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I.M.O.W. Team

When Women Flex Their Philanthropic Power

Women's Funds Are a New Kind of Giving

Helen LaKelly Hunt at a rally. View Larger >

As part of women's funds, women worldwide are exerting more and more economic power as donors and philanthropists. "For the first time in history, women of wealth are giving boldly to women," says Helen LaKelly Hunt, co-founder of Women Moving Millions, a campaign that has propelled women's philanthropy to new levels by raising over $180 million for projects that support women and girls. In the following interview, Hunt, a self-described former Southern Belle who was hesitant to manage her own money, talks about her path to financial empowerment, the history of feminist philanthropy, giving to women's funds and raising million-dollar gifts to empower women and girls.

INTERNATIONAL MUSEUM OF WOMEN: How did you become a philanthropist, and why did you choose to focus on giving to women?

: I grew up in Dallas in the United States in a rich Southern Belle tradition. It was a very segregated "Men handled money and women didn't" life, and if you're in a family with money that's really confusing. So when I heard about women's funds, I got drawn to both the idea of supporting women and the idea of philanthropy. The women involved in these women's funds had taken control of their own resources and were channeling their money in a way that reflected their values. I so admired that. It ushered me into the world of giving.

I.M.O.W.: What did it mean to you personally to take charge of your finances and make your own decisions about money?

: Not having agency when it comes to money is almost a dismembering process, like one of your legs or arms is missing. Money is a part of who I am, and my culture when I was growing up told me I shouldn't ask questions and that other people were doing me a favor if they would handle this part of my life. I think there's a sentiment in the culture that money is power, and if that's true, and women don't become financially literate, women are keeping themselves disempowered.

I.M.O.W.: Was there a particular organization that helped crystallize your identity as a philanthropist?

: I began to study philanthropy and every kind of fund and foundation, and in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s, every foundation had a board of mainly men. I could just tell it was top down, even with my naïve eyes. It just felt like these organizations were engaged in very abstract giving. But I studied the board of the San Francisco women's fund, and there were the activists on the board as well as donors, and I felt that model was a visionary one, and one that I wanted to be a part of.

I.M.O.W.: Has participating in women's philanthropy, specifically with women's funds, allowed you to build friendships and relationships with women who grew up in very different backgrounds?

: Yes, that met a real longing in me. I was raised in somewhat of a bubble. Dallas was very segregated and so my school had a lot of people with income levels like mine, and I was just longing to discover the rest of my human family. Women's funds gave me an opportunity to do that. One of the most rewarding experiences I had, after moving to New York, was chairing the board of the New York Women's Foundation in the first six years of its existence. Two of the women on the board were on welfare, and the other women were from such diverse parts of the city. It met such a need in me for there to be real sisters that I was making in my work. I didn't know them as just a face; I knew their names and the names of their kids and the names of their next-door neighbors, and I heard about their plights. And it turns out, the plights in their lives were similar to my plights. It was just a magnificent experience.

I.M.O.W.: Do you feel like feminist philanthropy is distinctive in certain ways?

: Well, that's been my premise--women's funds have really modeled a more egalitarian kind of giving and birthed a model of philanthropy that's "with, not for." It's a much less top-down model. A lot of philanthropy is done with the model of dominator-subordinator, with the view that the philanthropists are the experts and that the people they give to should be grateful. But it's the activists and the grantees who are really the experts. Hopefully, the philanthropists are about reshuffling the funding in the world to make a more equal distribution on the planet.

I.M.O.W.: Why fund a women's fund or women's leadership rather than a specific issue like education or the environment?

: It's all about bringing balance into the world, and somehow women are still so eclipsed in decision-making powers. At every level, we need more women taking more leadership and having more of a voice. Many say that, had the boards of our major financial institutions around the world included women board members, then we would not have gotten into the problems of over-leveraging that caused the economic collapse. Having women taking leadership is a way of exercising a muscle in the culture that is undeveloped at this point. It takes some time, energy and intentionality to bring women's voices forward, but the fact is that the culture will face trouble when we're out of balance.

