Ruth Ann Harnisch: Modesty Does Not Serve Women’s Leadership

You can’t get much closer to the epicenter of creativity, social justice, and women’s empowerment than the Harnisch Foundation (theHF). Through its focus on empowering women and girls of all backgrounds, its innovative grantmaking toward women and media, and its latest Funny Girls grant initiative that teaches resilience and leadership through improv, theHF’s work spans some of the most relevant and important missions in philanthropy today. And at the epicenter of the HF is Ruth Ann Harnisch.

Ruth Ann Harnisch
Ruth Ann Harnisch

How did Ruth Ann Harnisch rise to her current position, with an amazing career in journalism and media under her belt, as well as 17 years at the helm of a foundation carrying out many unique and creative initiatives for women and girls?

Well, she didn’t get there by being quiet and demure, and she is of the opinion that women have to do much more to defy the gender norms and expectations that hold back progress. “In recent years, I have stepped up to accept that an institution can be a leader and a role model,” said Harnisch, in a recent telephone interview with Inside Philanthropy. “Those of us who want to see more women’s leadership have to be willing to model it.”

Ruth Ann Harnisch is president of theHF, which was founded in 1998. Since that time, theHF has given hundreds of grants to not-for-profit organizations, mainly to pursue creative work in women and girls empowerment, film and media, and journalism. A recent example? theHF’s support for the Sundance Female Filmmakers Initiative. Here, theHF is developing women’s participation as directors, producers, writers, editors, and as chiefs of photography in the film industry.

But that’s not the only angle that theHF is taking on this issue. The foundation has also sponsored research through the Media Diversity and Social Change Initiative at USC, which studies Hollywood and gender roles—both how women are portrayed on screen, and how women participate off-screen. This initiative of USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism is regarded as one of the leading think tanks addressing issues of inequality in entertainment, bringing much-needed evidence and insight to the industry. As part of the this, theHF supported a study released in August of 2015 on gender, race/ethnicity, and LGBT characters in 700 films.

Much of the genesis of theHF’s mission around media, journalism, and women’s empowerment has grown out of Harnisch’s life experiences. Harnisch is a self-described “recovering journalist” who started as a teen deejay in Buffalo, New York, and went on to devote three decades to journalism and media, including working as a television reporter and anchor at Nashville’s CBS-TV affiliate. She also worked as a columnist for 17 years at the Nashville Banner.

What did all of this life experience teach Harnisch? “Modesty does not serve women’s leadership,” she said. “So many of us of my generation—I’m 65—were raised to be ladylike and modest, and not tooting one’s own horn and waiting for others to recognize us and acknowledge our accomplishments. We were taught to believe that it would be unseemly of us to speak for ourselves and promote ourselves.”

But Harnisch sees these norms as part of what is keeping women from rising to the leadership roles they deserve in society. “When we step out and become willing to lead, then we become visible to others who can see us as examples to follow.”

Harnisch sees it as part of her philanthropic obligation to allow herself to be visible, and she has taken it upon herself in recent years to raise that visibility through social media, newsletters, and publicizing of the foundation’s grantmaking, so that others, particularly women, can imagine themselves in similar roles.

Harnisch credits Nashville-based philanthropist Annette Eskind with inspiring her to make philanthropy her vocation. “I was inspired to become a philanthropist and to dream about giving gifts of a million dollars long before I had a million dollars.” Harnisch described her experience of witnessing Annette Eskind giving a million dollar gift (more about the Irwin and Annette Eskind Family Foundation). “It was thrilling and shocking to me that a woman would (a) have so much money to give and (b) be willing to be seen as giving that much money.”

From then on, it became a dream of Harnisch’s to one day do likewise. “I believe that every time a woman steps up, she inspires someone else’s dream, so part of what I invest in at theHF is women’s leadership.” Harnisch described organizations the foundation has supported such as Vote, Run, Lead, which trains women to run for public office.

Harnisch also talked about the foundation’s new initiative called Funny Girls, which is developing leadership skills with a curriculum of improv and movement for girls grades three through eight, “so that girls can learn early to lead with strength and warmth,” said Harnisch. “Improv also teaches resilience, because the world will knock you down. People will say things that hurt you. People will say things that surprise you. To be able to handle what life throws at you is a skill that improv teaches beautifully.”

Going forward, Harnisch sees theHF getting more involved in funding media and storytelling for social change, and in harnessing the power of social media to maximize impact for positive social developments. Harnisch observed how the landscape of philanthropy is being changed by digital and social media storytelling, and how social media in general, and the digital generation, are driving new trends in giving.

“It’s very encouraging to see how social media has changed the game for philanthropy, how the digital generation is completely unintimidated by using social media to fundraise for causes they care about. Kids use social media to dedicate their birthdays to fundraising, or their bar and bat mitzvahs to fundraising. Young people are getting married and using social media to dedicate their wedding to a charity. It’s wonderful to see how this new form of communication has transformed giving and opened it to all.”

With regard to theHF’s part in this transformation, Harnisch said the foundation will increasingly fund media and storytelling for social change. She is an executive producer of The Hunting Ground, a documentary that’s being shown at hundreds of colleges this year, and which is slated to air on CNN this fall.

“It has changed the discussion about campus assault,” said Harnisch of The Hunting Ground. “It has changed college administrators’ attitudes. It has changed the student body’s awareness of what their institutions do and do not do, and it’s provoking a conversation about the culture of consent, so that young people will learn that only enthusiastic consent is the standard. We’re saying goodbye to ‘no means no’, and welcoming a culture of ‘an enthusiastic yes means yes’.”

Contributions raised by the film are being deposited in the Hunting Ground Fund, which is hosted by NEO Philanthropy, and will eventually be granted to groups in the field.

Harnisch is also a big believer in the power of social media and technology to bring together women into powerful giving networks. She belongs to Women Moving Millions, as well as the Women Donors Network, Rachel’s Network, and 100 Women Who Care.

Additionally, she is a strong believer in racial justice as an integral part of the agenda for women and girls. In fact, theHF has funded journalism efforts aimed at addressing racial disparities since at least 2010, when it supported Race Forward, which “advances racial justice through research, media and practice.” More recently, theHF made a $100,000 pledge to Funders for Justice, in response to the recent police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, in an effort to bolster movement building and ending violence against communities of color.


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Author: Kiersten Marek

Kiersten Marek, LICSW, is the founder of Philanthropy Women. She practices clinical social work and writes about how women donors and their allies are advancing social change.

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