A Conversation with Ellen Remmer
Changing Society's Agreements
Part of the way we transform society is by changing how people look at things. We are all responsible for shaping "agreement" in society-about what's possible, what's acceptable, what's right, what's wrong. For example, we used to agree as a society that women should not work outside the home, or that if you were gay, you had to keep it quiet. Some people or groups, like the media, have greater influence than others on what our agreements are. Those who have access to more resources, like money, have a special opportunity to influence agreement in the world, because they have easier access to opinion shapers-to the media, to nonprofits, to politicians. However, everyone has the ability to shape society's agreements through the power of their beliefs and actions.1
The Role of Convening People
One of the most powerful roles of the donor is that of convening people. For example, my family foundation supports girls' programs. When we were looking for youth programs to fund in the Jacksonville, Florida area, we found there were not enough that were positive about girls' development. They were generally programs like preventing teenage pregnancy, more focused on negatives. We thought, "Why not create exciting, positive programs for girls?"
We found a visionary leader who could see what was needed and what was possible. She suggested that part of the problem was that there was no girls' agenda in the area. Together, we invited to a lunch anyone who was interested in shaping the girls' agenda in the county. Those who attended formed an alliance to identify girls' needs and build a positive agenda. The cost to my family's foundation was under $300 to get the ball rolling! Only a few months later, the First Coast Girls' Initiative has fifty community leaders and active committees working on research, membership expansion, and training and development. We are very excited about how much has happened so quickly. We believe the initiative will have a significant impact on the region's support for girls. Though it won't happen immediately, we believe that, eventually, the "agreements" about girls' issues and needs will change.
That's the power of convening. Either perceived or real access to power and resources can change the conversation- or bring one together-to make something happen.
Our Belief Creates the Power
We often think it's the money that gives the power. But to a certain extent, it is our belief that creates the power. When I first inherited money, I thought, "Oh wow! This gives me freedom, power, credibility! Now I'll be able to influence issues I care about." Money empowered me to change the world because I believed money was the most powerful tool for changing it. Yet, it has become increasingly clear to me that a donor has little impact unless she supports a powerful leader or organization that has a vision and the capacity to implement the vision. If I had had the confidence as a young person in my twenties and had known that all I needed to do was get people together and organize them a round a cause, I could have made more of a contribution to society then. I wouldn't have had to wait until I got money to do it.
This, of course, is paradoxical, because people do listen to you more as a donor. Because you have a scarce resource, society has agreed to listen to you more. So, although money gives you additional power to change the world, you can do it without money, too, if you understand the role of convener --to which donors naturally have easier access. The irony is that people often don't understand that they could play that role until they experience themselves in that role as a donor.
Donating Transforms the Donor
One thing that fascinates me is that as a donor-and especially, as a convener--you're exposed to incredible, visionary, social change makers in the world. When you meet these leaders, you're able to have your point of view constantly expanded and challenged. That in itself is a transformation process. Donors typically experience a personal evolution, often starting from an arrogant or simplistic point of view, where they think, "I've got the money and I know what to do with it to create the changes that need to happen," and evolving to the awareness that those without the money have ideas, experience, and on-the-ground wisdom that should be listened to. One of the privileges of being a donor is your ability to use your role as a convener to give voice to those who may have a harder time getting heard in society.
Being a donor is a creative process. There is a concept referred to as the spiral staircase of learning. You learn something, and later you notice you're learning it again. You may think you're regressing, but in fact, you're just higher up the spiral staircase. You are simply seeing the concept or issue from a different vantage point. Things may look the same at first, but you now have more context, so you're learning in a deeper way. Being a donor is a constant learning process that ends up transforming you as well as society.
- From a conversation with Pamela Gerloff
1 I acknowledge the Landmark Education Corporation, Inc. for introducing me to the concept of changing the agreements. Ellen Remmer is a board member and manager, with her sisters and mother, of the Remmer Family Foundation. She directs the Family Philanthropy Practice at The Philanthropic Initiative ( www.tpi.org), a nonprofit organization committed to increasing the impact of philanthropy in society.
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