I recently returned from DREAM. DARE. DO. in Chicago, the every-three-year (maybe more often now!) convening of the Women’s Philanthropy Institute.
Wow. I am still reeling from the experience. It was an intense two days of immersion in conversation about women’s leadership in philanthropy, where it is coming from and where it will be going in the brave new political climate of a Trump presidency.
The Women’s Philanthropy Institute (WPI) sponsored this amazing conference, held at the Magnificent Mile Marriott in downtown Chicago. Led by Debra Mesch and Andrea Pactor, WPI is one of the biggest hubs for knowledge on gender and philanthropy.
WPI recently received a $2.5 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to support its work, and the conference started with a video welcome from none other than Melinda Gates, talking about the “unique and powerful role” that women play in philanthropy, both nationally and globally.
The 27 speakers at the WPI conference helped to expand the conversation on women and philanthropy in several important ways. Just a few examples:
- Vini Bhansali of Thousand Currents challenged members of the philanthropy women community to recognize discrimination or prejudice happening among us. “Don’t just talk about feminism – practice daily acts of sisterhood.”
- Casey Harden, YWCA USA shared how the YWCA maintains inclusiveness as a core value, and that the organization does not agree with the Trump administration’s ban on Muslims.
- “My dream is that saffron would replace opium as the primary crop of Afghanistan.” Kimberly Jung, CEO and Co-founder of Rumi Spice, shared her experience as a for-profit leader with a social impact agenda, and described her desire to build a for-profit business as being tied to her company’s vision of its sustainability.
- Kristin Goss, Sanford School of Public Policy, Duke University, shared her knowledge about the history of women’s legislative advocacy in Washington, showing the trends over time. Goss reminded us that women win elections at the same rate as men, and if more women ran for office, we’d have more women IN office.
- Jacki Zehner of Women Moving Millions spoke about the need for women to talk about money, even if it makes them uncomfortable. She alluded to the renowned Helen LaKelly Hunt, one of the founders of Women Moving Millions, who helped women to break through the barrier of their discomfort about asking for and giving a million dollars to fund gender equity initiatives.
- “Let nothing stand between you and the people you are trying to connect to,” said Ruth Ann Harnisch, President of the Harnisch Foundation, while discussing the power of media to impact social change, with Dianne Lynch, President of Stephens College. Harnisch also responded to an audience question about the movie Equity by reminding participants of the double standard in film where we expect films to portray women acting heroically, but we don’t hold men to this same standard.
One of the most heartfelt moments in the conference was when Tracy Gary received the Shaw-Hardy Taylor Achievement Award. Gary, author of Inspired Philanthropy and longtime advocate for advancing women’s philanthropy, gave an impassioned plea for women to get stronger in their commitment of dollars and time to philanthropy.
In making the Award, Shaw-Hardy noted that when she and Taylor co-authored their landmark book, Women and Philanthropy, Gary was one of the chief knowledge sources they called upon to learn about the world of women’s giving.
Gary had some of the most interesting and thought-provoking things to say at the conference, which makes sense given her four decades of experience with the field. She reminded the audience that one of her big keys to success is simply showing up. She is one of those people who makes it to many conferences a year, and noted that her ongoing visibility and accessibility are essential traits to her success. She talked about the importance of setting aside money in your budget as a woman philanthropist in order to attend conferences and be part of the visible leadership of the movement.
“We need to stop letting men be in charge,” said Gary, and, “Learning to love is learning to listen,” — both timeless messages that embody Gary’s fearless persistence in advancing the causes of women’s rights, LGBT rights, and other progressive causes. Gary was bold enough to say that if she were to get hit by a bus, she would be ecstatic, because she has laid out her giving plan and is looking forward to making those large donations. She also told the audience that she lost 100 pounds in the past year by cutting wheat, dairy, and sugar out of her diet, and these big changes are partially about wanting to be around to participate in the women’s philanthropy field for another twenty years at least.
Gary helped establish the Women’s Foundation of California in 1979-1980, one of the first locally based women’s funds in the country. She also helped build out several donor networks including the Women’s Funding Network, Women Donors Network, and Women Moving Millions.
In the last breakout session of the conference, I sat with a group of about 30 women. The legendary Jacki Zehner was leading the discussion, which centered on identify next action steps for women’s philanthropy as a whole. It was time for the rubber to meet the road. What were we going to do as a group, and where were we going to get the resources to do it?
Of course, these questions can never be answered quickly, but the conversation was intense, and involved much careful listening and questioning. Some of the priorities that received the highest votes from the group were:
1.) Establishing a hub for women’s philanthropy (Hey, sounds a lot like Philanthropy Women!).
2.) Establishing a shared policy agenda for women’s philanthropy.
3.) Identifying next steps for movement activities like The Women’s March.
Unfortunately, I had to rush out of this last break-out session, since I received a text that my shuttle to the airport had arrived early. Thankfully, I just made it to the van as the driver was closing the door to drive away.
But that’s okay, because the conversation is ongoing, as it should be. I saw on Twitter that a group of millennials from the conference is planning to do monthly update calls.
The energy and discussion is continuing around how women in philanthropy can carry the strategy forward for gender equity. I’m looking forward to staying involved!