2017 was a pivotal year for women, beginning with the historic marches that took place after Trump�s inauguration and continuing throughout the year with an unprecedented surge of women stepping up to run for office, organizing grassroots actions at a local level and supporting powerful movements, such as #MeToo, at a global level. We saw women everywhere become resolute, energized and acting as a collective and transformative force, speaking out for justice, equality and change in our country and the world.
There is another crucial area where women are rising to the occasion and exerting their influence and power: philanthropy. Trump’s first year in office catapulted progressive women donors to new levels of activism to support and uplift communities most marginalized in this political moment. Women who once gave quietly are now coordinating weekly protests, writing opinion pieces, speaking publicly and looking for all sorts of ways to level up their work and organize for change. In 2018, this trend is expected to continue as more and more women develop a sense of agency and responsibility and take advantage of the support of donor networks and a growing community. I had the opportunity to speak with several leaders within these donor networks to find out more about this powerful increase in women philanthropists, what issues their organizations champion, what they expect and hope to see in 2018, and how women who are interested in giving can get involved.
Donna Hall, president and CEO of Women Donors Network—a network of over 200 individual women philanthropists who strive to create social change—expressed to me how the election of Trump and the events of this past year have activated women on a whole new level: “We’re in a very critical moment in our nation’s history where women feel a lot more energized, responsible and motivated to share their stories about the role of philanthropy in activism, which has traditionally been hard to talk about. Women are finding and owning their voices.”
She also noted, “There are a lot of women who are becoming more politically motivated. They are beginning to strategize in very organized ways around identifying places where elections can make a difference. The Reflective Democracy Campaign, one of the big projects that WDN has been funding now for five years, has changed the national conversation around representation by showing how women and people of color are left out of the political process." This uptick in women’s political awareness and involvement has also led to a dramatic increase in women donors funding campaigns.
Cynthia Nimmo, president and CEO of Women’s Funding Network—an association of 100 foundations whose members invest over $400 million annually to improve the lives of women and girls around the world—agreed, saying, “Women are absolutely more active now. They are demanding equality, pure and simple. They see more and more every day the ways in which they don't have it. When something happens to a woman in one corner of the world, the story spreads around the globe instantly and we are seeing women being activated. Women have the resources to pay for change, to direct their own movies, to do their own research, to tell their own stories, and they are doing it in droves.”
Nimmo added, “It is absolutely reaching a tipping point now. What was once a trickle is now a tidal wave. We see women donating $25 a month and women donating millions. I hear from women working in every industry that they are disgusted with the lack of progress. This is why women's foundations were created back in the 1970s. They provide a forum for women to determine what change is needed in their community, then to raise money and direct it to where it will make the most impact.”
Vanessa Daniel, Executive Director of Groundswell—which has granted more than $32 million to the U.S. reproductive justice (RJ) movement, engaging women of color, low-income women, young people and LGBT people as grassroots activists on reproductive issues—put it this way: “Women make up the vast majority of people engaged in the ‘resistance’ to the current administration—this is undeniable. We can see from the daily grassroots organizing work and from the culture shift created by #MeToo and #TimesUp that there is a rising sense that a line in the sand has been crossed and there is an urgency and imperative to speak up, do more, risk and reach beyond our comfort zones in order to do the right thing.”
“Women donors are no exception,” Daniel continued. “Some donors—particularly white women inheritors—have told us, ‘For the first time in my life I’m afraid of losing my basic rights, rights that I know many poor women and women of color have already been living without for years.’ Groundswell welcomed a large number of new donors in 2017 who expressed fatigue with funding more traditional strategies and organizations and a keen interest in pivoting their giving to reach grassroots organizing at the state and local level, particularly work led by women of color. Many more white women donors are recognizing that women of color not only face the greatest attack but are also bringing the boldest fight to the current administration to defend rights that all people enjoy.”
After Trump’s election, the Women Donors Network also recognized the potential damage any rollbacks and policy changes could have on marginalized communities, so they created the Emergent Fund to fight back against these threats. As Donna Hall explained it to me, “People had real concerns about the erosion of basic rights and sound policies, and we knew that these organizations needed resources in place to help meet assaults as they happened. That’s why we created WDN’s Emergent Fund in the aftermath of the election to fund organizations that aligned with our intrinsic goals and values. We worked in partnership with Solidaire, and then later with the Democracy Alliance and Threshold Foundation, and set a goal to raise and grant a million dollars in the first 100 days of the new administration to ensure groups on the ground stay alive and focused on the good work they were already doing for our communities.”
