Intersectional Philanthropy: A Conversation with Suzanne Lerner

Editor’s Note: This Q&A was created with the assistance and guidance of Claudia Carasso, Founder and Principal of Elastic Minds. This post was originally published on September 10, 2020.

After our July webinar, “Lack of Funding for Women and Girls of Color: What Donors Can Do,” we had a chance to speak further with our guest, Suzanne Lerner, on her approach to intersectional gender lens philanthropy.

Suzanne Lerner, Co-Founder of clothing brand Michael Stars, is an activist entrepreneur with a primary focus on gender & racial equality, and the economic empowerment of women & girls. (Image Credit: Suzanne Lerner)

The conversation below explores Lerner’s experience as a philanthropist, business leader, and activist entrepreneur, as well as what other funders and company leaders can do to advance an intersectional focus in their approaches to philanthropy.

What is your definition of intersectional gender lens philanthropy?

I think that donors are starting to understand that if we want to lift all women, we need to think beyond gender and look at race. It’s women of color who are disproportionately affected by poverty, lack of opportunity, poor access to healthcare, and other obstacles that block the path to equity. So given that the root causes of gender inequity intersect with race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation, we have to take a more inclusive approach to our giving.

How did you get involved in funding through that lens and how do you apply it today to your philanthropy?

On a personal level, gender and racial equity has always been my passion. When I went on my “walkabout” in my 20s, I met women from many cultures and countries all of whom were struggling for an equal place in society. That was part of the reason I wanted to run my own company – to have the freedom to provide women with opportunity.

As Michael Stars grew, we ramped up our giving and started the Michael Stars Foundation, nearly 20 years ago now. Back then and even until just recently, it wasn’t uncommon to hear donors say “my giving is color-blind,” or “what I do benefits all genders not just women”.

We never had that attitude because our theory of change is that you need to create economic opportunity, build leadership capacity, and enable equal social protections in order to achieve gender and racial equity. That led us to organically fund organizations that support women and girls of color because they have the least access to these resources.

Why and how should donors get involved in this approach?

I think that what resonates with donors is helping them understand that if they’re not taking an intersectional gender lens approach to funding in philanthropy, they’re “leaving impact on the table”. So, if we’re serious about lifting all women then we need to start by focusing on those most marginalized because that will have long lasting positive impact for everyone.

How can donors shift their thinking and criteria as they look to fund women and girls of color?

Go grassroots! That’s where you’ll find high impact work led by women and girls of color. Through their broad and deep networks and their understanding of cultural, social, and economic barriers, they build high levels of trust within their communities and create change that ripples to other communities. No strings attached. I always tell donors who ask me for advice to never restrict usage of the funds they donate to an organization. These organizations are already operating under shoestring budgets. What they need is more funding and the flexibility to apply the money where they think it is most needed. In fact, I primarily fund general operating expenses.

Support non-profits led by women of color where possible. And if you find yourself saying, “Well there aren’t enough women of color leading non-profits,” then you know it’s time to fund organizations that build “leadership pipelines” that help develop women of color leaders.

Raise non-profit salaries. For some reason, people simply accept that non-profit teams should be underpaid. Why? The work they do is just as valuable as what for-profits do. As donors and in some cases board members, we’re in a position to help change this and help attract new talent to lead these organizations.

Start with your own personal investments and giving. Are you looking through an intersectional gender lens? We need to look at the representation of women of color on boards and in the c-suite. Our portfolio investments should reflect that approach if we want to see real change.

Audit yourself and a establish a benchmark against which to measure your progress. I just did an audit of all of my non-profit, advocacy, and for-profit investments to understand which of those directly supported women and girls and which were led by women of color.

What is the importance of building genuine relationships between funders and the organizations they support?

It’s critically important! A genuine relationship with an organization means mutual trust, respect, and a genuine concern for the community that they serve.

You have to practice trust-based giving – taking a page from the successful trust-based micro lending models used to help women start businesses around the world. Once you have trust, the process of giving becomes easier and more flexible for you and for the organization. You can support them without reservations and restrictions. They know how to use the funds to achieve their goals much better than we do!

What is some actionable advice for new donors or new organizations looking to build funding relationships?

I draw tremendous energy from my relationships with the organizations I fund. The work they do is as impressive as the work of any cool, new startup. They have innovative, disruptive ideas that will change the way you think about how to solve tough societal problems. Spend time with an organization’s leaders and get to know them and their communities.

If you’re less of a people person, or just don’t have the time, look at foundations that are deeply connected and fund grassroots NGOs. The Ms. Foundation for Women is a great example of this approach. They are out in communities everyday learning about who is doing the work and what those organizations need to be successful. When they fund an organization, you can rely on that decision because of their experience, process, and judgment. Their recent report, Pocket Change, is full of great insight for donors.

Also, remember it’s not just about money. Ask an organization what they need in addition to funding. Often they need access to legal, digital marketing, financial, and other types of expertise. You can offer your company’s services pro bono!

What is the potential impact this overall approach could have?

The biggest and most important point to get across about intersectional gender lens philanthropy is that it will lift everyone. It’s all about creating a positive ripple effect in the overlapping pools of inequity. When we as philanthropists support organizations that address these fundamental inequities such as healthcare, economic opportunity, wage gaps, and education, we strengthen the systems that serve us all.

Suzanne Lerner is an activist entrepreneur with a primary focus on gender & racial equality, and the economic empowerment of women & girls. In 1986, she co-founded clothing company Michael Stars of which she now serves as President. Her second career is philanthropy and giving back to communities both domestically and internationally through personal grants, impact investments, as well as the Michael Stars Foundation. Suzanne sits on the board of the Ms. Foundation, an organization dedicated to building women of color’s collective power for social, economic, and reproductive justice. She formerly served on the board of Women Thrive Alliance, which worked to empower women through grassroots advocacy initiatives. In addition, she is a board member of the ACLU of Southern California Foundation, and is an advisory board member of Prosperity Catalyst, ERA Coalition, Children Mending Hearts, and A Call To Men. She is an active member of both Women Moving Millions and Women’s Donor Network.


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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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