Jacki Zehner

JACKI ZEHNER

Jacki Zehner is President of The Jacquelyn and Gregory Zehner Foundation, and Chief Engagement Officer and President of Women Moving Millions (WMM), a non-profit organisation dedicated to mobilising unprecedented resources for women and girls to create a more gender-balanced world. 

What originally motivated you to begin your philanthropy?

I’ve thought about this question a lot, especially now that I have children. Where does the desire to give money and time come from?

When I was growing up, my family was not wealthy. I witnessed my parents giving at church and to political causes, but they also taught me that giving involves so much more than just money. I watched my mother give her time and talents, in particular her baking, to help others. She would take care of older people without children of their own by taking them to the doctor, bringing them food, and spending time with them, all as a volunteer. My mother was an incredible role model.

Growing up in a small town in Canada, I don’t think I even heard the word philanthropy until I was in my 20s. Perhaps we take it for granted today that philanthropy is a well-known concept, but for me it wasn’t. I just followed my parents’ example. Back then philanthropy was simply helping others.

When I started my career at Goldman Sachs and began to have resources available, I started to think about giving back. When I became a partner and the firm went public, I was encouraged, along with my fellow partner and husband, to set up a private foundation to receive some of the proceeds of that event. We did, and in many ways the start of our foundation was the beginning of us taking philanthropy seriously.

I hadn’t given away much money as a teen or young adult, but suddenly, and especially following this liquidity event, it seemed natural. Although I was already writing some big cheques, it hadn’t previously occurred to me that philanthropy could become a full-time endeavour.

So I would say that the seeds of philanthropy were planted early on, even if I didn’t recognize them for what they were at the time. When I had a moment to reflect on how incredibly blessed and fortunate I was, that’s when they really started to grow.

What were some of your earlier gifts that are particularly memorable?

My philanthropy was initially very reactive, meaning that if an organisation whose mission I identified with found me, I generally said yes. I was fortunate that a truly great organisation, the National Council for Research on Women (now called Re:Gender), found me early on in my philanthropy journey, and this connection was transformational. Their mission was to bring mainstream awareness to the research that supported women’s inclusion, leadership, and advancement. The research and leaders they showcased helped me to be better informed in order to more effectively champion women’s inclusion and leadership at Goldman. To this day, I collect, support, and share research that makes the case for gender diversity.

Another memorable gift was to the Women’s Funding Network (WFN) to help strengthen their connections to member funds. I believed then and now in the importance of working collaboratively and sharing best practises, and that is precisely what WFN was enabling.

Since we began our foundation nearly two decades ago, we have gone from writing a large number of cheques to a more concentrated list of larger cheques. We are doing our best to be much more deliberate and strategic, and in particular, to be more proactive than reactive. We want our gifts to be in alignment with our hearts, our purpose, and the things we really care about. I can’t say that any single gift of mine has resulted in monumental change in the recipient organisation, but I can say that I have helped many organisations achieve progress in their mission and goals, and that is good enough for me.

What are the rewards of giving at this level? What changes have you seen in organisations as a result of receiving larger gifts?

When I support an organisation with a large gift, it is usually combined with my time as a board member or as a champion (eg fundraiser). When I make that commitment of time and money, the benefit to the organisation is that I often bring new funders to them more efficiently, thereby allowing them more time to execute their mission. I strongly believe that as funders, we really must take on this role more fully.  

Larger gifts, especially at critical movements in an organisation’s growth, can make all the difference. I see the pressure that CEOs are under to raise their budgets, and sadly, most spend the majority of their time doing that instead of leveraging their expertise in service of the mission for which they were hired. To me, large levels of support, particularly for general operating support, is supporting leadership and vision, which is usually the reason why I pick the organisation in the first place.

I also love to do what I call ‘syndicating an opportunity’. This applies to project-related funding, not general operating support. For example, if I learn of an incredible investment that may be in need of $100,000, I will email information to a group of women and invite them to opt in with me. If 10 women join me, we each give $10,000. We then track and support the project together.

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My passion for gender equality really came from my own personal experience of being a woman in the male-dominated field of finance. 

Do you have any advice for others who may have the capacity to give at this level?

I always struggle with this question of capacity. Would I say I’m “giving at capacity”? If you include my time, absolutely. But financially? Not yet.

At a fundraiser for the New York Women’s Foundation, Abigail Disney invited attendees to “give until your hand shakes a little.” I like that. You might have $100million and your hand shakes at $25,000 because you are just starting to move up your giving levels. That is ok. Honour where you are at the moment, and surround yourself with people who can be helpful and supportive to you on your journey to make the most meaningful difference you can. I don’t like “give until it hurts”, because giving should be joyful, not painful. How about “give until your heart pounds?” I like that better.

