How One Feminist Giving Pioneer is Changing Lives

When you hear the word “relationship,” what do you think of first? A couple in a romantic partnership, or two people sharing a conversation?

Two participants embrace at a Safe Conversations workshop.
(Photo credit: Relationships First)

Most of us would lean toward that first option–which is part of the reason Relationships First is setting out to change the way we think about human interaction.

Relationships First is a nonprofit founded on the idea that healthy relationships are key to physical, financial, and emotional health–not just for people, but for the communities and countries they live in. When our relationships suffer, it shows. We tend to disconnect from our jobs, our friends, our children, our family members. And when this happens, performance drops, stress mounts, and communities feel the heaviest effects. This nonprofit seeks to break this vicious cycle by teaching new ways of communication.

In August of 2010, feminist philanthropist Helen LaKelly Hunt and couples’ therapist Harville Hendrix hosted a weekend-long discussion in Dallas, Texas. They invited a group of therapists and their spouses to speak about relationships. The goal? Take the therapists’ key learnings from their studies, patient experiences, and relationships with their own spouses, and translate all of that information into actionable, educational teachings that could improve the general public’s communication methods. The result was astounding: the think tank turned into a dedicated group, committed to spreading a healthy relationship movement across Dallas and the entire United States.

Since 2010, that movement has evolved into the nonprofit we know today as Relationships First. Helen LaKelly Hunt, who founded Relationships First with her life partner Harville Hendrix, is well-known in philanthropy circles for her work in the women’s movement, as a pioneer of feminist philanthropy, and her efforts co-founding some of the highest-level foundations and donors’ groups in the United States. Her work as a fundraiser and conversation starter has contributed to the creation of Women Moving Millions, the Dallas Women’s Foundation (now the Texas Women’s Foundation), and the Women’s Funding Network, among others.

Since the 1970s, Hunt and philanthropists like her have touted the importance of relationships. Especially in feminist philanthropy where relationships form the foundation of everything we do, the connections between one human being and another can lead to some incredible interactions. Today, many–if not most–women’s funds are built on a heavily participatory approach. We see this approach in giving circles, pledge groups, and shared fundraising opportunities.

Hunt and Hendrix’s work with Relationships First is centered around the idea of improved communication. The nonprofit hosts workshops promoting Safe Conversations, the research-backed curriculum that came out of that first relationship therapist think tank.

The Safe Conversations process is built from three parts:

  • Mirroring: Repeating back what your partner said, so their feelings are heard
  • Validating: Seeing your partner’s perspective from their point of view without surrendering your own
  • Empathizing: Imagining the feelings your partner had while they were sending the message

This year, Relationships First reaffirmed its commitment to communication with a wide range of new workshops, partnerships, and offerings surrounding the Safe Conversations method. This spring, for example, the nonprofit announced their work with the City of Dallas WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) Program. In June, 150 staff members learned the Safe Conversations method, and 85% reported plans to incorporate the new communication process into their work.

Relationships First is also partnering with the City of Dallas for a Citywide Youth Community Service Day, hosted in November of 2019. In the meantime, new Safe Conversation leaders are being trained and have come from Dallas, Utah, California, Washington, D.C., Canada, and Costa Rica. Trained in Safe Communications curriculum and education, these new leaders will host workshops and events in their local communities to continue the healthy relationships movement.

This fall is an excellent time to be a part of the Relationships First community. Their focus on people-to-people interactions has led to some incredible impact.

The philanthropy community could greatly benefit from the communications skills taught by Relationships First–and it already is! Today’s feminist philanthropy is often founded on a participatory, people-focused approach. When we amplify the connections between foundations, donors, campaigners, and activists, we find more opportunities to work together toward the common good.

To learn more about Relationships First, visit their website at

To learn more about Helen LaKelly Hunt’s past and present work, read our 2016 profile on this pioneer of women’s funding. For more information about Safe Conversations, read about the impact communication has on feminist grantmaking. For hands-on experience, sign up for Relationships First’s FREE webinar with the Center for Partnership Studies on September 12, 2019.


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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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