The State of Philanthropy

PhilanthropyLeft to right: Jane Wales, Cate Muther, Marilyn Katz and Sonia Reese at the site of their June discussion, the San Francisco offices of the Three Guineas Fund

Catherine (Cate) Muther '69 is founder and president of the Three Guineas Fund, a grant-making foundation whose mission is to create access to opportunity for women and girls in education and the economy. She is a former trustee of Sarah Lawrence College and Mills College, and a board member of Cambridge University in America.

Sonia Reese '73 is executive director of Columbia University Community Impact, an independent nonprofit organization dedicated to serving disadvantaged people in the Harlem, Washington Heights, and Morningside Heights communities. She is a trustee of Sarah Lawrence College.

Jane Wales '70 is president and CEO of the World Affairs Council of Northern California, and author of numerous articles and monographs on international security, policy and philanthropy. She co-founded the Global Philanthropy Forum, a network of individual donors with family foundations, who are committed to international causes.

Marilyn Katz '54 is Sarah Lawrence's dean of studies and student life emerita; she served the College from 1982 until her retirement in 1998.

Four SLC alumnae discuss the challenges of the changing world of philanthropy - and the challenges of supporting their alma mater.

{ MARILYN KATZ } Let's talk about why you chose to become so committed to philanthropy.

{ JANE WALES } I think it was in my bones from a very early age, because it was a part of my own family's culture. I myself had been the beneficiary of philanthropy: I learned how to swim because the Jewish Community Center didn't mind having a Protestant girl show up and knock on the door. My grandparents had been very active philanthropists. They and my parents were deeply committed to positive social change. There was an understanding that you give back and you earn your right to be part of this earth.

{ CATE MUTHER } It's a privilege and a responsibility to be part of a community and contribute in different ways. My grandmother was a suffragette and campaigner for women's reproductive freedoms; my father was involved in social issues as well. I came from a family that thought about ways to change things in society, but we were not wealthy. I became interested in philanthropy when the money I earned in business gave me the capacity to do things which I might not otherwise have been able to do. I founded the Three Guineas Fund and began to apply myself to thinking about philanthropy. More recently, I became a founder of the Acumen Fund, a nonprofit venture capital fund that invests in the development of affordable goods and services for the four billion people in the world who live on less than four dollars a day.

{ SONIA REESE }I have a confession to make about my involvement in philanthropy. Even though my brothers and sisters and I received many scholarships, I never really thought about what fundraising meant until about fifteen years ago, when I took over the Community Impact program at Columbia Univer-sity: The shoe was on the other foot. Until I had to go out and ask for money, I’d never thought about my scholarships, about what it took for people to raise that money, or where it came from.

My most recent experience with philanthropy, though, is with my son, who started receiving an allowance at six. He divides his little allowance into three parts, and one part is for savings and a charity. It was extremely challenging when I had to describe why he should give money to a charity; I’m trying to build a concept of philanthropy from a very small amount of money. It is interesting to see what he’s chosen to give it to.

{ JANE } I do think you acquire a sense of social responsibility at a very, very young age. Sonia is passing this on to her son, much as my parents passed it onto me. My first experience in philanthropy was, at age eight, organizing a fair to raise money for a family whose house had been destroyed in our community. I think you learn at a very early age, and your family and community either support that philanthropic instinct or they don’t.

If I can be a little bit parochial about Sarah Lawrence graduates, it seems to me that so many of us are motivated by a desire for social change that it’s almost beside the point whether the means for making change is philanthropy. It’s very telling that Cate took a page out of the book of her suffragette grandmother in shaping her own values.

{ MARILYN } Donors are now becoming partners with institutions in effecting change—one of many tremendous changes in the nature of philanthropy and the way in which donors are having a much greater say. Could you talk a little bit about how you see that happening in your work? What are some of the current trends in philanthropy?

{ CATE }Donors are thinking about philanthropy in a global context, which you can see in the development of organizations like Jane’s, the Global Philanthropy Forum. They ask, what is the problem we are trying to solve? How do we think about tackling some of these global, complex, extremely difficult problems, like global poverty or global warming or global human rights issues? Entrepreneurs who have created wealth come out of global companies, like Cisco or eBay—companies whose business fundamentals depend on competing in global markets. When these entrepreneurs set up foundations, they turn naturally to global problems; that’s one way in which they connect with the world.

