How is Philanthropy Enriching Your Life?

Brighton Jones logoOn Tuesday, February 27, 2018, Washington Women’s Foundation and Brighton Jones, a Seattle-based wealth management firm, co-hosted a dynamic conversation about women living richer lives through philanthropy. Our featured panelists included three long-time members of Washington Women’s Foundation, Leslie Decker, Kathy Edwards, and Stephanie Ellis-Smith, and Jean Johnson, who is a founding member of the Seattle Impact Investment Group.  The panel was moderated by Tama Smith, who leads Women Living Richer Lives at Brighton Jones.

As noted by Tama in her introductory remarks, the goal for the evening was to engage in the “three C’s” of philanthropy – conversation, connection and community.  We invite you to keep reading as we share a few key takeaways from the evening and pose a series of questions that we hope will inspire you to think about your own journey as a philanthropist and what next steps you might like to take to increase your impact and influence.

Headshots of Kathy Edwards, Stephanie Ellis-Smith, Leslie Decker, and Jean Johnson
Kathy Edwards, Stephanie Ellis-Smith, Leslie Decker, and Jean Johnson

Jean, Leslie, Kathy, and Stephanie were invited to speak, because each of them brings a unique perspective and practice to personal philanthropy.  Jean Johnson is a civic activist and philanthropist, who promotes values-based investing.  She and her husband were founding members of the Seattle Impact Investment Group.  Leslie Decker also is a philanthropist and impact investor, who focuses on strengthening communities through social justice, education, and women’s leadership. As a lifelong activist for empowering women and girls through education, mentoring, and community investments, Leslie has focused on collaborations and connections which leverage and accelerate their impact.

Kathy Edwards serves on the Board of Directors of Washington Women’s Foundation and is the Foundation’s Treasurer. She also is the co-founder and current Board President of Cedarmere Foundation, which supports the development and sustainability of small nonprofits in the Puget Sound Region by making capacity-building grants.  Stephanie Ellis-Smith is the owner of a philanthropy advisory firm, Phila Engaged Giving, and is the founder and former Executive Director of the Central District Forum for Arts & Ideas. Having devoted much of her life to the enrichment of her community, Stephanie and her husband use donor advised funds held in community foundations located in Seattle and Minneapolis for their family giving.

Tama started the conversation by asking the panelists to share what led them to become philanthropists.  Family and family tradition – from large-scale family philanthropy to family members simply helping each other and less fortunate family members – were major influencers.  Stephanie noted that giving was just “what our family did.”


Key Takeaway: A woman doesn’t have to have significant wealth to be a philanthropist. 


Our panelists also were influenced by volunteer and professional working experiences in the nonprofit sector.  Jean and Stephanie noted that increases in their family’s wealth caused them to think more strategically about their giving. Jean also shared that her background as a lawyer caused her to look more at the “big picture,” the systemic causes of community problems, and to focus on the importance of building political power. Leslie found that her experience in making a donation that truly transformed lives caused her to explore giving in a more impactful way.  Kathy noted that collective giving through WA Women’s Foundation has expanded her ability to make more thoughtful, strategic contributions.


Reflection Question:  What started you on your journey of giving?  What influenced you to begin giving and what continues to influence how you make decisions about your giving?


Tama next asked the panelists to share their “biggest lessons learned,” “pitfalls” to avoid, and the community investments of which they are most proud.  Jean noted that she faced a steep learning curve when she began thinking about impact investing, but she found many learning opportunities in Seattle and started the Seattle Impact Investing Group so she could go through the learning process with other like-minded people.  She encouraged us to “start in any small way” and find the power in every part of our portfolios.  She also noted that impact investing is not only about direct investments in companies, which can be risky. Instead, you can work with your advisors to find the right balance of impact and risk for you.

Stephanie and Kathy both encouraged us to be bold and take strategic risks.  Both feel like most individuals are too timid in their giving, even when they are less risk-adverse when making business or investment decisions.  Stephanie also encouraged us to avoid giving anonymously; leverage is so important, and organizations can use our gifts to attract others.


Key Takeaways:  Just get started – even with a small gift or small investment.  Be bold.  Don’t be afraid of “failure.” If you invest in the stock market, consider the impact made by the corporations in which you invest and whether you support the types of businesses in which they engage (e.g., guns, munitions, tobacco, oil, coal, etc.). 


Reflection Question:  Is fear or lack of confidence holding back your giving?  If so, what steps can you take to overcome these barriers?  If you are a market investor, do your investments align with your philanthropic goals?  For example, if you donate to the American Heart Association, consider what it means to you if your investment portfolio contains stocks in tobacco companies.


Kathy emphasized the importance of giving general operating funds, because nonprofits are “starved” for flexible funding. Cedarmere Foundation only gives money for capacity-building, which she is most proud of.  She noted that capacity-building grants as little as $5,000 or $10,000 can really change the trajectory of a nonprofit organization and its ability to deliver on its mission.  Kathy also encouraged us to avoid thinking that small gifts don’t matter; what matters most is consistent support from donors of all sizes.   She suggested identifying what matters most to you and then finding and investing consistently over time in one or more organizations that focus on the issues you care about most.  She also encouraged us to join a collective giving group, such as Washington Women’s Foundation, where we can be a part of a community of donors who share a passion for becoming more effective philanthropists.

Leslie, too, emphasized the importance of consistency in giving and suggested using a small initial donation to first get to know an organization – “even if the investment doesn’t turn out as you think it should, you’ll learn something.  Also, as your relationship with the organization grows, you will develop more confidence to discuss what a meaningful gift to the organization might be.”  Leslie is most proud of her investments in women and girls because such a small percentage of all philanthropy goes to support women and girls.  Leslie has invested in individual women as well as institutions and sees each type of investment as a learning opportunity.  She also encouraged us to be “intentional” about how we live our lives – where we spend our money and how we spend it; where and how we invest.


Key Takeaways:  View every philanthropic investment as a learning opportunity.  As a way to learn, find ways to engage with others in collective giving or impact investing.  Unrestricted gifts for general operating support are rare and are the most valued gifts an organization can receive.  Like we do at Washington Women’s Foundation, be bold in giving unrestricted gifts for general operating support.


Reflection Question:  What matters most to you?  What issues do you care about?  Which organizations in our community address those issues?  If you don’t know, what steps can you take to become more educated?  What percentage of your giving is unrestricted general operating support to the organizations working on the issues about which you care the most?


No discussion of philanthropy would be complete without a question about what’s the “right” amount to commit to philanthropy.  Each panelist agreed that it was a personal decision but encouraged us to think creatively and think beyond gifts of income (“checkbook giving”) to gifts of assets, such as appreciated stock.  You may be able to “afford” larger gifts of assets from your balance sheet, so don’t view your checkbook or annual income as the only potential source of giving.


Key Takeaways:  Create an annual philanthropy budget.  Work with your advisors to determine more creative ways of giving.  Gifts of assets, rather than income, can have additional tax advantages and may leverage your giving.


Reflection Question:  What is your annual philanthropy budget?  Have you looked at your personal balance sheet to determine if you can maximize your giving? If you don’t know how to analyze your personal balance sheet to answer that question, do you have a trusted advisor or friend who can help you with that analysis?


Washington Women’s Foundation is committed to increasing the knowledge of our members for greater community impact and influence.  We’ll continue this conversation and encourage you to continue your educational journey.

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