Reclaiming Philanthropy

Reclaiming Philanthropy
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Co-Written with Yifat Susskind, Executive Director of MADRE

Yifat and I recently gathered at a 3-day conference in New York City, a convening of powerful women from across the country united in their passion for supporting women and girls around the world. While there were many topics on the 3-day agenda, most notably how to advance gender equality in today’s political climate, another, less obvious, question kept coming up. Should we women still be calling ourselves philanthropists?

Many women stepped forward saying they no longer want to refer to themselves as philanthropists, citing the notion that it’s a dated term, reminiscent of the Monopoly Man in his top hat and cane. A reminder of the patriarchal top-down approach to giving, starting with the Andrew Carnegies and John Rockefellers of the world, who brought about the concept of today’s ‘philanthro-capitalism.’ In other words, men who have an outsized influence on public policy—and millions of people’s lives—simply because they can give away a lot of money.

Alternative names to ‘philanthropist’ emerged in conversation. Terms like ‘donor activist’ and ‘philanthro-feminist’ were mentioned, denoting a desire for language that reflects a different approach to giving. This approach doesn’t depend on being female, but it does center the needs and rights of women and girls, recognizing their contributions as key to building the world we want to live in.

In the weeks after the summit, these conversations lingered with us. Is it really necessary, we wondered, for feminists to refer to ourselves as anything other than philanthropists? What if, instead, we redefine what being a philanthropist means. The term ‘philanthropy’ actually comes from the Greek word ‘philanthropia,’ which means love of humanity. When you think about it, what’s more feminist than that?

Rather than the trickle-down patriarchal view of giving, we see philanthropy as a three-way partnership. It combines the generosity of funders like Suzanne, the global reach of non-profit leaders like Yifat at MADRE, and the on-the-ground expertise of MADRE’s grassroots partners. These are women-led groups on the front-lines of war and environmental disasters in hard-to-fund places, like make-shift refugee camps in Syria and Iraq or off-the-grid villages in Nicaragua and Colombia.

These are groups like Lucy Mulenki’s organization, the Indigenous Information Network, MADRE’s local partner in Kenya. Through our combined impact, the three of us, Suzanne, Yifat and Lucy, can get resources directly into the hands of women in the most remote parts of Kenya, who are struggling to ensure their families’ survival through a withering drought. Our three-way feminist philanthropy provides supplies and training for women to learn conservation farming, so they can feed their families and keep their girls in school despite mounting economic pressure to marry them off for a dowry. By leveraging our complementary strengths, the three of us provide access and resources for local women leaders to raise their voices in the halls of power—from the village council to the United Nations, advocating for policies that will protect their communities for the long term.

Each of us, Suzanne, Yifat and Lucy, play a vital part in the success of this three-way feminist philanthropy. We don’t see giving as a one-way street, but rather a constant value exchange of money, resources, and expertise to achieve the real solutions that will move our world forward.

In today’s political climate, it is time for people to come together and create the world we want to see. Take a moment to think about what philanthropy means to you. We urge you to think about it beyond just money, but rather as an approach to living that embraces a love of humanity above all else, where every one of us has a role to play. Not just a select few in the corner office.

Yifat Susskind, Executive Director of MADRE: Yifat partners with women's human rights activists from Latin America, the Middle East, Asia and Africa to create programs in their communities that meet urgent needs and create lasting change. Yifat leads MADRE's combined strategy of community-based partnerships and international human rights advocacy.

Suzanne Lerner, President & Co-Founder of Michael Stars: Suzanne boasts decades of experience in business, as well as a background in philanthropy with a primary focus on gender equality, economic empowerment and social justice. In 1986, Lerner co-founded retail clothing company Michael Stars of which she now serves as President. Lerner’s second career is philanthropy and giving back to communities both domestically and abroad. She supports numerous causes personally, as well as through the Michael Stars Foundation.

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