Leone) in 2015. Of the 17 goals, Women Thrive and its membership are particularly focused on number four (Quality Education) and number five (Gender Equality). Bove argues that “the UN goals can be mechanisms for outlawing genital mutilation.” She notes that advocates in Sierra Leone are increasingly demanding that their leaders fulfill promises they have made regarding outlawing such practices (which were banned in 2014, although enforcement has been lackluster). The workshops that Women Thrive conducted in Sierra Leone aimed to improve female advocacy groups’ messaging, enabling the organizations to better pressure key actors in government and civil society to change attitudes and practices surrounding women’s bodies.
Another aspect of the UN SDGs (which, in addition to education and women’s equality, include goals devoted to reducing poverty, global co-operation, and environmental protection) is their time frame. The goals are to be accomplished by 2030, which, says Bove, goes well beyond the 2 to 3-year periods of many grants and programs. “Long-term processes need to be supported,” she says. “Our development model has failed to do that.” Moreover, one can’t assume that gains in female rights will be maintained over time. Bove cites her experience working in Aceh, the northern Indonesian province devastated by the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. “It’s a Sharia-dominated province where women actually had a lot of rights following the tsunami,” she says, “but 10 years later those rights have decreased.”
Women Thrive has never received funding from the U.S. government, counting instead on support from organizations including NoVo Foundation, Hewlett Foundation, New Field Foundation, Imago Dei Fund, and S. Albert Fund at the Philadelphia Foundation, among others. Women Thrive also depends upon “Thrive Ambassadors,” individual donors who leverage their own networks to promote the alliance and its mission.
While Women Thrive is not government-funded, Bove says the U.S. has typically supported empowering women globally. “In the past eight years [prior to the 2016 election], as a U.S.-based organization we could rely on U.S. leadership on these issues.” However, under the current administration, Bove says that “common understanding” has changed, and Women Thrive and like-minded organizations are “back to basics in explaining why supporting women and girls globally is important.” Bove cites a particular example: the latest U.S. delegation to the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women included an explicitly anti-LGBTQI organization (The Center for Family and Human Rights) that has been designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
A further area of serious concern is the U.S. 2018 fiscal year budget, which proposes reducing the International Affairs Budget by 32 percent, including deletion of the “International Organizations and Programs” line item. Naturally, this would undermine the U.S. commitment to UN Sustainable Development Goals, and other support for women’s rights and development globally. “We are working to find champions to maintain development aid,” says Bove, noting that Women Thrive has been informing members of the Senate and House about how damaging the budget cuts will be to women’s lives. To this end, Women Thrive is putting member organizations directly in touch with lawmakers, and Bove notes that “Members of Congress always seem surprised to hear from women and girls on the ground.”
While the current administration poses a significant threat to women’s rights globally, Bove notes that in the last two decades women have increasingly been acknowledged as central to development efforts. “The agenda of the global women’s movement is being mainstreamed into the fight against poverty,” she says. Finally, female-led grass roots organizations and social movements from around the world are demanding more of their political and institutional leaders, and such increased momentum will likely continue, regardless who occupies the White House.
Editor’s Note: Women Thrive is one of three spotlight organizations for Philanthropy Women. These organizations have been designated by our sponsors for media amplification.Read More
As I continue to survey the landscape of gender equality giving, I am occasionally struck by a particularly effective corporate model for supporting this work. One of the most stunning examples of how corporations can turn their dollars around for the cause of women’s rights is CREDO Mobile, which has been funding gender equality movements for the past three decades.
CREDO Mobile grew out of Working Assets, one of the early corporations to grasp the idea of the potential for funding nonprofits via business. The company started as a long distance provider, and then went into credit cards. One of the company’s first credit card products was a card that generated donations to progressive nonprofits with every use.
Today, CREDO Mobile is led by Ray Morris, who spoke to me from his San Francisco office. Morris has only been CEO of CREDO for a year and a half, but his voice swells with pride and awe at the work CREDO has done, and will continue to do, to fund progressive movements with their business model.
In fact, gender equality accounts for about 11.7% of CREDO’s funding for progressive causes, since the company estimates making a total of $84 million in contributions since its founding, with an estimated $9.9 million of that going to women’s issues. This means CREDO is beating out philanthropy as a whole in its funding of gender equality, since estimates of the percentage of foundation funding going for women and girls range from 5-7%.
