How WDN Connects Women and Cultivates Progressive Giving

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

One of the most significant barriers to women starting out in philanthropy is lack of knowledge about how and where to donate money. Women new to philanthropy, including women whose families may have ill-prepared them for the financial management of inheritance, may have trouble picking an organization or cause to focus on. They may be confused about which kind of donation will create the most value for an organization, or may simply not understand the tax ramifications of different forms of philanthropy.

That’s where Women Donors Network (WDN) comes in. A network of progressive women philanthropists, WDN focus on three themes: connect, collaborate, and catalyze. In other words, WDN helps women get into relationships that teach them about philanthropy — how to collaborate on philanthropic projects, and how to act as catalysts for progressive social change.

I recently had the chance to talk with Donna P. Hall, the President and CEO of WDN, about the organization’s function and future plans.

WDN offers women a unique path toward empowerment and civic participation. Hall has been with WDN for 15 years now; before that, she earned an MBA when it was rare for women to do so, and her interest in public health and her personal convictions led her to positions in nonprofit management.

Hall worked for both the Kaiser Family Foundation and Rockefeller Foundation. When a friend contacted her about working for Women Donors Network, an under-the-radar start-up dedicated to helping women with inherited wealth learn how to use that wealth in philanthropy, she jumped at the opportunity.

“Often, women did not have the support they needed in male-dominated philanthropic families,” said Hall in our recent interview. “They were told ‘everything’s taken care of’ and patted on the head.” This is quite unlike the way male children are groomed to take on the mantle of family philanthropy. In addition, there is an increasing number of women-created individual fortunes and business empires. WDN is on a mission not just to help these women give away money, says Hall, but to “help women understand the powers they have not just with money but with connections.”

This is sorely needed in the world of philanthropy. Hall cited data that reveals that it takes three women on a board before male board members will listen to them. WDN focuses on how women can get a financial education outside of the formal education experience to build philanthropic communities. Along the way, these women learn to be effective public speakers,  how to communicate with donors and grantees,  and raise more funds for nonprofit organizations. The benefit of this kind of network is also manifest in the way that women grow in confidence through collaborative efforts. “It is important,” Hall argues, “for women to see that they don’t exist by themselves.”

Given its mission, it’s no surprise that WDN has grown rapidly since Hall began her tenure there. When she joined the organization, there were only 60 members. Now there are over 220 members, whose total donations amount to approximately $180 million a year. Members share a unique mutually beneficial experience: women starting out on the path of philanthropy benefit from participating in a community that includes experienced women who serve as mentors, and long-term members often get rejuvenated by the ideas and energies of new members. “It’s great to see both women just cutting their teeth as philanthropists, and experienced women evolving their practices.”

All of this contributes to the ultimate goal of WDN, which Hall explains is to help women understand the value and import of collective work as a means of creating progressive social change. “We are an unabashedly very progressive organization,” Hall reiterated, and WDN wants to continue pumping money into the progressive pipeline to fund projects such as Reflective Democracy, which has already raised a million dollars a year since its inception.

Though there are regional chapters of WDN in 39 of the 50 states, one of the most popular forums through which members make connections is at the annual conference, where participants focus on intersectional work on race, gender, class, and sexuality, to effect deep structural change in American politics and society. This year, the WDN Connect 2017 conference will be held November 9-12 in Atlanta, GA, and will “explore issues of race, gender, and equity, and the role of women donors in this critical time of resistance.”

This focus has already helped draw new members into the group, especially younger members. The uptick in interest from younger women has been so pronounced that WDN recently scrapped its requirement that all members reach a giving level of at least $25,000 per year to progressive organizations, because that proved to be a barrier to expanded membership. Now the only requirement is that each member provide WDN with a $5,000 a year tax-deductible contribution. “We think every woman should be a philanthropist,” Hall firmly stated. Occasionally, sponsors will assist in membership fees for women whose work is closely aligned to WDN or contributes significantly to progressive causes.

The other popular forum is the listserve created by WDN, which encourages conversation among philanthropic women who live thousands of miles from one another. This may be the key factor in one of the most interesting results of the creation of the WDN: almost every member within two years has upped their giving significantly, no doubt aided by the support and encouragement of fellow members. Currently, WDN plans to expand some of its programming in two specific ways:

  • WDN will soon provide more online resources to give members suggestions on how to fundraise and engage in other philanthropic activities;
  • WDN is going to initiate programming that’s intergenerational, and forge more relationships with millennials to build future members. “We want to welcome more millennials into our network so that we can develop the next generation of donor activists,” said Hall.

To women who lack the level of economic resources as members of WDN but still want to make a difference through a philanthropy portfolio, Hall recommends taking action. “Form groups and create communities,” she said. “Start with small dollar amounts, start locally, look at what interests are, and start making grants together.”

I asked Hall where she sees the Women Donors Network in five years, and she was confident that the organization will meet its strategic goal of increasing membership to 500, and will be able to expand its Reflective Democracy project. With all of this dynamic activity is going on at WDN, Hall stays grounded in her conviction about the intrinsic value of women giving together: “It is wonderful to be surrounded by women and doing good work.”

Editor’s Note: Women Donors Network is one of  Philanthropy Women’s Spotlight organizations, receiving additional media amplification of their strategy and work.

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