How Can Fiction Make Us Think About Foundations Differently?

During a recent visit to the Southeastern Council of Foundations Annual Meeting EPIP Executive Director Rahsaan Harris came across friend and colleague Elizabeth (Betsey) Russell, who was launching her first book – Other People’s Money ­– a mystery set in the heart of the foundation world. While fiction isn’t something we usually read in conjunction with philanthropy, it made us wonder: can fiction about foundations make readers think about foundations differently? What about the foundations themselves? We caught up with the author to get her take.
  1. You recently wrote a book called Other People’s Money. Can you give us a brief synopsis?
Sure! Other People’s Money is the story of Katie Nelson, a program officer in Atlanta’s largest foundation. She really wants the foundation to fund a Latina health clinic, but meets strong opposition from the board. She begins to work closely with one particular younger board member (yes, romantic interest) to help revamp the clinic’s proposal, but then the whole clinic burns to the ground, killing a woman who was trapped inside. Everyone thinks it was a hate crime, but Katie senses something different. The more she explores, the more she realizes that many of the people she trusts are not who they seem. Eventually, she finds her own life in danger.
  1. Where did you get the inspiration for this book?
I’ve been writing for foundations for 25 years, but always in the nonfiction/professional communications vein. I got my first taste of foundation fiction when I wrote some hypothetical case studies for the Southeastern Council of Foundations Hull Fellows Program, probably about 10 years ago. One participant complained that the case studies read too much like a novel, and that sparked the idea for Other People’s Money.
  1. Fiction is pretty rare in this field. What made you think this was worth a try?
The fact that it’s rare is one of the main reasons. I think many people learn best through stories, and fictional stories sometimes are easier to process because you’re not comparing yourself to a real foundation or person, and you can explore the ways the story relates to you or your foundation without feeling too vulnerable. Fiction also allows readers to spend some time in the realm of “what if?” – which can inspire ideas in ways nonfiction may not.
  1. So, what do you hope that readers will take away from reading fiction about a foundation?
I hope that folks within the field will be able to use the completely fictional situations in this book to help talk about their work with those outside the field. I’m not a foundation staffer or trustee, but I’ve worked with enough of them and many nonprofit people to know that how foundations perceive themselves is often not how grantees perceive them. It’s much easier to discuss tensions within a work of fiction than within the real world, and I hope that these characters can help those in the philanthropic world share opinions and ideas more easily. For readers outside the field, I hope that this will give them a better understanding of how foundations work and an appreciation for the fact that giving away money isn’t easy and that those who do it are as individual and as human as everyone else. And of course, I would love to know that readers inside and outside the field are enjoying this story just for fun.
  1. What were two things that you found hardest in the process of writing of this book? How did you overcome those obstacles?
From a nuts and bolts standpoint, simply finding time in the midst of my consulting work and my family life was the biggest challenge. But from a writing standpoint, it took me a long time to overcome my own ingrained habits about how foundations and people within them should be presented to the public. When I first created Katie, I actually didn’t like her very much. But once I let go and allowed her to embody some character flaws, she took on a life of her own and I respected her much more.
  1. What did you enjoy most about writing this book?
Being able to write what I wanted about the field I serve was pretty cathartic. It also refreshed and renewed my creativity for other nonfiction projects for foundations. But probably the best thing was that it was so fun to create characters and then watch them develop in ways I hadn’t anticipated. Sometimes when I was writing, even I didn’t know what was going to happen next until the characters told me.
  1. What are some tips you would provide other philanthropic professionals who are thinking of writing for the field but don’t know where to start? 
  • Look for the kinds of writing that you find most engaging and talk to the people who do it for a living.
  • Blogs – your own or others’ – are always a good place to start. Post some things and see where they lead.
  • Find a mentor or two. Whether you’re looking to do hard-nosed journalism or in-depth evaluation reports, someone who’s been there can provide loads of advice and possibly some referrals.
  • Find your own voice. One of the most valuable things a writer can provide is a fresh take or tone on a topic.
  1. What’s next for you?
On the fiction side, I’m working on the sequel to Other People’s Money, which has a working title of Donor Intent. In my professional life, I’m continuing to work as a communications consultant to a number of foundations and philanthropic organizations. I consider myself extremely lucky to be able to do what I love for a field I greatly admire. Learn more about Elizabeth Russell and Other People’s Money on her website. Order a copy online or from your local independent bookstore.  
This interview was conducted by EPIP Social Media Fellow, Sophia Guevara.  

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