How does CREDO do it? “Every month we give $150,000 to 3 groups that are chosen by an internal committee that represents every working department of our company,” said Morris, in a recent interview with Philanthropy Women. These funds go for a wide range of progressive causes, including gender equality nonprofits like Women for Afghan Women, NARAL, and the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
In this way, employees of CREDO are actively engaged in decision-making around the company’s giving, and the company’s gender equality giving goes to support a wide range of gender equality nonprofits. CREDO is the largest corporate funder of Planned Parenthood and a significant funder for the Ms. Foundation, the Global Fund for Women, and the Feminist Majority, but it also funds groups doing grassroots work like the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, which takes a multi-dimensional approach to helping women get empowered, from health to education to political involvement. When the National Latina Institute recently presented at CREDO Mobile, Morris said it was a profound experience for him, realizing the power of their work. “It made such an impact on me that I was crying in the background,” he said.
“So from very large to very small, we’re doing everything we can to push into these areas and support women’s empowerment,” he said, which goes beyond reproductive rights and into addressing issues like the wage gap and women in political leadership.
Morris emphasized the value of CREDO’s funding of voter registration and other grassroots activism that impacts political representation, coming back to the point that until we have more women in political leadership, it will be an uphill battle to fund gender equality efforts.
But Morris sees hope for more growth in gender equality funding. “What I find is that everyone is starting to piece it together. Everyone is starting to connect the dots that gender equality in healthcare, pay equality, involvement in the legislative process, is all part of the same story of women’s empowerment.”
“The only way it changes is with more women in the legislative process,” said Morris. “If there were more women involved, would there be having an all-out war on women’s reproductive rights? Probably not.”
So how is CREDO working to get more women into government? By funding nonprofits that take a multidimensional approach.
Morris said that due diligence on that funding is key to the process of closing the political leadership gap. “We ask nonprofits, ‘What are you doing with this money?’ and ‘How have our past grants helped you?” We analyze the data, so that when you see the nonprofits we fund year after year, it’s groups that are highly effective, and groups that are highly effective are generally working in a multidimensional way.”
I thought I’d try picking Morris’s executive brain, so I asked him what he would do if he was the CEO of a foundation that was worth $50 million and made $5 million a year in grants for gender equality. How would he portion out the grants, and would he give more weight to getting women into office?
“I would never pretend to be a high level executive woman. My IQ would likely go up by about 100 points,” he quipped. “But we know for a fact that there are national groups that are good at getting headlines, but are not able to point to real social accomplishments. At the same time, we can point to certain groups and say ‘these people move the ball.’ We’re going to look at organizations that are measurably effective at pushing their agenda.”
Morris gave the question a bit more thought and then added, “My guess is, if I were a high level executive woman at a foundation, I would know that my approach needed to be multidimensional, and so that would include opening clinics in underserved areas, it would include people on the ground knocking on doors to get women voting and running for office. And it would also include finding like-minded people, both men and women in the House and Senate, and helping those people campaign effectively so that we can make those changes in the long term.”
In the age of Trump, let’s hope more corporations take a page from CREDO’s playbook and figure out how to be part of the solution, particularly for gender equality. “We know that no one in the world has enough money to solve these problems,” said Morris. “So we know we’re going to need to influence the larger players of business and government.”
Check out this list of CREDO Mobile’s funding for gender equality to get a full picture of how CREDO is working this terrain.
At CREDO, where I serve as CEO, we are executing an aggressive response to Trump that focuses on protecting vulnerable communities at risk, delegitimizing an unqualified candidate who was opposed by a majority of voters, obstructing Trump’s hateful and aggressive agenda and going on the counterattack wherever possible. Our community of more than 4.7 million CREDO activists is mobilized and already fighting Trump. We know firsthand that individual actions can avalanche into large-scale transformation.
We also contribute more than $150,000 every month to progressive nonprofits from revenue generated by CREDO Mobile, our progressive phone company. That adds up to more than $1.6 million this year and over $81 million over our 30+ years in business.
My top priority is to protect America’s least-privileged and most-vulnerable people. In many ways, I feel like I’ve lived the American dream. I grew up poor with a single mother of four kids. She fought every day to put food on the table and build a better life for us. Thanks to her, I was able to achieve success in engineering and the telecom industry.
That path allowed me to see my own privilege and understand how doors that I walked through in the past were less open for those of different races and ethnicities. I am afraid that even those small openings are slamming shut.
Women in philanthropy: Check out Hala Ayala in Virginia, as part of an inspiring wave of women running for office in the state, which is having its elections this year. Hala Ayala is doing the very important work of standing up for what is right in an environment increasingly hostile to women and immigrants.
In Prince William County, Hala Ayala is hoping to bring her values of empowerment for women and equality for all to Richmond, and at the same time, send home one of Virginia’s leading anti-choice, anti-immigrant delegates.
