Feminist Philanthropy Q and A with Donna Hall and Ruth Ann Harnisch

Ruth Ann Harnisch, Co-Founder and President of the Harnisch Foundation, shares insights on feminist philanthropy. (Image credit: The Harnisch Foundation)

Watching the news in 2019 can sometimes be an exercise in self-restraint. So often, we find ourselves gripped by unpleasant stories that have far-reaching implications, particularly for women.

At the same time, women’s voices are heard more widely in 2019 than in previous generations. Just look at the #MeToo movement, Nike’s “they call us crazy” advertisements, or the thousands of women who marched into DC’s Freedom Plaza on January 19th. These movements are a reminder that the world is not limited to what we see on the news — women around the world are banding together to make their voices heard, and when women unite to enact social change, incredible things happen.

Donna Hall of Women Donors Network (WDN) and Ruth Ann Harnisch of the Harnisch Foundation are two women who have been leading the way as pioneers of feminist philanthropy. Their work as donors and thought leaders in the sector has helped shape the way that feminists carry out change, with close attention to issues of relationships and awareness of the need for larger systems change.

Donna Hall, President and CEO, Women Donors Network, speaking at the WDN 2015 conference in New Orleans.

The 200+ women who make up the Women Donors Network are committed to advancing “a just, equal, and sustainable world by leveraging the wealth, power, and community of progressive women donors.” Collectively, the organization’s members contribute $175 million to progressive causes every year, focusing on WDN’s three main goals: participation and representation, opportunity and equality, and a safe and sustainable future for all.

The Harnisch Foundation works to advance equality and inclusivity, focusing on women and girls. In the 1970s, Ruth Ann Harnisch was a pioneer for women in the media world, and was the first woman to appear on the evening news in Nashville. In 1998, she and her husband Bill created their foundation, and began awarding grants to Tennessee nonprofits. The Harnisch Foundation has since expanded to work with other organizations, investing in opportunities for female leadership, storytelling, and collaborations in media.

We recently asked some questions of Donna Hall and Ruth Ann Harnisch, to learn more about their organizations and how they do their unique work in feminist philanthropy, particularly at this unique time, when freedom and opportunity for women are under attack.

Philanthropy Women: What “ignited the spark” in you to make philanthropy your career?

Ruth Ann Harnisch: Although I do have a philanthropic career, it is not my only career, and I would be a philanthropist even if it were not one of my professions. I have a philanthropic mindset. I see life through a philanthropic lens. This spark was ignited when I was a working journalist. Every day, I saw what philanthropy accomplished, or could. And I raised millions of dollars for charities when I was a public figure. That was pretty sparky!

Donna Hall: My first career was in public health and after I went to business school, I learned through a chance consulting job at The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation that the philanthropic space was a perfect mesh of my business skills and social science/public health interests. To me it became clear that philanthropy could be considered like venture capital work in the not-for-profit sector.

PW: As leaders of your organizations, how have you seen the philanthropic environment change recently? What events/themes have you seen making the greatest impact on philanthropy?

HALL: WDN has a long tradition of members who give regularly and generously to progressive causes. In recent years our numbers have grown exponentially because women realize that working together collaboratively and collectively is advantageous — not only for their individual giving, which becomes more strategic and coordinated, but also for the recipients of the funding. Less bureaucracy and reporting allows the grantees to really focus on their work.

HARNISCH: In my circles, I’ve noticed many donors and organizations making conscious choices to center Black women and girls and to invest in their leadership. Among the Harnisch Foundation grantees, the Ms. Foundation made this bold choice. The Women Donors Network is not only investing in projects headed by women of color, members are actively working to dismantle white supremacy and examine their own unconscious racist behaviors.

PW: What makes you optimistic or pessimistic about the current state of philanthropic efforts in the U.S. and worldwide? What would you like to see more companies/individuals do to contribute to worthy causes?

HALL: Women are coming into huge monetary assets in the next twenty or thirty years. That means that there is tremendous untapped potential and reach for helping them become focused, strategic and purposeful with their giving. Individual philanthropists will continue to band together, with the potential impact that many of our major foundations enjoy. I’m very optimistic that this will have a beneficial effect on the values and goals of an organization like WDN.

HARNISCH: I think there’s a difference between the business of professional philanthropy and the “state of philanthropic efforts,” which I see reflected in almost every person I meet. Most people are doing something philanthropic, whether or not they use that word to define their volunteer efforts, their donations to local charities, their pledge to the telethon. I think most people have a philanthropic heart, so I’m optimistic about the future of human generosity. This is being reflected in what we expect of companies and corporations, too. Corporate social responsibility is becoming the norm, as it should be.

PW: How do you change your fundraising strategy when you’re focusing on “stretch” donations (as in, large donations from first-time donors or increased donations from current donors)?

HARNISCH: It’s so important to know each donor as an individual! Most people are uncomfortable with money conversations, and I like to make sure it’s a comfortable conversation. It’s key to know why the donor is investing currently, and what they’re hoping for as an outcome of their giving. Asking them to increase their giving significantly makes sense if you can show that the outcomes they care about will be improved significantly too. As a donor, I define a stretch gift differently than you did. For me, a stretch is one that stretches me, stretches my capacity, stretches my actual ability to write the check. If you want that kind of stretch gift, that’s a different question.

HALL: My fundraising is very focused and limited, we only accept contributions from our members, no outside foundation or corporate monies are accepted into WDN. As we have gotten bolder and more strategic in our giving, our members have chosen to make “stretch” gifts so that WDN can continue to be on the cutting edge of important initiatives, such as our Reflective Democracy Campaign, now in its sixth year. In fact in 2019 our budget has doubled which will enable us to increase our grantmaking by 170%. Unlike most other organizations, we do not charge any administrative fees for grantmaking so when a member invests in a particular program or initiative, 100% of her contribution passes through to the grantee.

PW: What advice would you give to asset managers and philanthropy representatives who are asking for “stretch” donations for the first time?

HALL: I would urge them not to make a stretch ask until they have established a close and trusting relationship with the donor and then they need to have a well-framed and cogent story that explains the strategy behind the stretch gift and what difference it will make. When we share values and experiences with our donors, it changes the whole picture and makes a stretch ask an exciting adventure that donor and grantee can share alike.

HARNISCH: Any time you are building a new skill, practice, practice, practice! Money conversations are uncomfortable unless the people having them know how to make them comfortable. We get comfortable by having a message that we ourselves truly believe – you won’t be an effective fundraiser if you’re not a true believer. When you’re sure you have a message you can deliver with sincerity, practice with people who will put you through challenging situations, practice with people who’ve done it before and done it well, practice with volunteers who will give you honest feedback. And remember: donors are human beings, not wallets, not ATMs. Nobody wants to feel like they’re being “techniqued.” Think about fundraising as “friendraising” and make it safe for your donor to say “no” or “not now,” because how you make them feel is perhaps the most important part of the ask and the key to the future of the relationship.


Thank you to Ruth Ann Harnisch and Donna Hall for contributing to this article!

For more information about Ruth Ann Harnisch and The Harnisch Foundation, visit their website at thehf.org.

For more information about Donna Hall and Women Donors Network, visit their website at womendonors.org.

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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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