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Donor Activism in 2017: Three Women's Funds in New England offer their advice

February 2, 2017






This year, philanthropists will recognize the social change sector's deep need for more than just host committee members, board members and donors. As traditional philanthropic models shift, those who cut big checks will also be encouraged to revisit their community organizing skills and step up as dedicated activists. Resources of work and wisdom will come to play as much as wealth, inviting affluent individuals to dig deep and reimagine their philanthropy. We must all realize that along with cutting checks, grassroots NGO's need us in the streets, boldly stating our values and taking risks with our resources. It is time that the donor activist leads powerfully, promoting and directing social, political, economic, and environmental reform to make much needed improvements in our communities.


Eleanor Roosevelt taught us, "Do something everyday that scares you." If you aren't doing something every day that frightens you a little bit or makes you feel slightly uncomfortable, you're not doing enough. Now is not a time for comfort. It is a time for change. In order for us to create transformation, we, as a philanthropic community, must boldly flow our work, wealth, and wisdom to leaders at the grassroots. We can no longer remain comfortable. 


I sat down with three women's funds in my area to find out how we can transform into brave donor activists in a powerful way this year. They share below how we can get curious, take risks, and sustain the much needed work to protect women and girls across the United States.


Here's what they shared: 


Describe the ideal donor activist within your work this year. How are they supporting & sustaining the mission of your women's fund? 


Natalie Solotoff, Board Chair, Maine Women's Fund:

We aim to maximize our impact by connecting donor activists to the work we and our grantees are doing. One way we do this is by inviting donors and community members to join us on site visits with our grantees. Every grant cycle, we meet with each of our grantees across the state to talk with them about what they are learning as they implement their grant plans, which helps the Fund better understand the challenges women and girls face in Maine and how those issues are being most effectively addressed. We unite innovative nonprofit organizations with inspired donors. Our ideal donor activist is a person who cares deeply about gender equality and wants to learn more about, and sometimes participate in, the good work being done in Maine to support this crucial cause. 


Ellen Moorhouse, Program Officer, Western MA Women's Fund:

An ideal donor activist is curious, engaged, and committed. They are curious about the philanthropic work we do, engaged in actively impacting our community, and committed to supporting the organization financially. The Women’s March mobilized millions of people around the world to take a stand against gender oppression and discrimination. But this work did not start on January 21st, and it will not end there. For almost two decades you and your Women's Fund have nurtured partnerships that elevate local women's leadership, we've carved out pathways for the community to connect their generosity to action, and we've operated with integrity and grit in the background to make it all come together. Sometimes it takes money, sometimes it takes hard work – very often, the ideal donor activist recognizes that it takes a combination of the two to move the needle for social change.


In the upcoming year, women & girls could face many new and unique challenges. What would you like members of your community to know as they consider their own change agency in 2017 and beyond? 

Janet Santos, Interim Executive Director, Boston Women's Fund: 

The challenges facing women and girls in the upcoming year are not unique. What is unique about the present moment is that the stakes are higher. The threat of human annihilation is more imminent due to climate change, the political instability that appears on the horizon and also brought on by the exploding economic inequality and the inability of democratic institutions to withstand extremist are seriously being tested at present. 


Regarding to women and girls it is important for donor-activist to know that in the face of the political crisis we should center a radical vision for social, political and economic justice. We need donor-activists to continue to emphasize that women’s issues are not limited to supporting the reproductive and family planning rights of all women. The agenda for women and women-identified groups needs to support movements that allow women to take care of their families and their communities. This involves supporting the struggle to increase the minimum wage, which disproportionately impacts black and Latina women who make up more than 50% of fast food workers. It needs to include a program for universal Pre-K, universal healthcare, a fully funded public education system, affordable housing, etc. Furthermore, we need to be more inclusive of our queer and transgender sisters and learn more about their causes. 


I think to move forward we need to understand that glass ceilings will only be broken in partnership with the grassroots, and that together both groups must work to bring other women and girls into the fold. 


However, with regards to women and girls, I think it is important to acknowledge that women and girls from marginalized communities have been carrying the mantle of social change at the grassroots level for at least the past 40 years. This was a tension I witnessed in the planning for the women’s marches in Boston. It is the balance of more women and girls wanting to get involved, but not knowing and/or acknowledging that women of color and low-income women have been politically active and in many ways provide a way for us to move forward during this time period. This oversight creates tension. On the other hand, spaces must be created so that women wanting to get involved and more experienced activist can come together and learn from each other. 


This is what the Boston Women’s Fund is committed to creating over the upcoming year and I think that donor activist are integral in helping us extend and create those bridges. This is more necessary as the reality is that as the United States has grown more racially and ethnically diverse over the course during the last 40 years and our lives have grown more segregated over that time period, we are being challenged to rise above ourselves to become reacquainted with each other.



Ellen, Western MA Women's Fund:

Our Board of Directors recently approved a bold, new strategic plan for the Women’s Fund of Western MA. This plan includes focusing on young women aged 12-24. We are hoping that this focus will allow us to do more coordinated efforts with young women in middle school through college, to help ensure they grow up to be successful leaders in our communities. We think of this as a strong two-generation approach – you cannot have that successful business women without the touchpoints of growth and support for young women to make the journey to adulthood. 


 We are also excited to share that President Obama recognized the Women's Fund in his legacy document for the Council on Women and Girls. This report is the third time your Women's Fund has been noted by the Administration in official communications. By focusing on a national plan, we can make direct impact on the communities that need it most.



Natalie, Maine Women's Fund:

At this pivotal time, we are taking the lead in launching an innovative grants initiative designed to respond quickly to the needs of women and girls in communities especially at risk in the current social landscape. We have allocated 30% of our annual grant-making to this new program. Through this work we will be actively learning about the current challenges women and girls are facing and seeking out new opportunities to stand together. We're leveraging our limited resources to do more and act more meaningfully, to increase our impact and expand and deepen our reach. Please join us in standing together, by sharing with one another, giving of our time and treasure, encouraging and supporting one another, and amplifying each other's voices.


For more information, contact below: 


Women's Fund of Western Massachusetts


Maine Women's Fund 


Boston Women's Fund 



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