Ayala has long been involved in local politics. She volunteered for President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign in 2012. And in 2014, she helped revive the National Organization for Women (NOW) chapter in her community, becoming its president.
While Ayala has been speaking up for equality, Republican Richard Anderson spent that time kowtowing to the fringe elements of the GOP by fighting against basic rights for women and girls across Virginia.
The election in Virginia provides an opportunity for women to come together and support a candidate who shares our values and is ready to take on the battles of legislating for reproductive justice and a civil, inclusive America. It’s time to support such brave and competent leadership.
Collectively, state legislatures passed 288 restrictions on women’s reproductive rights between 2010 to 2015. Now, a new film tells the stories of women’s horrific health experiences, and the imprisonments, both actual and threatened, that are a consequence of these laws.
Birthright: A War Story is a new documentary that exposes the radical religious right’s infiltration state legislatures. This movement’s goal is not only to strike down women’s constitutional right to abortion but also to curb women’s access to birth control. Some seek to put the rights of fetuses above those of women.
This is the Real-Life ‘Handmaid’s Tale’
The 1 hour, 40 minute film just completed a highly successful week’s run in New York City before engaged and enthusiastic audiences. This Friday, July 28 it opens in Beverly Hills at theLaemmle Music Hall for another one week run. These two theatrical runs qualify the film for consideration for an Academy Award, a critical step in a documentary’s path to notoriety and success.
Director Civia Tamarkin, a seasoned televisioninvestigative journalist, was motivated to produce BIRTHRIGHT after the Supreme Court’s June 2014 decision in Hobby Lobby. “I was shocked not only by the Supreme Court ruling, but by the lack of awareness from young women that their rights were being jeopardized. People were not taking to the streets.”
Unlike most filmmaking, Tamarkin said, “Ironically, it proved easier to raise money than to get people to go on camera.” The director underscored in an interview with Philanthropy Women, “Practitioners were reluctant to come forward. They were worried about repercussions…..especially about repercussions of violence. ”
Lest we forget, the National Abortion Federationkeeps records of this violence. Eleven people have died and 26 attempted murders have occurred due to anti-abortion violence. A federal law, Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE or the Access Act), passed in 1994 to address such violence.Rewire recently produced an informative short video about the daily harassment that continues to occur at clinics.
Dr. Ruth Shaber, after a twenty five year career as an obstetrician and gynecologist, in 2014 created the Tara Health Foundation. The mission of Tara Health is to “improve the health and well-being of women and girls through the creative use of philanthropic capital.” Tara Health Foundation takes a holistic approach to its grant making as well as its capital management.
Most intriguing to this author was Shaber’s focus on bringing the principles of evidence-based health medicine into philanthropy. She explained,“Evidence-based health is conceived using science. You have an intervention, and then you look at the impact on a desired outcome. In philanthropy, on both the granting-making and the investment side, decisions are more driven by intuition. It is not a sufficient scientific methodology.”
At a national meeting, Shaber heard Dr. David Grimes of the Center for Disease Control speak of the threats to public health that regressive abortion laws are creating. Shaber, as a doctor turned philanthropist, came home from that meeting in November 2015 and realized: “We needed to remind people that abortion and contraception were protecting women’s health.”
Shaber started networking like crazy, on a mission to make a movie akin to An Inconvenient Truth for women’s health. “I knew nothing about filmmaking or media, but I put my name out there and let people know that I was interested in doing this work.”
Those in film know how exceedingly rare it is for a potential backer to be knocking on the door of a film director, but not long after putting out the word, Dr. Shaber heard of Tamarkin’s project and called her up. By this time, Tamarkin had completed development and shot a few interviews, enough to create a fundraising trailer.
The two women realized their goals were aligned. Instead of a grant, they struck up an equity investment agreement. Dr. Shaber recounted, “I wanted to have more of a business relationship with the film, so we had to strike new ground.”
Shaber and Tamarkin found very few in the foundation world who could advise them. But by discussing strategies, the two were able to conceive up a straight-up investment plan. The key selling point of the strategy for investors would be that they would be able to say that profits from the film would be returned to Tara Health Foundation and be deployed for the reproductive rights of women and girls.
The $675,000 equity investment from Tara Health Foundation enabled Tamarkin and her production team to concentrate solely on conducting the interviews, editing and polishing the completed film. Ruth Shaber became an executive producer of the film, in essence leveraging both financial and human capital to produce the film.
In addition to investing in the production, Tara Health Foundation has also provided a $325,000 grant for community outreach for the film. In this writer’s experience, this promotional work is a most vital component of the process, and is rare in the production of independent advocacy films like Birthright. Picture Motion, with a track record in this arena, has been hired to design the national campaign strategy that will maximize the film’s social impact.