{ JANE } Another striking change is that foundations founded and overseen by living benefactors are now matching the scale and scope of the foundations that were established by virtue of an estate. Young benefactors, like former eBay CEO Jeffrey Skoll, are actively involved in setting their foundations’ course. They’re engaged philanthropists who are reinventing and reshaping philanthropy in many ways, and some are in the midst of their careers, like Google founders Sergei Brin and Larry Page.

{ CATE } I’d say they’re at the top of their career and mid-life—and they’re taking the same skills they used building businesses to solving social problems.

{ JANE } When it comes to the philanthropic sector, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a striking example. It is as strategic as Microsoft is.

The Foundation selected a high-leverage issue—infectious diseases—and is using its comparative advantages of a highly skilled staff, a deeply informed strategy and a large amount of money. It combats the problem from multiple angles, with investments in vaccine research, in immunization programs, in public education and in policy development. Like other new foundations, it is willing to operate across sectors and enters into public private partnerships, a path initially forged by foundations like Rockefeller and Ford. You’ll see many, many more such examples.

But, within the private sector—and I think Cate was referring to this—leaders are putting their companies to the service of social goals. Google did this when it decided to translate all of the world’s knowledge into many of the languages of the developing world. Suddenly, people who were previously isolated by poverty or politics will be able to gain access to empowering information. This private sector choice will effect social change. Its potential impact is almost beyond our imagination.

{ CATE } We also see a recognition that it takes a capital commitment over a long period of time to address and solve complex problems. The Gates Foundation will invest in a ten-year, ten-million-dollar grant. As Jane said, there is no one single way. No one has the one answer because the problems are inherently multidimensional. You need to bring around the table people who can contribute different perspectives to a problem.

{ JANE } There are two other points as well. First, these large problems are now looked at as systems: Poverty is understood as a system as opposed to a linear problem; so is climate change. Second, the extent to which large problems are understood that way, either domestically or internationally, will determine just how strategic we are.

{ MARILYN } Sonia, you’re working locally with the larger New York community where Columbia is trying to be a responsible citizen. There’s new language at this level as well, since we now speak of “community partnerships.” Could you talk about the way in which you partner with the organizations that Columbia serves where the students in your program work?

{ SONIA } We work mostly in West Harlem where, in spite of some gentrification and Columbia’s thirty-year building plan, there’s still a lot of poverty. There are many service agencies in the area, but they are so under-funded that when our students come along to volunteer, they’re just snapped up by the agencies. But it’s more work for small organizations to be part of funding partnerships, so they’re reluctant to participate.

Local issues are not so different from global ones. The solution to children’s dental problems is not to bring them toothbrushes; it’s a mom’s knowing where the dental clinic is and having time to take her kids there. We sit down with a community person and ask, “What’s going to make a real difference to you?” This is complicated enough on a local level: An organization explains how they want the partnership to work, but it isn’t always something that we can do because we’re using a volunteer base.

So, the idea of partnerships is very appealing. Bringing everything together and getting the partners to talk to each other and then getting them to talk to the donor and having the donor understand—and if that donor is willing to come and look—then it’s great. If they’re not willing, then partnerships can become a big challenge. To think of this partnership process happening globally is amazing. I was lucky enough to send college students to work in Africa for the first part of my career, so I’m really glad that this new approach is working.

{ MARILYN } Let’s shift gears a bit. What do you think about the gap between SLC alums’ affection for their education, and the much lower rate of participation through giving? Academically, they really are strongly for the College (ninety-two percent, according to a recent survey), and yet only forty percent of those surveyed support it. Very often, when I speak to graduates about giving money, what they’ll say is, “I am giving money to the causes I deeply believe in, which is what you trained me to do.”

{ CATE } There is this concept of social entrepreneurship: people all over the world who are creating organizations and working to make things different and better. I think you hear the response you do, Marilyn, because Sarah Lawrence is generating so many social entrepreneurs who are working in the non-profit sector and in broad social movements.

