Ruth Ann Harnisch

0 (WOMENSENEWS)–When I was a kid in Buffalo, N.Y., it seemed as if there was one set of rules for boys and a different set for girls. It didn’t seem fair, especially since it seemed girls got the short end of the stick most of the time.

If you’d have told me then that one day I’d be able to give a million dollars to charities benefiting women and girls, I’d have busted out in a gap-toothed grin that would have made all the grown-ups laugh.

Well, a good cosmetic dentist fixed that gap, and I have indeed pledged a million-dollar gift to the Women’s Fund of the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee through the Women Moving Millions campaign.

But ever since my youth, I’ve continued to rail every time boys put the "no girls allowed" sign on the clubhouse door. Today’s young people can’t imagine that the job ads in the newspaper (B.C.–Before Craigslist) were separated into "Help Wanted: Male" and "Help Wanted: Female."

The best jobs simply weren’t available to women back then, and I found that out firsthand. I wasn’t allowed to apply for certain jobs (they weren’t called "paper boys" for nothing!). I wound up working for the Buffalo morning newspaper anyway, doing clerical work for the paper boys.

It wasn’t long before I was out of the office and into the action, pursuing a life’s work in journalism–newspaper, radio and television. At Nashville’s CBS affiliate, I anchored the news, did Emmy-nominated reporting, hosted talk shows and telethons. On WLAC-AM, I was a radio talk show host long before Rush Limbaugh. I wrote six columns a week for the Nashville Banner from a progressive feminist perspective, often drawing the ire of the largely conservative readership.

Confronted by Rampant Sexism

Even though it was a great job, the discrimination against women was rampant. I was a contemporary of news anchor Christine Craft, who was fired after a focus group found her "not deferential enough to men."

With all those media jobs (yes, I had them all at once; I worked seven days a week and slept very little), I had a pretty good sense of what was going on in my community. It was clear to me, both in my own life and in the lives of those I was covering, that it still wasn’t a fair world for women and girls.

Take Scouting.

In Middle Tennessee, the Boy Scouts were richly sustained by the generosity of the who’s who of the power establishment. Men, of course.

But at that time, there was no comparable base of women with money and position, no cadre of female funders to provide for Girl Scouts in the manner that men provided for Boy Scouts. Indeed, the public imagined that Girl Scouts were getting rich off their cookie sales.

A Mentor Called

In my work, I saw an ever-changing panorama of human need. One day, I got a call from one of my earliest mentors in journalism who had gone to work for a private foundation. She told me we could do a better job of alleviating suffering in our community.

She schooled me in what a community foundation is, what it does and why our community needed one.

I wrote about it in my newspaper column and joined the crusade to create one. But my contributions were in the currency of fame and the power of my pulpits, as I had no actual money to give.

That all changed after I met Bill Harnisch. A New York-based money manager, he had a variety of investments, one of which brought him to my neck of the woods. We’ve been married since 1990. And he’s been very generous to me, which has allowed me to be generous to others.

I created the Harnisch Family Donor Advised Fund at the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee. And when a small number of women in Nashville decided to establish the Women’s Fund within the Community Foundation, I was honored to be invited to join the advisory board.

The Women’s Fund makes grants to women and girls to support them in three areas: economic self-sufficiency, anti-violence work, and health and well-being.

Partnership of Female Donors

In 1998, when the Nashville Banner ceased publication, I left the working world of journalism and established the Harnisch Foundation. Since then, I’ve given hundreds of grants, and enjoyed partnering with other female philanthropists in the Women Donors Network and Rachel’s Network (for women who donate to environmental causes).

One of my philanthropic mentors, Tracy Gary, convinced me to give larger gifts because they can be leveraged for greater impact. Years before, I had been inspired by Annette Eskind, a prominent Nashville philanthropist who made a million-dollar gift to establish a foundation supporting creativity in education. I marveled that a woman so young felt she was set for life and could give away a million dollars!

The idea started percolating in my head then–even though I had no money at the time–that I would very much like to give a million dollars. When Tracy asked me this year to consider giving a million dollars through the Women Moving Millions campaign, I was delighted to be able to support the Women’s Fund of the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee in this way.

I’m a proponent of muscular women’s philanthropy. Tracy’s right: We women must play big to maximize our power. Our leadership gifts are more than financial resources; I know we give inspiration to other women, generations of women. That’s how I wound up being a million-dollar donor, and why I love the Women Moving Millions initiative.

What could be more powerful than scores of women giving a million dollars each? To me, Women Moving Millions is, well, moving. I’m grateful to be able to participate. Equally important, a million women giving a dollar each can accomplish the same amount of good. No gift is a small gift: each one is meaningful, powerful and, yes, moving.

Ruth Ann Harnisch funds and implements innovative programs in philanthropy, coaching and journalism. The Harnisch Foundation is the worldwide leader in funding coaching research and education, and in Ruth Ann’s pro-bono coaching practice she is a thinking partner to authors, scientists, nonprofit leaders and wealthy individuals.

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Women’s Fund of the Community Foundation of MiddleTennessee


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