Dr. Shaber is optimistic about the outreach screenings. “Each one will have its own character whether it is individuals or organizations, whether they do them as fundraisers or awareness builders.” So far, one outreach screening has occurred in Colorado, a very successful event organized by the American Civil Liberties Union in conjunction withnumerous other groups. Birthright’s theatrical distributor, Abramorama, just launched the commercial/art house run of the film, which precedes any community campaign.
Cristina Aguilar, Executive Director ofColorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights (COLOR), one of the participating organizations in the July 10 community screening, talked about the value of the film in terms of women and maternal health, noting that the U.S. is the only industrialized country in the world where maternal mortality is on the rise. “Women of color are experiencing an increase in pregnancy complications. On top of this tragic and unacceptable public health crisis, the bodies and pregnancies of marginalized communities are a target of unjust and discriminatory laws and policies.”
In an interview with Philanthropy Women, Baden noted that laws restricting abortion and other reproductive rights are often pushed through hostile state legislatures without input from the very women who will feel their impact most. “Anti-abortion legislators should – at the very least – listen to stories like those featured in Birthright and be forced to grapple with the consequences of using women’s healthcare to score political points.”
State legislatures are not the only problem. A fundraising appeal from Jodi Jacobson, publisher ofRewire, sent out July 19, reminds readers that Teresa Manning, who now runs the Office of Population Affairs at the CDC, does not support evidence-based health contraception. “[She] relies on junk science and falsehoods to advocate for anti-choice policies,” the Rewire appeal states. $286 million is at Manning’s disposal in federal family planning funds to low-income Americans. Decades of health progress for women are at stake.
When asked about how Birthright fit into the long history of women’s health films likeAfter Tiller andTrapped, director, writer, and executive producer Tamarkan was adamant that “Birthright is an overview. The issue is not abortion. It is about women’s bodily integrity.”
Additional theatrical screenings are in the works. Small Star Art House in York, Pennsylvania, is listed, as isGateway Film Center in Columbus, Ohio.Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington, NY is on the roster, too. None yet have dates. Other potential screenings are in the works in Lincoln, Nebraska: Dallas and Austin, Texas, and Phoenix and Sedona, Arizona.
If you want updates on the screenings, keep checking the Birthrightwebsite. If you want a screening in your community, simultaneously contact your local movie theatre and fill out the form on Birthright’s webpage. Make it happen. You’ll be glad you did. Women Make Movies is handling educational distribution for college campus campaigns.
“Fabulously,” was Shaber’s response when asked how the New York opening screenings went. “I think we are really lighting a match under people so they are connecting to an issue that they have not thought about enough.”
(Full disclosure, the author is a co-founder of Women Make Movies, the non-profit, educational feminist film organization.)
If a foundation’s mission is to build more healthy partnerships in the world, what better place to start than with their own internal partnerships?
In fact, for Peter and Jennifer Buffett of the NoVo Foundation, developing their own partnership as a couple coincided with developing the mission of their foundation, which is to transform relationships across the globe from “domination and exploitation” to “collaboration and partnership.”
I had approached NoVo wanting to talk to either Jennifer or Peter individually, but, apropos of their partnership approach to philanthropy, I got them both. They spoke to me by phone from their home in the Hudson Valley, about two hours north of New York City.
Spouses Jennifer and Peter Buffett serve as NoVo’s co-presidents. They are highly conscious of gender roles, and how even among seemingly well-meaning and high-minded people, patriarchal attitudes and structures are often still present. They found this to be the case for themselves, “I’m a nice guy and she’s an outspoken woman,” says Peter, “but we were reenacting certain toxic roles,” he says of the early days of their relationship. Namely, that the wife serves as handmaiden supporting her husband in his endeavors. To combat this tendency, the Buffetts, who met in 1991 in Milwaukee, co-lead NoVo, and have assembled a racially and gender-diverse staff of 26 to run the foundation. In 2016, NoVo directed approximately $100 million in grants to organizations in the U.S. and overseas.
“NoVo” is a Latin word that suggests change, alteration and invention. In seeking to counter exploitative attitudes, practices and institutions and replace them with more egalitarian ones, the foundation focuses on the status of girls and women, particularly those in low-income communities, whether in the U.S. or abroad.
In 2016, NoVo announced a seven-year $90 million initiative to advance girls of color in the U.S., and in support of this effort recently concluded a series of “listening sessions” with communities in the Southeast, Southwest and Midwest. These encounters resulted in a collection of narratives illuminating the gender and race-based challenges facing girls of color, particularly in poor areas. (NoVo is accepting letters of inquiry until August 11 from community organizations across the country that are seeking to address such inequalities).
