Faith & Philanthropy with Feminist Leaders: Liveblog

On Thursday, April 29th, the Philanthropy Women team gathered with honored guests for the next webinar in our online conversation series: Faith and Philanthropy: How To Live Out Your Beliefs Through Your Giving.

From the changing role of religious institutions in relation to nonprofits and how ways of giving have evolved over time, the latest iteration in our webinar series examined how we as women in philanthropy can live out our faith through our giving practices.

Moderated by Kiersten Marek, the day’s panel included: Yolanda F. Johnson, Founder of Women of Color in Fundraising and Philanthropy and President of Women In Development, New York; Dr. Helen LaKelly Hunt, author of Faith and Feminism: A Holy Alliance and lifelong donor activist for women; Emily Nielsen Jones, President of the Imago Dei Fund; Dr. Jane Karlin, Adjunct Professor, NYU, and Board Member, Women of Reform Judaism; and Nikki Toyama-Szeto, Executive Director of Christians for Social Action.

How do our faith journeys impact our giving?

Kiersten Marek kicked off the conversation by sharing her own faith journey: raised Catholic, Kiersten and her family remained active members of the church through her childhood and adulthood. Today, she is part of the Episcopal church, which she loves because of its strong connection to the LGBT community and its opportunities for engagement.

However, as Kiersten’s children grew older, she began noticing the patriarchal nature of Episcopalian services.

“I said ‘father and son’ probably forty times in an hour, and I started to wonder if this was really the best use of my time,” she said. After this realization, Kiersten and her family shifted their philanthropy away from church giving and toward funding for women and girls.

Emily Nielsen Jones: Global Philanthropy and Spirituality Support for our Shared Humanity

In a pre-recorded segment, Emily Nielsen Jones shared her experiences as the co-founder of the Imago Dei Fund. (Emily could not join us today as her son was graduating — congratulations from the PW team!)

“Given our topic, I can say that I am with you all in spirit,” she said. “I feel a kinship with all of you.”

Emily spoke to the contradictions inherent in conversations around faith, philanthropy, and gender. Founded in 2009, the Imago Dei Fund built off of the difficulties of 2008’s financial and social issues to help navigate the “liberating time” she felt as part of a spiritual and philanthropic awakening.

“I think I’ve been missing something,” she remembered thinking. “I’ve been sitting in the pews for 30 years or more, and I’m just so curious.”

“What am I seeking?” she asked herself. “In some ways, it’s God, but in others, it’s my own soul.”

As she began to let go of beliefs that are inherent in organized religion but not held close to her own heart, Emily explored her own empowerment and growing her foundation. Latin for “Image of God,” Imago Dei Fund offered Emily a chance to find herself and align her philanthropy with her faith ideals.

“For me, it’s about seeing the spark of the divine and the shared humanity we all have,” she said. Built on that sense of shared humanity, Emily’s philanthropic mission focuses on supporting women, girls, and the global community as stewards of faith and empowerment.

The Foundation is “faith-inspired, not faith-based,” she said. “That’s our motivation, but from the beginning we’ve been straddling the spiritual world and the world of social change.”

The Legendary HLH on Faith and Feminism

Dr. Helen LaKelly Hunt took the virtual podium to discuss her experiences with faith and feminism. The Hunt Oil Company, Helen’s family’s company, gave distributions to her in the early 1980s. Leveraging this new source of funding, Helen began to grow her own philanthropy with the assistance of philanthropic advising firms.

Helen began reading the Annual reports for Foundations, after becoming involved with the Council on Foundations. One of the most impactful things Helen got out of those organizations’ annual reports was the prevalence of diverse women on the boards of organizations that she felt more aligned with.

“I’ve got to support this vision,” she said. From there, the New York Women’s Foundation, Women’s Funding Network, and Women Moving Millions became her natural brainchildren (in partnership with other leading feminist philanthropists, of course).

As a woman of faith, Helen noticed that many feminist agendas at the time did not include women of faith. This led to her to research and write Faith and Feminism: A Holy Alliance. After a conversation with Gloria Steinem, who encouraged her not to write the book — citing the inherently patriarchal nature of most organized religion. But Helen chose to write the book and honor the leading feminist women of faith that have informed her own journey.

“Women need to show up at their houses of worship and demand equality,” she said.

The book’s publication led to a conference and study partnership with UN Women, in which Helen explored faith and feminism — particularly the ways we can work in partnership even when our identities (“woman of faith” vs “female feminist”) don’t quite align. In the study, not one woman surveyed said that women of these two identities can work together collaboratively, but Helen encourages us to change this.

Yolanda F. Johnson on Finding Her Role in Faith and Philanthropy

Yolanda F. Johnson‘s relationship with faith, money, and the role of women started with her experiences raised in the Baptist church. She noticed a paradox in the lessons she learned from her Baptist minister grandfather: “Women can’t, except for you.”

