Abigail DisneyFunding Serious Change(WOMENSENEWS) At the May 3 annual fundraising breakfast for the New York Women’s Foundation, Abigail Disney issued a million dollar challenge to all who care about justice and social change and who believe they live in abundance. She will match "stretch" gifts, that is, donations that are the equivalent to the cost of a luxury item the contributor planned to buy and will forego. Disney’s terms are that the "stretch" contributions must be to the New York Women’s Foundation and another justice or social change organization. She will match these donations up to a total of $1 million of her own funds in a grant to the New York Women’s Foundation.

Her challenge is a response to her recent trip to Africa where she saw an infant on the edge of death from starvation and her sense of what she called the "pretzel" of philanthropy: If she provided the child’s mother funds for food, the money would be quickly gone and the child hungry once again. And there were many more hungry babies; more all the time, she said, including many who live in Harlem, blocks away from her home. At the same time, she explained, as a businesswoman she sits in meetings during which she hears that $5 million is too small an amount to bother investing.

Through this campaign of matched gift pairs, Disney is emphasizing the "interdependence" of those in need and those with abundance.

Disney’s Rules for the Match

For Disney to match your "stretch" gift, you must


  1. Make a contribution to the New York Women’s Foundation
    before August 1, 2007.

  2. Make a second contribution to the justice or social change organization of your choice, also by August 1, 2007, and it should be:

    • a "stretch" for you. In other words, it must be more than you would usually give and be instead of something else you wanted to purchase.

    • Be for an organization that reflects your deepest passion about justice and social change.


Disney’s May 3 Declaration of Interdependence

(NEW YORK) May 3–The great Paul Farmer points out that there is an important difference between solidarity and pragmatic solidarity. Solidarity with the suffering and oppression of others is valuable and important, but without pragmatism it is really only cheerleading.

Pragmatic solidarity is an acknowledgment that we are all totally and irrevocably interdependent and it accepts all of the implied rewards and responsibilities of that interdependence.

Last December while I was in Liberia, I went out to the countryside to see some programs for women. We went to a small village with no water, no electricity–no nothing–in an area that had been utterly devastated by 14 years of civil war. We listened to some resilient women tell us about their work. It was wonderful, but I couldn’t help but be distracted by a small girl to my left, who lay with her head in her mother’s lap, dozing. Something was off about her.

Her mother had dressed this little girl in a frilly dress, and tied her skimpy curls up with two perfect red bows. And yet, the baby’s head was too large for her body. Her eyes were vacant and teary, her hair too thin, and a little line of dry white saliva ran down from the corner of her mouth. I asked the mayor of the village what was wrong with this little girl. She said, simply, "She’s hungry." I said, "Yes, but is she sick too?" She said, "No, no, just hungry and I don’t think she has more than a few days left."

Facing the Pretzel of Philanthropy

I had to do something. I thought, "I have a granola bar in my bag; I should feed her." But then I thought, "Yes, but she’ll just be hungry again tomorrow. I should give the mother money for food. Well yes, but there isn’t much to buy here and she’ll just run out eventually, so I should give a larger amount to the mother and ask the mayor to help the mom find a job etc, etc, but then of course there are all those other babies and how can I help them," and so on and so forth. I went around and around like this until one other thought suddenly boomed in my head.

It said, "For God’s sake just shut up and feed the baby!"

I happen to know that if I brought this baby here and sat her down in front of each of you, you would all probably go through some similar process, and you’d end up right where I did. Feed the baby. It’s pretty simple. And I know this room; I know this city; I know this country. We are generous and humane people and we are simply not wired to sit next to a starving baby without feeding her.

So if that’s the case why are so many babies hungry? And why, every single year of every one of our lives on earth have they just gotten hungrier and hungrier? With all the charity and all the development and all the generosity, why do we continue to lose ground? While the reasons for this are complicated one is clear: even though we do a lot, the bar for generosity is simply too low.

I live a strange life. I come home from Africa and head straight to one meeting or other at which we are likely to be discussing a bake sale, or a field trip, or–and the irony of this is almost unbearable–the problem of childhood obesity.

Jolted by the Culture of Excess

This is not just a question of me feeling guilty and taking that out on all of you kind people. When I come home from Africa what gives me the biggest jolt of disbelief is not my life but my culture. It is a culture of excess, of materialism, a culture which elevates the trivial and trivializes the valuable.

The problem is that we’ve got too much stuff. And we spend a lot of time in meetings and at stores thinking about how to deploy our too much stuff. We go to gyms to work off too much food. And Madison Avenue is furiously trying to convince you of new stuff you absolutely have to have that you haven’t even heard of yet.

I move in two entirely opposite worlds and it is growing increasingly difficult to deal with the contrast between them when I know that one side controls many of the answers to the agonies of the other. As a businesswoman, I go to meetings with people who tell me $5 million is too small an amount to bother investing and with money managers who complain that there is too much money out there to invest for a decent return. We are choking on money.

Something is horribly, horribly wrong with this picture, isn’t there? In my view it is simply unjust and morally reprehensible to have so much money and so few people on one side of the world while there is so much need and so little help on the other. I think it is not only unjust, but frankly untenable. Wouldn’t common sense tell you that something’s gotta give, and soon?

In fact, from a global point of view there are starving babies all around us that we can’t–or won’t–see. Spiritually and morally that baby sits right next to you and me every day, but we’ve got oceans to our sides and walls to the north and south and a media that is more concerned with whether or not Britney remembered her underpants last night than with helping us understand that there is a big world out there and it looks nothing like the fantasyland we have built here on this island of wealth and privilege.

