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Transformational Philanthropy: We See You, We Trust You

Categories: Blog, News

Transformational Philanthropy: We See You, We Trust You

I have worked in nonprofits for over 25 years and in that time have witnessed and experienced tremendous acts of generosity and selflessness. I always knew philanthropy to be honorable and critical to our sector, helping to fulfill the endless need in our community and beyond. However, in the last two years, I have witnessed acts of transformational philanthropy that have helped to manifest deep, meaningful equity that have taken YWCA Madison’s mission to new heights under the bold vision of our CEO. 

According to Duke Haddad, ED, “Transformational philanthropy is an approach to development that enables both nonprofit leaders and entrepreneurs to develop meaningful and effective ways to work together to solve 21st century challenges. By transformational, I mean a philanthropic donation that changes the course of or has a tremendous impact on a nonprofit organization.”

Beyond one definition of the term, I must uplift and amplify the voice of Edgar Villanueva, who first opened my eyes to the idea that money can be medicine. Villanueva’s book, “Decolonizing Wealth” is a must read for those of us who find ourselves in the circle of philanthropic giving. While it wouldn’t be right to paraphrase and summarize Villanueva’s lessons and the Indigenous wisdom he so willingly shares, I can share how that book made me feel. As I turned the final page of the book, I was awash in a new realization that to dismantle the charity model that so often overshadows empowerment, we must begin giving unrestricted dollars to leaders of color who are best equipped to know the needs of the communities they represent. 

While there have always been donors and nonprofit professionals who have believed, acted and upheld this belief, it is time to honor this practice more broadly as a best practice in the industry. After the past two years, I can see the direct effects of transformational philanthropy.

At the end of 2020, YWCA Madison received a transformational gift from McKenzie Scott. Scott’s giving was specifically intended for, “leaders from historically marginalized groups fighting inequities.” There is no doubt that the bold leadership and dedication of Vanessa McDowell was a catalyst for our very own YWCA Madison staff being considered one of “384 carefully selected teams (that) have dedicated their lives to helping others, working and volunteering and serving real people.” What McKenzie Scott was saying was I see you, I trust you.

Vanessa McDowell used this opportunity to address longstanding issues within the organization related to equity. Vanessa’s lived experience as the first black woman CEO of YWCA Madison (in the agency’s 114 year history) helped to inform her vision. As the YWCA Madison family of staff, we have seen the CEO of YWCA Madison flourish and blossom with the power to make the best decisions for the organization. Decisions that were based upon listening to one another, shared core values, and a desire to build the world we want to see in our own little cosmos of our nonprofit. Vanessa used some of this tremendous gift to address pay inequity within the organization. The results of this effort have improved staff retention and wellness, and as a result, better service delivery. Additionally, this created a sense of belonging and worth particularly for staff of color. Our CEO listened to what was needed and delivered a bold solution. We see her and we trust her. 

“It has always been my goal as the CEO of YWCA Madison to make our organization a place of belonging for all, but more specifically for people of color.  That means seeing each other not only visibly but in action.  Transformational unrestricted giving says to me that I am seen and I am trusted with these dollars as a black woman leading this organization.” – Vanessa McDowell, CEO – YWCA Madison

I, personally, am a white development professional; I am also a donor. I have been a service provider and have accessed services. I have sought professional advice and given professional advice. At any given time, we are more than just a donor or recipient. The donors who I have the deepest, most meaningful relationships with are those who simply won’t rest unless we are collectively striving towards our mission of eliminating racism, empowering women and promoting peace, justice, freedom, and dignity for all. They are committed to the learning and unlearning related to racial justice. Many of them, at the onset of the pandemic, simply called to ask how they could be most helpful. They trust us and they see us. 

This year we received yet another transformational gift from the CUNA Mutual Group Foundation. During the granting process, I was invited to participate in a phone call with the foundation leadership staff. After a very frank conversation about the size of our request, I was asked a question by Alex Shade, Director, Corporate Social Responsibility. “What, as a development professional, keeps you up at night?” 

And there it was, streaming from my mouth…my complex fears and thoughts about trying to free myself of a scarcity mindset, while operating in scarcity based systems (like highly competitive grant cycles). In a profession where the average development professional lasts 18 months, one can imagine how comforting and affirming it was to be trusted, to see your organization’s leader honored for her vision. I felt a moment of mutual respect and harmony in our unique paths towards a collective vision.

When the news of CUNA Mutual Group Foundation’s gift was shared with the CEO and with myself, it wasn’t just about “the ask” or our relationship. It was about the true nature of the partnership between YWCA Madison and CUNA Mutual Group. They wanted to honor how we “didn’t stop serving people when the pandemic hit.” How our housing programs kept people “safe at home” and transit programs continued ensuring our essential health care workers got to and from work. How our Race and Gender Equity team pivoted to virtual and continued to train and engage people on the deep learning and unlearning of racial justice. CUNA wanted to honor how we have engaged their staff members to be thought partners and creative curators for programming, visioning and beyond. True partnership. We see them and we trust them, and they do us.

“Listening matters. Asking questions to develop a deeper understanding of issues is necessary to move toward action. This is how we start transforming communities. At CUNA Mutual Group we take a holistic approach to our philanthropy and center our communities. We call out disparities and work alongside our organizational partners as they address inequities in their communities and create solutions for people they serve.” Alex Shade, Director, Corporate Social Responsibility – CUNA Mutual Group

Transformational philanthropy asks us to share our truths. It invites uncomfortable conversation because to fulfill our mission, we have to be comfortable with sometimes being uncomfortable. Transformational philanthropy puts the people we serve first. Transformational philanthropy peels back the layers of status and allows you to share that your colleagues providing both direct services and administrative support are exhausted. It invites humor, grace, depth of feeling and shared humanity.

Transformational philanthropy also may let some dollars get away, because the values aren’t aligned. And that’s OK. They didn’t see us. Philanthropy means “love of mankind”, which I would revise to love of humankind. And love isn’t just about building bridges, it’s also about removing barriers. It’s about wanting to build processes that ensure our nonprofit professionals can be well, can have time for their families, and can show up to do the heavy lifting that comes with providing housing and shelter, employment and transportation and race and gender equity. 

Edgar Villanueva in Decolonizing Wealth, explains how money can be medicine. Money can heal, love can heal, but not if given in the way of building separation. No longer can we transform the status quo by being “us and them.” We see us, we trust us.

Jill W. Pfeiffer
YWCA Madison Development and Marketing Director

About YWCA Madison

YWCA Madison is on a mission to eliminate racism, empower women, stand up for social justice, help families, and strengthen our community. YWCA Madison is part of an international movement serving over 2 million in the United States and 25 million worldwide. For comprehensive information about this important work, go to www.ywcamadison.org and www.ywca.org.