I wrote this profile of Donna Hall, President and CEO of the Women Donors Network, in February of 2016, but now it seems truer than ever. With the recent news that the Women Donors Network is partnering with Solidaire to lead a funding effort aimed at defending vulnerable people against a hostile government, the Women Donors Network is, again, not picking the easy fights, and going boldly into terrain that other, larger foundations seems to be approaching more hesitantly.
Listening to Donna Hall, who has been leading the Women Donors Network (WDN) since 2002, you quickly get the sense that she’s someone who has weathered many battles on the frontlines for women’s equality, and that she doesn’t choose the easy fights. It’s like being with someone who wants you to understand the cold, hard truth of continued male dominance, while at the same time giving you a chance to consider what the future may hold if we keep trending in the right direction with women’s leadership.
“When I was at Rockefeller, I worked with a colleague, another woman, and the two of us were trying to get the Rockefeller Foundation to do a large international initiative on women and work, and it never really got off the ground. It’s one of the reasons that organizations like the Women Donors Network formed, to give women’s philanthropy its own place.”
Hall was an associate director with the Rockefeller Foundation before coming to WDN in 2002. She described how the Women Donors Network and other women’s giving networks provide a much-needed vehicle for women’s giving, unhampered by the big, unwieldy legacy foundations. In Hall’s view, the big foundations like Rockefeller, while significantly funding women’s issues over the years, have failed to take on women’s empowerment with the focus and resources needed for real change.
Hall believes a lot of the problem is due to the lack of women’s leadership in the top tier of big foundations, a statistic paralleled by the lack of women in leadership in nearly every major industry. Across the board, Hall says the research is quite consistent: Women rarely, if ever, break out of the 17 to 20 percent range of leadership in organizations—nonprofit, for-profit, or government. “Even if women are represented, they often don’t have a large enough number to influence the big decisions and directions of these institutions,” said Hall.
For the past 14 years, Hall has been steadily developing one of the largest networks of high-net-worth women in the U.S. The Women Donors Network sees itself as a “community with purpose,” and aims to affect a large swath of social issues. One of the biggest issues WDN is working on is impacting the national conversation about women, race, and political leadership, with the goal of changing the ratios of the leadership ranks to make them more representative.
The members of the Women Donors Network distribute over $200 million a year in grant funding, much of it through donor circles with focus areas including criminal justice, immigration, funding for progressive political infrastructure, and many other issues in between. It also funds three main initiatives, one of which is its Reflective Democracy campaign.
Hall is one of the guiding forces behind WDN’s Reflective Democracy campaign, which takes an intersectional approach to examining both racism and sexism, and the lack of representation for women and people of color in our political system.
After WDN unveiled the Who Leads Us? website, which offers a state-by-state breakdown of the gender and race of elected officials at every level of government across the state, Fox News reported that “Donna Hall is dangerous.” Making this kind of information available so that women and minorities can find out where they stand may be dangerous to the status quo, but it is very good for civic engagement and representative democracy.
The campaign’s groundbreaking analysis, Justice for All?, showed that 95 percent of elected prosecutors nationwide are white, a startling statistic that captured the attention of media outlets like Fortune and the New York Times, and reportedly created a palpable buzz at the American Bar Association Conference. It also released Who Runs (in) America?, exposing some of the many structural barriers that perpetuate our male-dominated political leadership.
As part of its strategy, the Reflective Democracy campaign has made grassroots grants across the country to better understand why women and people of color don’t get into office. Their research has identified four main barriers. “Number one is money at two levels,” said Hall. “Money to run, and money to take time off from work. Women can’t afford to take time off.”
Hall described the second barrier as the process of gatekeeping that occurs in establishment politics—”The quiet back-room meetings where they’re planning years in advance who they want to be in a particular spot when that spot opens up,” she said. The two other major barriers identified by the campaign are redistricting and access to voting. In 2015, WDN accepted proposals for systemic ways to address all of these barriers. Reflective Democracy’s budget last year was $1 million, and this year, WDN will put $1.4 million into continuing this work.
As another piece of WDN’s leadership for social change, Hall highlighted WDN’s support for UltraViolet, an organization that modeled itself on Moveon.org, but with a focused emphasis on gender equality. With several active campaigns on issues including equal pay, fair treatment for girls in schools, and the Flint water crisis, UltraViolet connects women’s empowerment directly to activism, helping to move from ideas to impact in the fight for gender equity.
Hall also wanted to talk about one other project that exemplifies WDN’s approach to social issues. “Some of the most impactful work we did early on was in response to Hurricane Katrina,” said Hall. Disaster relief is perhaps one of the world’s oldest forms of philanthropy, traditional and basic to the core, but the way Hall described WDN doing this work was anything but traditional.
Rather than going the route of joining with the American Red Cross or another dominant relief organization, WDN partnered with the 21st Century Foundation, which in 2005, was the only African-American endowed foundation, to raise more than $4.5 million over three years. Between 2005 and 2011, WDN helped to support more than 40 grassroots organizations in New Orleans and on the Gulf Coast. Hall shared this as an example of the nimbleness of WDN’s networks, and the breadth of issues they have taken on.
Hall is leading WDN with a strategy that faces squarely the power struggles that come with equality movements. Her organization is also taking on challenges facing humanity as a whole, providing a model for how to persevere, despite what often seem like insurmountable odds.
For Hall, diversity and an intersectional approach are key to the gender equity movement. “International examples have taught us that, once you have a sufficient number of women and people of color in elected offices in government, then everything else begins to roll down and change, but if you don’t have that diversity in place it’s going to be hard to change things,” she said. “Without a diversity of involvement, we can’t really get to where we want to go.”
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