Mind you, this well insulated island of privilege has its own pockets of poverty, God knows. That’s why we are here today after all. An African American baby boy born in Harlem today is less likely to reach adulthood than a boy born in Bangladesh. The fact that some of the worst pockets of poverty exist within a few miles of the media capital of the world makes it all the more astonishing that this media still does not tell us the whole, unvarnished truth about the nature and extent of global inequity.

Standing on Pile of Life Jackets

If I sit by and watch somebody drown when I have a life jacket in my hands, can I really say that it was a tragedy, none of my doing, an accident? I know I didn’t put them there to drown, after all, but I didn’t reach out to help either. And saying that we were distracted by the dancing on the Lido deck is no excuse. I ask you, what is required of us in a world in which 95 percent of us are drowning and 5 percent are standing on a pile of life jackets that we don’t want to admit are right there under our feet?

Now I know what you are thinking. Who the hell is she, this heiress, to tell us that we don’t do enough, that we have too much money? And some of us here have very little indeed, I recognize that. If you want to shoot the messenger, go ahead, I don’t blame you. Just promise me that you will still judge the message on its own merits because I think you know it still holds up.

We can all do better. I am certain that I could do far, far better, and it is getting too hard to go back to Africa again and again, knowing that I have let another opportunity to shout this from the rooftops pass.

This is absolutely not to say that there is something inherently wrong with an expensive purse, a Mercedes Benz or a tummy tuck. There is, in fact, an innate human longing for beauty. It is the same longing that brings art into the world. And a world without it would be gray indeed.

But it is a question of degree. It is a question of–dare I say it–decency. It’s a question not of the Mercedes Benz, but of how many of them? How many purses, how many pairs of shoes or bottles of wine? Or boats or cars or houses? How much money could we unlock if we just skimmed 10 percent off the top of this country’s luxury spending? And don’t forget it’s not just the rich who spend on luxuries, since the luxury lobby has done a brilliant job of conning everyone into the idea that these are necessary reflections of our self worth.

And it is precisely this confusion of needing with wanting, this tendency to get mixed up about what is necessary to live and what living is genuinely about that is making us as a nation very, very unhappy.

Abigail’s Challenge

So right now I am going to make a challenge to you, but listen carefully, because it is a little unorthodox.

I am challenging you to make two gifts. Why? Because I don’t believe in either-or. What I believe in, and what will kick start change, is both-and. If you do make the two gifts and they fulfill the requirements I am about to list I will match both of your gifts, dollar for dollar, in the form of a grant to the New York Women’s Foundation, up to a million dollars.

I want you to make one gift this morning to the New York Women’s Foundation, and I want you to be generous because the grantees you have heard from need all of your pragmatic solidarity. (Disney subsequently approved reaching out to other potential donors through Women’s eNews and extending the deadline for the gifts to the New York Women’s Foundation.)

And then I want you to go home and think of one organization that does the best, most creative work for justice and social change, and I want you to make a second gift to that organization. It might be to the New York Women’s Foundation again, or to another women’s fund, or it can go to something else. As long as your gift supports the work of change and social justice we know that your heart is with us and we will support you.

I know this sounds crazy. But in reality there is a broad universe of wonderful organizations, including this one and all of the other women’s funds that spend a good deal of time and energy fighting hard to get their share of a finite pool of charitable dollars. With this gesture I hope to bust that pool open, to unleash new dollars, partly because I know they are there, and partly because without more new money we all are condemned to continue chasing our tails ad infinitum.

I have spent the last 15 years at this foundation learning that when you trust people to rise, they rise, and when you ask people to aspire, they aspire, and when you let people find their own best way, the world is always better served.

In order to meet this challenge your gift will have to fulfill three criteria.



    First: it must be a stretch gift for you. It must be over and above what you normally give in a year by a significant amount. Your fingers should shake a little when you sign the check.

    Second: it must reflect your strongest, most passionate belief about justice.

    And third, it must be instead of something else you wanted–a pair of shoes, a car, even a house. Quite literally, I want you to give until it hurts. And then give some more, because I happen to know that that’s precisely the only thing that will feel better than all the shoes and boats and cars in the world put together.


If you do this within the next 90 days and send an e-mail to the New York Women’s Foundation telling us about how your gift filled each of the three criteria, I will match your gifts, dollar for dollar in the form of a grant to the New York Women’s Foundation up to a million dollars.



I want to be very, very clear that today I am asking you to do something new, something different.

I am not normally such an exhibitionist about things and believe me it is a very vulnerable feeling to stand here talking about this at all. I have always believed firmly that decisions about giving should never be driven by a need for recognition, but I have come to see also that they should equally not be hampered by a fear of exposure, especially when there is the opportunity to move the hearts and minds of others with it.

In 1967, Bobby Kennedy took us to task for losing sight of what matters. He said: "We will find neither national purpose nor personal satisfaction in a mere continuation of economic progress, in an endless amassing of worldly goods. We cannot measure national spirit by the Dow Jones average nor national achievement by the gross national product . . . They measure everything . . . except that which makes life worthwhile; and they can tell us everything about America–except whether we are proud to be Americans."

We have got to start a quiet revolution in this country and it needs to start by this being the first day of the rest of your lives. Let’s take our cash flow projections and make a mess of them. Let’s change the order in which we choose. Let’s never ever forget to feed the baby. I want you to feel in your hearts that when you give till it hurts, it turns out to be the only thing that feels really, really good.

    This is my declaration of interdependence.

    This is my thank you to you, to this foundation, and to this city, which have given me so much more than I could ever have wished for.

For more information:

New York Women’s Foundation:

Daphne Foundation:

Worth magazine profile:

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