Grassroots activism is on the rise, from Standing Rock to the Women’s March on Washington to local organizing across the country. In the midst of all this, what better thing to do than attend a conference that is all about how to enhance civil society — the engagement of citizens in collective activity for the common good.
With this focus on growing civil society, the 2017 Symposium of the Women’s Philanthropy Institute offers panelists, speakers, and interaction aimed at understanding how women envision a better society, and then dare to take action to create that better place.
The Symposium, slated for March 14 and 15 in Chicago, will start with the leaders of two of the oldest and most venerable community-based organizations in the country — the YWCA, and the Junior League. “These organizations have lived through so much, and they adapted to the times to remain vibrant and vital,” said Andrea Pactor, Associate Director of the Women’s Philanthropy Institute, in a recent chat with Philanthropy Women about the upcoming conference.
As many in the U.S. plan to press on for gender equality, valuing it as a cornerstone of civil society, The Women’s Philanthropy Institute is offering a wide array of expertise to feed the conversation about where women in philanthropy fits into this landscape.
The opening speaker for the conference will be Dr. Dara Richardson-Heron, CEO of the YWCA, and a key figure in community-based leadership nationwide. “The YWCA is a classic example of how women developed new resources for civil society early on,” said Pactor.
During the mid-1800’s industrialization of the nation, the YWCA grew out of a need for women to have a safe place to stay overnight. By starting the conference with Dr. Richardson-Heron, WPI is framing the narrative for women in philanthropy around a core value of having a safe place for everyone in the community, even as people moved or migrated to find new work.
“There is no question that public policy and legislation can affect more people overall,” noted Pactor, “but while we’re waiting for that to happen, organizations in local communities like the YWCA and the Junior League are getting things done.”
Pactor observed that both of these organizations have been at the forefront of social and political movements since before women got the right to vote, and they continue to lead with innovative strategies for community engagement, such as the Junior League’s partnership with Kaboom! which builds playgrounds where they are needed. “This is a great partnership, because public space is where people can come together and when we come together we find we’re not so different after all,” said Pactor.
The Junior League, in particular, has deep roots for women’s community-building leadership. Mary Harriman, a 19-year-old heiress to a railroad fortune, founded The Junior League in 1901 to help women organize and take collective action to improve their communities.
“We’re starting from an institutional point of view, and then we move right into an individual perspective,” said Pactor, referencing the next speaker on opening day, Becky Straw, Co-Founder and CEO of The Adventure Project. “In some ways, Becky Straw is the new Mary Harriman, harnessing technology and integrating it into her work from the get-go.”
At 29 years of age, Becky Straw co-founded The Adventure Project in order to “marry good intentions with measurable impact.” Straw’s project allows donors to invest in entrepreneurs in countries like Kenya and Uganda, and through technology, provides a direct link connecting the recipient of the donation with the donor.
Pactor said Straw will discuss how this connection enhances women’s giving, helping donor and recipient align in their goals and invest more deeply in the cause. “So this is a conference that is connecting the new and the old, and thinking how women have worked in this public space over time,” said Pactor.
Other sessions of the conference are dedicated to women’s social entrepreneurship and impact investing. Leaders of Prosperity Together will also be presenting, including Lee Roper-Batker, CEO of the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota, and Jennifer Lockwood-Shabat, CEO of the Greater Washington Area Women’s Foundation. Pactor was quick to point out that these women leaders in philanthropy, in their own ways, are also social entrepreneurs.
“Can we think about Prosperity Together as an entrepreneurial effort?” Pactor said the women’s funds leaders at the conference would be talking about how the Prosperity Together — the collaborative effort of 29 women’s funds and foundations across the country to increase economic security for women — has been “one of the most impactful campaigns that the women’s funds have ever taken on.” Hearing the insights of these leaders can help entrepreneurs of all sorts consider new ways to leverage social impact while also providing a service and contributing to the economy.
“Can those changes at the local level be brought to scale? Can the United Way Women’s Leadership Council in Anderson, South Carolina which took on teen pregnancy and was very successful, can this kind of work be replicated in other communities?” Pactor said questions like these, and other instances of women-led locally-based grantmaking, will be discussed more deeply. “In Jacksonville, how has the Women’s Giving Alliance focus on mental health affecting the community? Could we build a national movement through women’s collective grantmaking around mental health?”
The conference also aims to stimulate discussion of what can be done to encourage women to step fully into their philanthropy. Using small group work and other collaborative techniques, participants can deepen their awareness of how to use their skills more effectively.
The conference trends in the direction of action, said Pactor. “Another tool that women have at their disposal that some are reluctant to use is advocacy,” said Pactor. “That’s why we’re bringing Sonya Campion to talk about advocacy both from the big picture and on the grassroots level.”
Sonya Campion added advocacy to her portfolio after feeling frustrated with the progress their foundation was making on its strategic goals. She and her husband, Tom, started a 501(c)4 in 2013 to invest in advocacy around the same causes their foundation supports. “They created a 501(c)4 so they bring different approaches to the table,” said Pactor. “Sonya Campion is not afraid to use advocacy as a tool to reach public policy makers to effect the kinds of changes they want to see.”
Ultimately, said Pactor, the conference hopes to close with a message that that encourages women to use all the tools at their disposal – whether leveraging their assets in impact investing, creating collaborations, enriching their work through advocacy, supporting innovative social enterprises, or growing grassroots giving circles.
“We have to think strategically about the kinds of partnerships we want as women in philanthropy,” said Pactor. “I mean, think of it: Prosperity Together was launched at The White House. That says a lot about the kinds of partnerships that women in philanthropy are growing across the country.”
I had to ask: Did Pactor think Prosperity Together would be invited to the Trump White House? “We’re going to hope that they will be. Trump campaigned on the message of jobs and bringing better jobs to America. That’s what Prosperity Together is all about, so why wouldn’t he invite Prosperity Together to The White House?”