EPIP-NY: Leading Authentically as a Woman in Philanthropy

 “I really connect my professional with my personal…I can never separate what I do from what I am.” - Wilma Montanez, Jessie Smith-Noyes Foundation

Over 40 women (and one man) gathered at the Wallace Foundation bright and early to hear inspirational words and useful tips on how to navigate philanthropy as a woman. Liz Alsina, program associate at The Mellon Foundation, Jaclyn Le, program & research analyst at Wallace Foundation, Carolina Velasquez, Administrative Assistant at Wallace Foundation, and Kristina Whyte, Senior Accountant at Wallace Foundation, organized the highly attended event, the second one of its kind hosted by the EPIP New York Chapter.

The day began with a one-on-one chat between Wilma Montanez and Neha Raval of The New York Women’s Foundation. Neha’s insightful questions opened the floor to an array of wise vignettes and poignant references on Wilma’s part. “Working in philanthropy has taught me to check in with myself. Am I comfortable? Am I being honest with people? Am I exerting power in an unfair way? Do they perceive me in an unfair way or do I perceive them unfairly?” Wilma’s interview spoke to the many ways that her gender, ethnic, and racial identity intersect with that of the philanthropist. Wilma’s candid reflections on the challenges facing women in philanthropy resonated throughout the room. Many participants nodded their heads in agreement as Wilma discussed the over-policing of women’s reproductive practices, their bodies, and their professional aspirations.

The intersectionality of oppressions was evident when she shared her experience advocating for grantee partners amongst white foundation staff. “I challenged their assumption that the Executive Director of a national, women of color organization should be able to volunteer for one year as an E.D. What were they thinking? Would you serve as a volunteer executive director, especially knowing all of the hard work that it involves? Would that option be offered to a mainstream organization with a white leader? If not, why would you expect a woman of color to do so? It spoke volumes about internalized racism and the assumptions that staff, communities of color, and organizations are worth less than other communities. I was appalled,” said Wilma. Wilma modeled the fierce advocate behavior and encouraged audience members to tap into networks and reach out. “Get out of your comfort zone. Sometimes the things that scare you the most are the best…philanthropy should be about taking risks. Push yourself out of the box—it keeps it juicy.” 

The second half of the morning featured a dynamic workshop presentation by Emily Kessler, former interim Executive Director of EPIP. Emily had the room articulate notions of leadership and discuss whether these notions made sense for who we were as a predominantly woman-filled room. Participants articulated the positive and not-so positive dimensions of leadership—such as charisma, entitlement, infallibility, stoicism, and confidence—which also read as gendered, and occasionally oppressive—concepts. Kessler’s presentation helped the participants explore the ways that it makes more sense to “lead with your own style,” including communicating what kind of leader you are and inviting others to participate differently. She used herself as an example—she considered herself a shy person generally averse to public speaking, but simultaneously, she commanded the room in an easy-going, confident facilitation style that created safe space for participants to explore important questions together about leadership, gender identity, and another way of participating in philanthropy. Emily encouraged us to take risks in our own leadership: “To make change you have to make people uncomfortable…call and label something as its happening, and name the double-standard when you see it.”

The presenters boldly imparted professional expertise while drawing on their own experiences as women from marginalized communities. Their courageous and reflective dispositions encouraged the women in the room to explore the interconnectedness between their own identities as women and their philanthropic work.