I.M.O.W.: What is the Women Moving Millions campaign all about?

: The women's funds around the world were raising money for women and girls, but they weren't getting their share of the philanthropic pie. For many years, a wealthy woman might have given a half-a-million to the symphony or maybe her kids' schools or her husband's alma mater. Those causes would get the big percentages, but a women's fund in her community might get just a five- or ten-thousand dollar gift. My sister Swanee and I came in and worked with Chris Grumm at the Women's Funding Network to help raise the funding of women's philanthropy. We invited high net-worth women to make a million dollar pledge to their women's fund. At first people thought, "I can't afford to give a million dollars to that little organization," but they began to warm up to the idea.

I.M.O.W.: You've done intensive research on the history of women's philanthropy, and have used your findings in the Women Moving Millions campaign. What did you discover?

: I found that in the 19th century, as women fought for suffrage, activists were out there working, but the wealthy women sat on the sidelines and did not fund the cause. There were many working class women who gave fifty, a hundred, three hundred dollars, but the biggest contributions, the $10,000, $20,000 and $50,000 gifts came from men. I was so depressed about that, and I read some of the correspondence and found that not only was I depressed, but suffragettes at the time were depressed. When you look at the struggles for women's rights across countries and across history the same thing is true. So now, we talk about women who make million-dollar commitments to women as women making history, because this truly is the first time women of wealth are giving boldly for women.

I.M.O.W.: Is there a particular donor story that epitomizes the success of Women Moving Millions?

: Well, one story is of a donor who read about this initiative in the Financial Times. When she read about it, she called her financial adviser and said, "I think there's a women's fund in this area," and they said, "Yes," and she said, "Well, would you call them and tell them I'd like to make a million dollar gift over the next four years? I want to make a pledge, and I want it to be anonymous. Just let them know that the check is coming." I was so touched by that, because it shows that we must have done something right in crafting a message and getting it out there.

There is a saying, "A voice without echo dies," and women are often isolated. We often have great wisdom, but we say something and no one echoes it back. I think that in this case, the women's funds were almost like an echo chamber of "Yes! Now! Now is the hour! We're going to fund women big and bold, and we're going to fund women at unprecedented levels." That message just reverberated throughout the women's funds. It was amazing to me that in the women's fund in Canada, I think we ended up with five million-dollar donors. We had very little contact with them, but they took this message and ran with it. The Dallas Women's Foundation had only one million-dollar donor before the initiative, and when we asked if they had other prospects for gifts at that level, they said that they had never thought about asking for such large gifts. Shortly thereafter, they identified six to eight potential million dollar donors and began to cultivate those donors and add others. We worked with this fund closely and Dallas Women's Foundation continued to scale up their sights, thinking more boldly about what was possible for them. They launched a $30 million campaign and now they have 18 donors who have made gifts or pledges of $1 million or more. They have raised $27 million toward their campaign goal of $30 million! So the Southern Belle image I grew up with is undergoing quite a metamorphosis.

I.M.O.W.: What is unique about the role women's funds can have in the field of philanthropy?

: Women's funds are lifting up voices of women all around the globe, and are pointing the way toward some wonderful solutions to their community's problems. It seems like every time you open a magazine these days people are saying "fund the women." Heads of states are saying that, people are saying that at the UN, economists are saying "fund the women." So, the word is out! Women's funds have been so brave and visionary in catalyzing that. They launched forth without a blueprint and created a global network. There was no top-down plan, and now there are 140 women's funds all around the world.

I also think that there has been a cultural change in philanthropy, and I know that women have been leaders and visionaries in making that happen. Women give of their hearts as well as their checkbooks; it's not as abstract as men's giving. The way women have reshaped the field of philanthropy is something we should be so proud of. It's a huge accomplishment, and it's a great story.

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