{ MARILYN } What do you think is the message that we need to convey to our graduates so they understand that Sarah Lawrence needs their resources, their expertise, their interest, their entrepreneurship— all the things that we are so proud they’re giving to the larger society?

{ CATE } Maybe there is something in this social entrepreneurship idea. Connecting a person’s self identity and their philanthropy is a way of engaging them in the life of the institution. Maybe we need to communicate a message about how Sarah

Lawrence is an incubator for social entrepreneurship: It is a central producer, a major manufacturer of social entrepreneurs in this country and the world.

Why is it that so many graduates choose this path? A college that helps people develop their social entrepreneurship, helps them become a change agent in society, has a special quality.

{ JANE } It’s true. If the Sarah Lawrence brand is, “This is about self,” that does not inspire giving.

{ SONIA } But social entrepreneurship does.

{ JANE } If the brand is, “This is about building a community of innovators,” that inspires giving.

{ CATE }That’s very good language.

{ JANE } A community of innovators is best developed with an incredible teacher-student ratio. And that costs money. There’s a hugely developed sense of personal responsibility amongst Sarah Lawrence graduates, a sense of responsibility to a larger community and to a larger world. But, perhaps there’s a gap when it comes to a sense of responsibility to the college.

{ MARILYN } When I came back as a dean, I saw how diverse the college had become. Many alums who are committed to making a difference may not appreciate sufficiently SLC’s growing impact in developing social entrepreneurship in students of varying backgrounds. We are now training a broader number of students from diverse backgrounds to become agents for social change—and our unique interactive system is teaching them to speak productively with one another, and to think globally. There’s a big difference in a diverse institution where people sit side by side in a lecture hall, and one where people sit around the seminar table. That’s real exchange. Diversity is not a matter of how someone looks in a photograph, but of finding out that people from different economic, racial and ethnic backgrounds really have been shaped in different ways from you. That’s an education.

{ CATE } And you’re having a conversation.

{ MARILYN } Conversation is really at the heart of Sarah Lawrence, isn’t it? I often wonder about colleges where the adviser has no idea what the student is really like.

{ JANE } That’s why I went to Sarah Lawrence. I knew how to get the grades I needed to get to be okay with my parents, but I didn’t know how to learn. I went to Sarah Lawrence and in my first month—my first month—Bob Wagner, my English professor and don, called me in and said, “You know what? You’re a perfect B+ student. You can just glide. But you won’t do your best.”And then he said, “I noticed that you hand in your papers early each week.”

{ CATE } That’s got to be a unique experience. No wonder he called you into his office.

{ JANE} I handed them in early so that my responsibility would end early. I wasn’t responsible for doing my best; I was just responsible for getting the paper in. He said, “I would like your next paper to be late, and I’d like it to be your best.” I panicked. I can still remember those two weeks of agony trying to write that paper. But, that’s why I went to Sarah Lawrence: to become somebody who learned instead of someone who just got by. That experience with Bob Wagner couldn’t have happened any place but at Sarah Lawrence.

Now I want to know that other kids will have whatever it is they need, so that they will take themselves to a different level and contribute at that different level to the rest of society.

{SONIA}I find it frustrating to think about this! So much of who we are and what we like about Sarah Lawrence means that, almost by definition, we cannot be part of a rah-rah fundraising campaign. It must be a huge struggle for the people who have to raise money from us alums, because I don’t think we respond to the traditional approach: “Do this for your school. Keep it in place.” The whole idea of sameness, I think, sort of just irks a Sarah Lawrence graduate, in general. You just don’t want to hear it. You’re taught that you are unique. You want to be unique. You have fun being unique.

To fundraise among my fellow alums, I almost need to learn another language. I know that fund-raising language sent to me and to other alums— well, we’re not going to respond to it. We almost click it off because it’s so different from what we learned at the school.

So maybe it’s the way we think about it. I love what you said, Cate. We need to talk about ourselves as being a group of people who will go out there and have a certain impact on the world and create change. Because that’s just what so many of us are. And we need to encourage others to financially support SLC, so that this terrific process can continue.

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