By Barbara Dobkin Funding Serious Change(WOMENSENEWS)–I firmly believe that "if you can’t see it, you can’t be it."

That’s why I’m putting my personal story of philanthropy out there for the world to see: so others can be and do the same.

Here is my story:

I grew up in Baltimore in a Jewish family that valued giving according to one’s means. We weren’t a moneyed family but my grandmother used to say, If someone needs to ask you for money, you must give it. That lesson has remained with me through all these years and deepened as time has passed.

Right out of college I married my husband, Eric. He graduated from business school and joined an investment banking firm. Before long we owned a house, had two children, a dog and a station wagon, symbols of our upwardly mobile trajectory.

As Eric’s career progressed, the Jewish fundraisers found him. He was viewed as a source of money, and I as a source of volunteer labor. I was, in fact, growing increasingly involved in a variety of causes. In addition to projects within the Jewish community, I worked tirelessly for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, volunteered in a domestic violence shelter, ran a women’s center.

In time Eric and I moved to suburban New York, and UJA Federation found me. Could they have a community dinner at our home? Sure, I said. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I was expected to pay for the event. So I wrote my first really big check and that sparked more significant giving. By now it was the 1980s.

Family Foundation

When Eric became a partner in his firm, we established a family foundation, the preferred vehicle for taking charitable dollars from his capital account.

At the heart of my giving is my partnership with my husband. He never needed his name on anything, and he’s trusted me with much of our giving. But, still, our giving involves negotiation.

I encourage women who are married to men of means to talk to their husbands, to negotiate.

It’s a work in progress, but I’m finding many women–some of whom are contributing to this series–exercising their power as philanthropists by realizing that they are equal partners in their marriages and that they can and should be involved–very involved–in decisions about giving. I know this is possible; I’ve done it.

Neither Eric nor I understood how foundations traditionally worked–growing the corpus and giving only the 5 percent required by law–so I gave away everything he put in. And my checks grew in scale; from $1,000, to $10,000, to $25,000.

My understanding of what money can do when directed strategically also expanded.

I founded Ma’yan, the Jewish Women’s Project that, among other things, spawned community-wide feminist seders, first in New York, and then internationally.

I helped found the Boston-based Jewish Women’s Archive, which uncovers and collects the experiences of women and makes certain they are included in the teaching of Jewish history.

My million-dollar gift established Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community, a national organization to advance women into leadership positions in Jewish institutions and promote policies that support work-life integration and flexibility for professionals and volunteers.

Searching for More

But I was still searching for something more.

In the 1990s I joined the Women Donors Network, based in Menlo Park, Calif.

My involvement with that network led me in turn to the Women’s Funding Network, an alliance of women’s funds, more than 125 around the world. I have supported it with two million-dollar gifts.

My gifts have focused on increasing the capacity and power of this vibrant global movement, which has risen from a combined annual grant-making of $26 million in 2000 to $51 million today.

Alleviating women’s poverty is a focal point for these women’s funds because poverty is disproportionately a women’s issue. The World Food Program reports that 7 out of 10 of the world’s hungry are women and girls. The U.S. Census shows that of the 37 million people living below the poverty line 21 million are women.

Lifting Women Out of Poverty

As a result of my investment, the Women’s Funding Network has been able to hone its strategies to lift women out of poverty by focusing on building entrepreneurship, developing assets and financial literacy, increasing access to employment and education for children.

In Tanzania, for example, women’s organizations that receive funding are helping local women claim property rights denied to them when they became widowed. This helps curb a systemic cause of many women’s poverty. Closer to home, women’s funds play a pivotal role in supporting marginalized and low-income women to rebuild their lives, livelihoods and communities in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

So here I am, a girl from Baltimore, now older, wiser and able to give in the millions.

Countless women today have the capacity to become philanthropists at the million-dollar level and higher. But some continue to think of philanthropists as older, white and male.

That’s changing as we speak. Women are changing the face of philanthropy by giving to other women.

And this is critically important because when you fund women, they in turn lift up their families, who then have the potential to change entire communities.

Barbara Dobkin is a significant supporter of and advisor to a variety of not-for-profits, including Women’s eNews, and others in the United States and in Israel. She also speaks nationally on issues of women’s philanthropy and leadership.

Women’s eNews welcomes your comments. E-mail us at [email protected].



For more information:

Women’s Philanthropy Institute

Women’s Funding Network:

Women Donors Network:

Jewish Women’s Archive:

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