When asked what specific issues women donors are championing, K. Sujata, president and CEO of Chicago Foundation for Women—a grantmaking organization dedicated to increasing resources and opportunities for women and girls in the greater Chicago area—cited intersectionality and uplifting marginalized communities as some of the issues most prevalent right now: “We are very excited by the increasing awareness and support of intersectionality among our donors. Donors recognize that some of the best investments they can make are those that lift up communities that have experienced decades of neglect and disinvestment. We are also, slowly, seeing a shift in the common narrative that profiles communities of color as being the recipients of charity, to one that celebrates women of color as powerful philanthropists, driving significant resources and social change across our region. It keeps us inspired every day when we see women from all backgrounds come together to partner with CFW, to champion philanthropy as a tool to address the unique circumstances and oppression that women of color face.”
Donna Hall's response was that the Women Donors Network covers a wide range of issues because they are all interconnected: “We are doing a lot of work to identify organizations working at the intersection of critical issues impacting our nation. For us, it’s not just reproductive rights, but reproductive rights AND environmental degradation AND the school-to-prison pipeline. We work to identify what public programs are being attacked and what needs to be filled in their absence. These multiple challenges are all interconnected. Our solutions should be as well."
When I asked these women about what their hopes are for 2018 and where they feel women’s philanthropy is headed, Cynthia Nimmo told me, “This new wave of donor activists isn't one-dimensional and that's what's so exciting. They are Millennials, they're Gen Y, they're Gen Z, they're stay-at-home moms and work-outside-the-home moms, they're single, they're married, they work in tech, in finance, in media—you name it. It's every woman, and she's paying to shift the policies and systems that prevent women and girls from advancing. Technology makes it easier to give now too, which has helped fuel the fire. My strong belief is that this will continue to grow in 2018.”
Vanessa Daniel shared, “My hope for donor activists in 2018 is that they can see how their own destinies are bound up with those who are more marginalized, that they can share resources as a way of sharing power and acknowledging the bold leadership of those who are most impacted by the problems of our society, and that they can use their access to wealth and those who have it to open up more resource streams to bold work at the grassroots.”
And Abigail Disney—an award-winning filmmaker, philanthropist and member of Women’s Donor’s Network who recently launched Level Forward, a startup studio venture that aims to focus on backing projects driven by women and persons of color— offered this rallying call to action: “We should recognize that this fight is forever. We’re fighting gravity in a lot of ways. There’s never going to be a point at which we can all relax and everything will be fine. There is no arrival and there is no finish line. There is no promised land. This is the work of our lives. What we hope for is to push things into better places all the time.”
Disney also shared this advice for women interested in becoming donors: “There’s an inner badassery that some of us have that gets wasted on fighting your mother about how you’re dressed. If you can find ways to be public in your badassery, be proud of it and rock it instead of feeling like you’re not enough or that you’re too fat or you’re too old or you’re not wearing enough makeup and all that. We need to step into our badassery first. A lot of things follow from that.”
She urged, “Take the ownership of the money you have control of—stop apologizing for that; it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Step into power. Ask for it. It’s not going to just settle over you. This is about taking our fair share. We’re half the population and we deserve half the power.”
Seeing more and more women become individually empowered and come together collectively—by giving to causes, campaigns and donor networks, getting politically engaged, organizing and doing whatever they can to raise their voices and exert their influence—is a clear indication that women will lead the way as a driving force for change in 2018. As Donna Hall put it to me, “Watching women who have access to money, power and the luxury of time band together in a way that they have not before gives me hope. I feel we have to push on, supporting one another, holding each other up, so that we do what we can to create a better future for everyone."
Marianne Schnall is a widely-published interviewer and journalist and author of What Will It Take to Make a Woman President? Conversations About Women, Leadership & Power. She is also the founder and Executive Director of feminist.com and co-founder of What Will It Take Movements, a media, collaboration, learning, event and social engagement platform that inspires, connects, educates and engages women everywhere to advance in all levels of leadership and take action.