“Mom, I want to do community service in Africa this summer and I really want you to come with me.” My daughter had been doing community service in San Francisco for years and was ready to take her passion to a global level and she wanted me to be a part of her journey. So, after many hours of research, we found a volunteer organization that placed us in a large village in Ghana where we would work and live in an orphanage with 12 children; 4 of whom were HIV positive. When we arrived at the home we quickly realized how incredibly unprepared we were for the experience. Then the next day all the staff left and there we were, in charge of these children with no protocols and no instructions; just the cook and the two of us. So I did what I knew best and went straight into mother mode. I was amazed not only at the resiliency of the children, but also at my own resiliency.
I discovered that you can throw all kinds of curve balls at me and I can just sort of manage and not get ruffled. What did throw me off was my lack of direction when I returned home; I felt lost. My kids were growing up and doing a great job taking care of themselves and that both liberated me and depressed me. I really wanted to do something new and the time was now. The trip to Ghana challenged my attitudes and assumptions about poverty and the world in general and I wanted to explore those issues and do something useful. I also knew that defining “useful” was going to take some time.
It took some self-reflection and inquiry before it clicked. I had the good fortune to benefit from a mixture of hard work and a strong economy and wanted to use some of our resources in a way that would help advance the lives of women and girls. With the help of an amazing mentor, I started the HOW Fund and six years later co-founded Present Purpose Network.
Becoming a philanthropist was harder than I thought. When I began this work I felt conflicted and guilty about my privilege and status. Here I was this wealthy white woman going on site visits to developing countries meeting extraordinary people giving so much of themselves to solve the problems of poverty they faced on a daily basis and I felt like a spectator. These feelings didn’t feel productive but I decided to own them and use them as best I could to serve others. Over time I have found that building deep relationships with grantees creates a bond of solidarity, respect, and trust and through these relationships I have had the most transformative experiences. This is what informs my philanthropy.
For eight years I have been funding international programs working with women and girls engaged in work ranging from: anti-sex trafficking in Vietnam, to mentorship programming for adolescent girls in Nairobi, to community interventions committed to ending Female Genital Cutting in Burkina Faso. I take my time making funding decisions so I can really learn about both the problem and the work being done. It’s a mix of due diligence, site visits, and gut instinct, but the best teachers have been the grassroots leaders I have had the privilege to meet.
After attending conferences for a few years I saw that there were very few grassroots leaders from the Global South participating. It seemed to be all the rest of us talking about them but not with them. In 2011, I started the HOW Fellowship which identifies four 4 outstanding grassroots leaders working with women and girls on issues such as education, sexual and reproductive health, and political participation. The award offers attendance to the Opportunity Collaboration, an annual conference about poverty alleviation that takes place in Mexico. I felt it was very important that these grassroot leaders were contributing to these important conversations with funders and other non-profit leaders.
The participants are also awarded a professional development grant. I have a very broad definition of what that looks like but I’m very strict that the award money cannot go into programming. One thing that I have found to be true of many women leaders is that they are selfless to the point of neglect of their own self-care. They will give everything to the work and leave little for themselves and their own families. A part of the Fellowship is to come to the conference, which is in a beautiful setting, to nurture themselves and to reflect and take time to discover what they want to do moving forward in their work. For example, Mariana from Senegal really wanted to learn more about monitoring and evaluation and after a lot of research she found a week-long workshop in Mali. She received a scholarship to attend but just had a baby and was breastfeeding, so she couldn’t leave the baby at home. She used the development grant to pay for her mother and baby to go with her.
While attending one of the first Opportunity Collaborations I met Rajasvini “Vini” Bhansali, the Executive Director of IDEX/International Development Exchange. Vini has been a mentor and helped shape my giving. Her mentorship reminds me that the work isn’t about me or throwing money at a situation and then saying, “Look at the impact I’ve had.” It’s about asking people on the ground, “How can I best support the work you’re doing?”. That support might come from grants, alliance building, or amplifying their work to different audiences. This attitude is what attracted me to IDEX and the best part is that together with their partners they are creating lasting, transformative change. I was so impressed with Vini, her team, and their work that when she asked me to join the board, it was an easy decision.
Why do I do this work? Let’s be honest, it’s because it makes me feel good. But I don’t feel good if I am behaving in a way that is anything but collaborative. Yes, I want my grantees to make me look good with their stellar work but they are the experts and my job is to be supportive. To me that means providing funds and establishing a relationship that assumes I will listen, learn and support a partnership in the most respectful way I can. What I know now is that to create a true partnership with these women means that we walk the journey together. The right question, thanks to my dear friend Vini is not “What can I do for you?” but “What can I do with you?”