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Advancing women

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New York foundation head works to make women leaders in philanthropy, volunteerism and advocacy.

By Ret Boney

When Hollis Cohen was about four years old, she started putting a portion of her 25-cent weekly allowance into a red metal box her mother designated for helping other children.

When the kitty reached a certain amount, her mother helped her find ways to give the money to community groups in her Bronx neighborhood in New York City.

That spirit of giving stuck with Cohen through the decades and she is now giving back on a larger scale as the new executive director of the New York Women’s Foundation, a nonprofit that serves the women and girls of the city’s five boroughs.

“Coming to the foundation is coming back to the roots of my beliefs,” says Cohen, who once studied philosophy, with a focus on ethics and humanism.  “I think that we all aspire to and deserve the same basic conditions of life.”

The foundation, founded 17 years ago, raises money from individuals, foundations and corporations to make grants to community-based organizations, most of which are projects founded by women that work to overcome the fundamental barriers women face.

“Our mission is to achieve sustained economic security and independence, to expand opportunity for low-income women and girls,” says Cohen. “We’re about facilitating change, creating opportunity and changing lives.”

The foundation, with an annual budget of $2.7 million and a staff of eight, granted more than $1 million last year to more than 40 organizations, Cohen says.

Hollis Cohen

Job:  Executive director, The New York Women’s Foundation, New York City

Born:  The Bronx, New York City

Education:  B.A., philosophy, State University of New York at Albany; master of education, Boston University

Family:  Single

Hobbies:  Walking her dog, Maia; founder of a fiction and poetry-writing workshop; book club; mentor to two girls

Currently reading:  “A Weave of Women,” by E.M. Broner

Book to recommend:  “Ex Libris,” by Anne Fadiman

Inspiration:  Mother, Doris

Favorite quote:  “I am neither an optimist nor pessimist, but a possibilist,” from Max Lerner

In addition to grantmaking, the foundation helps women by providing workshops and technical assistance for grantees, as well as public education and advocacy, and by investing its $6 million endowment in companies that have women in leadership roles, make products for women or have policies that benefit female employees.

“We teach women throughout New York what it means to be a leader in philanthropy, volunteerism and advocacy,” she says.

Before entering the nonprofit sector, Cohen taught public school in an inner city, low-income Boston neighborhood troubled with poverty and made up of predominantly single-parent families.

“Teaching was a frustrating experience because I felt the education of the children was affected by all the situations in their environment,” she says.  “I couldn’t fix the problems that would allow me to be a better teacher and allow those children to have a better educational opportunity.”

After teaching, Cohen joined Citymeals-on-Wheels, a nonprofit that delivers meals to homebound seniors in New York City.

Starting in direct marketing, she worked her way up to executive director over five years.

While there, she worked with American Express and other companies to develop what she believes was one of the first U.S. “cause marketing” campaigns in which companies join marketing and philanthropic interests to benefit certain causes.

In this case, each time New York diners used their American Express cards at participating restaurants, American Express made a contribution to Citymeals, and customers were given the option of making an additional donation, Cohen says.

Cohen left Citymeals after eight years to consult on cause-marketing campaigns, working with American Express to plan a nationwide campaign and helping select the New York nonprofits that would benefit from the effort.

She later served as vice president of development, then of technology, for Lighthouse International, a rehabilitation agency for people who are blind or visually impaired.

She helped the group develop its own internet portal that delivers information in a format accessible to people with vision problems.

After eight years at Lighthouse, Cohen left to work as a consultant, often with clients serving women, such as the Girls Scouts, a micro-lending group in Latin America and New York-Presbyterian Hospital, where she helped develop the infrastructure and management capabilities of their program for women at high risk for breast cancer.

In May, Cohen joined the foundation, bringing her career, which she says had touched the lives of women in various stages and various ways, full circle.

“I feel like I’ve finally come to a place where, instead of only being able to address symptoms, for the first time, I’m personally having the opportunity to work in addressing the root causes of problems that my career has been involved with,” she says.

As head of the foundation, Cohen plans to expand the group’s donor base of 12,000 by reaching across economic, ethnic and cultural lines and tapping into the legions of New York City women not yet part of her network, developing a united corps to bring about change.

“We’re encouraging the activism and commitment of women to make the world and the city and our communities a better place for all of us to live,” she says.  “We do that by coming together.”

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