The Parable of the Fence and Other Lessons

Posted on LinkedIn Influencers on April 4, 2014.

I just spent the past two days in Chicago at the #womenleading Philanthropy Symposium, created by the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at the Indiana University Family School of Philanthropy. Over 300 people attended this conference, including many of the true trailblazers in philanthropy. The organizers could not have chosen a better title, because women’s leadership in giving is quickly emerging as a powerful and distinctive force. The Institute’s research on this trend has been critical for advancing the conversation on women’s roles in philanthropy, and research is crucial in framing how people think about issues, which in turn often leads to behavior change.

I recently wrote a previous article discussing how there are a number of trends worth paying attention to with regards to women in philanthropy, such as the growing financial power of women, the rise in women only giving circles and donor networks, and the infusion of a gender lens in both men and women’s giving strategies. I wrote that with the simultaneous rise of these trends, they are all coming together to create a zeitgeist. This idea was reinforced by the conversations and discussions at this conference, and left me with some important takeaways.

One of the biggest was the fact that the women, and the few good men, who were gathered in Chicago were not taking a business as usual kind of approach to their philanthropy. They were actively looking for new ideas and were anxious to forge collaborations in order to accelerate positive change. Everyone seemed to agree that collaborating was critical, and that collective action could potentially be transformative. In fact, the closing session, moderated by Susan McPherson and Sloane Davidson, highlighted a number of unique and innovative partnerships at work today, including one between the NGO Tostan, the Sundance Institute, Venice Arts, and the Skoll Foundation. These four organizations came together to tell the story of unbelievable community-based change in Africa, and in the process, highlighted the important role funders can play in bringing groups together to leverage their unique competencies.

In addition to creating and embracing strategic collaborations, attendees agreed that telling data-driven stories was very important. Funders want to see numbers to demonstrate impact, but there was healthy discussion around what can and cannot be measured, and at what cost. Women Moving Millions recently surveyed our own community of 200 members, and sure enough, how to measure impact emerged as a key topic our members want to learn more about. In order to gain a better understanding of impact in philanthropy, last year we asked the Center for High Impact Philanthropy to consider the question, “What is impact?”, and what emerged was a thoughtful analysis of the difference between outcome and impact, and how it can be very hard to measure either.

Finally, it would not be a conference on philanthropy without the issue of funding for operating costs making an appearance. I loved that more than one speaker spoke about the need for unrestricted support to their grantees. I could not agree more. One of my favorite articles on the subject is called “The Nonprofit Starvation Cycle” that appeared in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. We simply must give the organizations we believe in the core support they need to do their work. Rousing applause also went to one brave soul who stood up and asked that we be sure to pay our staff appropriately to ensure that top talent remains in the sector, and that they are able to provide for their families while serving the world. But above all else, what emerged from this gathering was a sense of oneness and of being in it together, which is exactly how it should be.

The problems we face in the world are indeed complex, but judging by the passion that was on display in Chicago, women philanthropic leaders are up for the task. They truly want to ‘bring it’ for the causes they care about, including their money, their knowledge, their networks, their expertise, and most importantly, their leadership. As I took a break from my writing to eat my dinner on the plane home, I randomly opened to a page in the recent issue of O Magazine with the cover, “20 Questions Every Woman Should Ask Herself Today.” The question I happen to turn to was, “Am I helpful?” Unexpectedly, it was Gloria Steinem who provided an answer to that question.

In the article, she described being in a village in Zambia with a group of women when they learned that two women from their village had gone missing. These two women had gone to the city to prostitute themselves in order to provide for their families, and Gloria learned that this had become the only option for them when elephants had trampled their crops, leaving them unable to make a living from farming. Gloria asked what could help, and the women of the village said an electric fence, which Gloria and her friends then provided the money to procure. When Gloria returned a year later, the women of the village had harvested a bumper crop of maize, giving them food for a year and enough extra money to pay for their children’s school fees.

She calls this the parable of the fence and these are its lessons: “Helping begins with listening. Context is everything. People who experience the problem know best how to solve it. Big problems often have small solutions. And finally, do what you can.” Reflecting back on the past two days, I realized that each one of these wise lessons came up in some form or another, but never in a way that summarized them so beautifully. I know that the next time I am asked to speak at such a conference, I will be sure to share them.

Pictured above (left to right) – Dalila Wilson-Scott (Moderator), Jacki Zehner, and Julie Smolyansky (CEO – Lifeway Foods) at the Leading with Passion panel.

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