“I probably gave him a bit of a headache as I was growing up and finding my own path,” she joked. “I finally had to tell him, ‘Guess what, Grandpa? Women can.’ It’s not just me — I am not special in that sense. What we have to realize and share is that women can. Just fill in the blank.”

One revolutionary moment for Yolanda was when she noticed the prevalent role of women in the stories from the Bible. For example, women are the ones who witnessed the resurrection — so if there was so much prevalence and empowerment in women in the Bible, why were women in modern day traditionally put down?

This idea began to inform Yolanda’s philanthropy. Although still supporting religious organizations close to her heart, she stepped away from the traditional tithe system to explore a unique way to “discover how it is that you’re supposed to be generous.”

For example, Yolanda has commissioned new works of music, supported artists and underfunded communities, and committed to social and economic justice.

“I believe that God is a pragmatist,” she said. “He understands the world needs money to go around… There’s not necessarily a dollar amount tied to it, but I just need to be generous — whatever that means to me.”

Through ideas of generosity, women’s empowerment, and alignments between justice and the church, Yolanda has found ways to support her faith through her philanthropy — and overall, finding new ways to support women and girls, particularly women and girls of color, in ways that encourage their empowerment within and outside of the church.

“How can I champion a woman?” she asks herself. “Who can I get behind, who can I push forward, who can I spotlight? I’ve gotten a real kick out of that.”

Dr. Jane Karlin: Find a Faithful Home in Your Philanthropy

Dr. Jane Karlin did not think she would find her way into faith-based philanthropy. A professor in her university approached her to join the Hadassah Women’s Zionist Organization of America, an American Jewish volunteer women’s organization.

“I’m Jewish, but I don’t know if I’m Jewish enough for Hadassah,” she told her professor. But Jane quickly realized that there was more to the organization than simply the celebration of faith.

“The sense of giving Jewishly was also in my DNA,” she said. Leveraging the connections giving provides between generations, Jane explored the ways her own sense of philanthropy helped her find her Jewish roots.

Jane learned from women’s organizations and activists in her Jewish community, where social justice and interfaith relationships were critical to the community’s empowerment.

“I saw the work they did, and I saw how they enjoyed working together,” she said. As a female supporter of Reformed Judaism, she says, “I simply found a home that strengthened my voice and allowed me to meet women whose energy and commitment to spirituality I deeply admire.”

Part of Jane’s recent work has involved shifting from synagogue-specific funding to initiatives supporting underserved Jewish communities, grassroots Jewish organizations, and support for the arts within the modern Jewish community.

“For me, giving to a women’s faith-based organization… is like one-stop shopping,” she said. “It allows me to fulfill my spiritual needs, but it also allows me to band with others, to learn from other women, [and] to respect the history of the past as I try to contribute to creating a more just social order for my children and my grandchildren. It allows me to model… that women have voices, that women have power, and that women can use money.”

To wrap up, Jane said, “I do believe that one can be a feminist, a champion of social justice, and someone who believes that faith — however she defines it — is important and meaningful and must be sustained.”

Nikki Toyama-Szeto on Social Justice and Faith

Christians for Social Action promotes equity for women within the Christian faith, the fighting of racism, the fighting of increased militarization, and addressing poverty in the Christian community. Since its founding in the 1970s, Nikki’s organization has shifted some of its focus to empowering women in the Christian community as well.

She shared a picture of Mary and her cousin Elizabeth, who Mary turned to on her religious journey — all women in faith-based philanthropy need a relationship like this, someone to communicate with and rely on who is “not a teacher, [but] a family member or friend who is journeying with me in the same direction,” she said.

In response to the shooting of Asian-American women in [Orlando], Nikki’s organization hosted a support meeting on Palm Sunday to foster the collaboration between Asian women, Christian women, and women of other faiths.

“It was a very powerful and prophetic gathering of prayer, giving honor to those who died, and calling out for justice,” she said.

As a fourth-generation Japanese American, Nikki is committed to centering the voices of Asian-American women of faith in philanthropic conversations.

“Women are showing up, not just by themselves, but connected to the children of future generations and the past generations they are honoring,” she said. “It’s not exclusive to a gender, but I have appreciated the social experience that women have had.”

“Women make things concrete and actionable,” Nikki added. “We don’t live in the world of the theoretical… We recognize where reality hits the road because we live there every day.”

In closing, she encouraged the “embodiment” of women in faith and philanthropy. By supporting women in leadership roles and in grassroots organizations, we can utilize embodiment as a cure to patriarchy.

“That’s the kind of leadership that we really need moving us forward in society,” she said.



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Author: Maggie May

Maggie May is a small business owner, author, and story-centric content strategist headquartered in Annapolis, MD and Philadelphia, PA. She has a passion for finding stories and telling them the way they're meant to be told.

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