Funding Serious Change(WOMENSENEWS)–Wisdom and financial intelligence are two separate things. But in my own life they have been closely related.

 I am a great-granddaughter of a founder of Merck, the giant pharmaceutical company. I always knew there was money in my family. But just how much and to whom it truly belonged remained a mystery to me into my own middle age.

In my youth my family was well enough off, but far from wealthy in any overt way. A typical question in our household might be, "should I buy another horse or repair the driveway?" We didn’t have money for both, or so I thought.

My introduction to any form of wealth began at age 21. I came into my trust which amounted to a few hundred dollars a month. There were no further instructions. For the next 10 years, I worked fun jobs at museums and art galleries, earning enough to get by yet living well due to my trust income. Later I married an urban designer. That same year I was shocked to receive a tax bill for $40,000. How could that be? It turned out that all this time, my taxes and other major financial matters were handled by my uncle-trustee, while I thought I was a cool city slicker in charge of her life because I paid my rent and phone bill, and managed my life in New York. As they say, ignorance is bliss. Or is it?

Family finances had long been controlled by my uncle, my mother’s only brother. When the tax bill arrived, I went to him in tears, at a loss for what to do. Our savings amounted to $2,000 at that time. Don’t worry, my uncle said, we’ll take care of it.

This odd pattern of low allowances and high tax bills continued as my husband I raised our children and lived a modest life in New York. But my money was in the form of Merck stock and monies converted from stock are subject to capital gains tax.

Tax Bills Become Clear

Eventually I learned what was generating those high tax bills.

My Grandmother died in 1987 and a few years later, at 43, I was told that my mother was giving her children their inheritance. We all got a chunk of money; $17 million to be exact.

My mother would rather see us use our inheritance while she is still around; why wait for her death? The family wealth had been hidden until then, which is why I saw nothing but all those eerie tax bills.

To most people this would sound wonderful–a windfall–but I was shocked, resentful and ashamed. How could I not have known what was rightfully mine? And now that I had it, what would I become? I had harbored negative stereotypes about wealthy people. I didn’t want to become elitist, or arrogant, or materialistic. What would I do?

In time, I discovered a philanthropy workshop run by the Rockefeller Foundation, which schooled me in an essential understanding of philanthropy. And I connected with the Women Donors Network, a national organization based in Menlo Park, Calif. There I met other women who had come into wealth without a clue as to what to do about it but were committed to their own financial intelligence.

Flipping a Switch

The realization that so many other women, with access to so many resources, were also in the dark about their finances flipped a switch inside me.

After many years of being intimidated by the male financial advisors who tossed around terms I couldn’t understand, I’d finally found a safe space: a sisterhood where no question was too small, and where I was finally learning to take control of my money rather than letting it control me. And, I quickly realized, there were millions of other women out there whose bank statements might look very different from mine, but who were struggling with similar issues.

This was the beginning of my interest in women’s philanthropy. I soon became involved with both the Ms. Foundation for Women and the New York Women’s Foundation, both of which work with community based organizations to build the collective power of women and girls around a number of issues–including economic development.

And through the Ms. Foundation, I was introduced to remarkable groups like Women’s Action to Gain Economic Security, or WAGES, founded in 1994 to help low-income women form cooperative business ventures and which also helps participants expand their businesses and create new jobs.

To see these women taking control of their lives–and particularly their financial lives–has inspired me beyond measure.

Safeguarding Funds for Giving

As my financial intelligence grew, so did my philanthropy. I eventually established a $2 million charitable lead trust. This means I cannot touch the money for anything other than philanthropy; it is safeguarded from my personal wants and needs. The principal is also safeguarded against fluctuations in the stock market and the vagaries of other investment instruments.

In 2004, when the Ms. Foundation asked if I would like to be 1 of 35 women giving a million dollars to observe their 35th anniversary, I was honored and said yes immediately. My pledge is payable over a period of time and this fits with my ability to give.

Both the Ms. Foundation and the New York Women’s Foundation place heavy emphasis on financial literacy for the women served by the organizations who receive foundation grants.

In some cases, low-income women received an important skill–job training, for example–and then they are out on their own. They may not know as much as how to open a checking or savings account. But my funding is supporting their growing financial acumen, which will lift up not only them but also their families and communities.

As I think of these smart and resourceful low-income women, with little financial knowledge, I can see a parallel. Coming into our own financial intelligence is essential to our power.

And when we come into our power, we change the world for the better.

Lindsay Shea is a donor activist, working and funding in the fields of girls, women, economic development, youth organizing and juvenile justice in New York City.

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