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Philanthropy expert inspires Charlotte women

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Hilary Pennington

Hilary Pennington

Sarah P. Shifflet

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Philanthropy is evolving and women are contributing unique strengths and insights to the field, a prominent national foundation executive told a group of 200 women in Charlotte on Feb. 2.

Contemporary views on philanthropy, combined with the innovative design of the new Bechtler Museum of Modern Art in Charlotte, energized members of the Women’s Impact Fund during the address by Hilary Pennington of The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Started as a program of the Foundation for the Carolinas, the Women’s Impact Fund now is an independent nonprofit and has granted a total of more than $1.8 million to a wide range of programs benefiting Mecklenburg County since its inception.

The mission of the group is to maximize women’s leadership in philanthropy by engaging and educating its membership, increasing charitable contributions and strengthening communities through the impact of collective giving.

Pennington delivered a candid assessment of trends in philanthropy and the unique strengths women bring to the field, a perspective drawn from her diverse philanthropic experience.

After investing 22 years bringing a grassroots jobs program, Jobs For the Future, to national prominence, Pennington is now the director of education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and leads the organization’s post-secondary education initiative.

In her introduction, Sally Robinson, a founding member of the Women’s Impact Fund, described Pennington, through the words of Dick Brodhead, president of Duke University, as “a wellhead of positive energy and practical intelligence, the kind of person who brightens a room with her presence and leaves you thinking more can be done than you had ever imagined.”

Pennington identified several trends in philanthropy, beginning with the flow of new wealth coming into nonprofit organizations.

These new donors want to be more involved with the programs they support, and funders are increasingly staying true to their identified focus areas with an emphasis on impact.

This growing attention to impact resonated with the members of the Women’s Impact Fund.

Making high-impact grants to address critical community needs is a hallmark of the group’s grant making mission.

Another trend Pennington identified is learning from both success and failure.

Grantmakers should consider how to change strategy if outcomes miss the mark and should look for ways to implement improvement measures during the grant period.

Successful outcomes should both inform and transform the effectiveness of existing models and social systems, Pennington said.

Philanthropists must work within established systems, but advocate for policy change that encourages broad based systems and programs to reorient themselves to become more effective.

The relationship between grantor and grantee should include a mutual dialogue identifying the goals of the funder and the ideas of the grantee.

Too often, the funder leads the work rather than recognizing that the grantee is best positioned to initiate the effort.

On a broader scale, Pennington advocated for communities to identify their needs and desires in order to leverage the support of foundations and other grantmaking organizations.

Building the capacity of organizations is an important investment. Funders should assess and acknowledge the support and infrastructure necessary to sustain an organization’s ability to implement specific projects, she said.

Pennington also highlighted the unique role of women in philanthropy.

As natural systems builders, women have the gift of peripheral vision, she said.

These skills are valuable in bringing both focus and context to decision-making.

Women have the ability to accept “both/and” rather than demand “either/or” when seeking a solution. They appreciate the value of bringing personal stories into their work and of listening to the personal stories of others to fuel and shed light on the important work that philanthropic efforts attempt.

As leaders, women’s relational and collaborative nature, along with their model of putting heart and mind together, add valuable insights for philanthropy today.

“It was inspiring to be with a group of powerfully committed women, with such deep engagement in making their community better, so I feel I received far more than I contributed,” Pennington said following the event.


Sarah P. Shifflet is a member of the Women’s Impact Fund and is on staff with the Council for Children’s Rights in Charlotte.

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