The NoVo Foundation was formed in 2006, the result of a bequest of stock valued at one billion dollars from Peter Buffett’s father, Warren. NoVo’s work on advancing the rights of girls and women (including combating gender-based violence), encouraging sustainability, furthering social and emotional learning, and supporting indigenous communities, came out of several key experiences Peter and Jennifer had in the mid-00s.
In 2005, Peter attended the first meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative in New York. Gene Sperling, an economist who served in the Clinton and Obama administrations, gave a talk that Peter describes as a “lightning strike” for him. Sperling spoke about the impact that educating and empowering adolescent girls in post-conflict countries can have on improving the trajectories of entire communities. At the same time, Jennifer was thousands of miles away in Rwanda, where she was learning some of the same lessons, but hearing them from people on the ground in a country still struggling to emerge from genocide.
Jennifer says that in Rwanda, like many places, “When things fall apart, teen girls become heads of households.” This is a tremendous burden for them to carry, and deprives them of educational and other opportunities. Moreover, Jennifer says that when she talked with heads of NGOs in the developing world, she heard that sexual violence and the undervaluing of women and girls “is happening everywhere.”
NoVo attempts to invest in women and change oppressive structures as means of helping not just the women, but also their children, and whole societies. There is no way to boot-strap oneself out of a patriarchal system where every hour is consumed with survival tasks. “It’s a common saying,” says Peter, “If hard work made you rich, then every woman in Africa would be a millionaire.”
Prior to forming NoVo, Jennifer and Peter had already seen the corrosive effects of racism and sexism in their work in Milwaukee with poor teen-aged mothers of color. “We were looking at what perpetuates the cycle of poverty,” says Jennifer, “and trying to create supportive spaces for these girls.” Jennifer notes that Milwaukee, like many U.S. cities, is segregated, and part of her and Peter’s philanthropic education was familiarizing themselves first-hand with the Latino, African American and other communities that make up that city.
NoVo has sought to avoid a top-down mentality in its social and economic justice efforts. “The colonial mindset has people coming in and wiping out indigenous knowledge,” says Peter, who takes a page from his famous father in not replicating such an approach. “My Dad does not buy companies and tell the managers what to do, he trusts that they already know their business.”
Prior to his major gift that launched NoVo, Warren Buffett gave Jennifer and Peter $100,000 as a seed money for a non-profit so that they could learn the philanthropic ropes. “The tone of the gift was trusting and giving, not controlling,” says Jennifer, and NoVo has tried to mirror this approach in its own efforts. Peter, who has a career as a composer and musician, says his work in this area has also helped him. The finish line for a film score might be clear he notes, but it could take some improvising to get there.
Improving the status of girls and women is not easy, given that the mechanisms of global capitalism reinforce patriarchy, racism, inequality, and colonialism, not to mention environmental destruction. “Our current systems and structures are doomed,” says Jennifer. “The West is very extractive. It’s not doing the species any favors. We need to give people the chance to imagine a different and better future.”
Peter states that part of NoVo’s work is “to look under the covers of capitalism,” and that NoVo takes inspiration from indigenous communities in terms of developing locally-based, sustainable solutions. Of course, NoVo owes its existence to a gift from one of the world’s preeminent capitalists. “The irony is not lost on me,” says Peter.
The network of global capitalism can seem impenetrable and abstract, and for this reason NoVo also focuses on individuals and their relationships with one another. Under the rubric of social and emotional learning (SEL), which the foundation describes as “the process of developing fundamental skills for life success within supportive, participatory learning environments,” NoVo is helping students become better people and community members, as opposed to better test-takers.
“Children are soaking in a model that is 150 years old,” says Jennifer of our educational system, adding that, “Kids’ social and emotional needs are not being addressed.” The emphasis on hierarchy, test-taking, and standardization certainly has its pedagogical detractors, but NoVo is exploring the emotional and social toll of this approach. “We don’t ask what we are educating students for,” says Jennifer, arguing that, “We need to cultivate empathy, imagination, and cooperation.”
To this end, NoVo’s SEL Innovation Fund awardees for 2017 comprise a variety of school and district types—urban, suburban, and rural—across all grade levels and student populations. The awardees included 67 teachers, and 30 school districts in 22 states.
The SEL initiatives complement NoVo’s work with girls, whom it describes as “one of the most powerful and untapped forces on the planet.” Investing in this “under-valued asset” in the U.S. and abroad, suggests the Foundation, is perhaps the most significant thing we can do in advancing peace, justice and equality.