I know this may sound like a cliché, but philanthropy is a journey, not a destination. I don’t think I’ll ever feel like I’ve ‘arrived’ as a philanthropist. For me, it’s about striving to make a difference to the lives of others using the unique gifts and resources that I have available to me.

What are the different factors that have influenced your philanthropy? 

While I was initially mostly influenced by my family in terms of the desire to help and serve others, these days I am much more influenced by my peers. I rely on the due diligence of others to vet opportunities and share my work with them as well. When you’re part of a community of people who share your values and philanthropic interests, it would be a shame not to leverage that vast wealth of knowledge.

Having both provided funding and having fundraised for organisations, what sort of information do you expect non-profits to supply to their donors?

I wouldn’t say I’m a high-maintenance donor. I expect the organisation to carry out their mission, for which I usually provide general operating support. I also expect to be kept up to date with what’s going on, but I don’t want or expect a lot of customised attention. They all feel the pressure of reporting on impact, and yes of course I want to see that my money is creating positive outcomes, but I also understand the difference between impact you can measure and impact you can judge. As a funder of gender equality, you have to be in it for the long haul.

How did you focus on giving to women and girls’ issues?

My passion for gender equality really came from my own personal experience of being a woman in the male-dominated field of finance. Although I had a brisk career trajectory, I came to see that what was true for me was not true for most other women, mostly due to gender bias both visible and invisible.

I was the first female trader and the youngest woman ever to make partner at Goldman Sachs, and therefore when I got promoted up the ladder, I was often the only woman in the room. I’d experienced this great success, but where were all the other women? I became obsessed with the lack of women in leadership positions in finance, but also in business in general.

I started to dig into the research supporting corporate gender diversity, and I quickly came to see that the causes of women’s under-representation in business are similar to the reasons why women are underrepresented in many other fields. It built from there.

Tell us about ‘Women Moving Millions’ and its mission.

In the early years after I left Goldman, I didn’t really pay much attention to the global nature of issues surrounding the plight of women and girls. My primary focus was women’s business leadership. 

However, as my knowledge base grew, I began to realise how interconnected all of these issues are – lack of women in leadership positions, economic inequality, violence against women, lack of education, and so on. I have to admit it was very overwhelming. 

I spent a lot of time getting very involved with women’s foundations, including joining the board of The Women’s Funding Network, because I liked their holistic and grass-roots funding approach. The then CEO of WFN, Chris Grumm, invited me to make a million dollar commitment to WFN and other member funds. It was a life-changing event. By making that gift, I became a member of Women Moving Millions, along with the other 100 women who had made a similar commitment. That was in 2009. Jumping forward, I am now the President of the Board and serve as the community’s Chief Engagement Officer. Currently, we have 240 members in 11 countries who have collectively given or pledged in excess of $600million.

Our mission at WMM is to mobilise unprecedented resources for the advancement of girls and women. You become a member by giving a million or more to organisations of your choice that are focused on females. Our work is to support and empower the leadership of our members, and to champion gender lens philanthropy more generally. We are building a philanthropic movement of women funding women, both big and bold.

We don’t see girls and women as a silo, but rather as a lens that can be applied and a means of achieving high-impact philanthropy. After all, females are one half of the population, and therefore deserve at least half the funding. Though research is difficult to collect, we know from multiple studies that the actual percentage of funding going towards women and girls is way below 50%. 

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Females are one half of the population, and therefore deserve at least half the funding!

What are your plans for developing your philanthropy in the future?

You are actually talking to me at a very critical moment, because I am currently taking the time to take stock of what I/we have already done and where we want to go from here. I love the organisations that we support and I can’t imagine not continuing to fund them, but after a decade of being a very active funder of girls and women, I am coming up with my own theory of change that I want my funding to reflect.

In the past, philanthropy has been mostly about identifying an organisation, understanding what they do and how they think change happens, and then supporting it. I now see gaps that exist that, if filled, could accelerate change. That is what has been driving my investment of time and money in WMM. What I saw missing was deep and personal support for women’s philanthropic leadership. It did not exist before WMM. I think this organisation is a game-changer.

The other big change for me is to increasingly use all of my financial resources, not just my giving dollars, in alignment with my vision for gender equity. My philanthropy now includes bigger investments in women entrepreneurs, and more generally, a more thoughtful gender lens investing approach.

How does your family get involved with philanthropy – does the next generation play a part?

My husband and I are still deciding on whether we will spend the foundation’s capital in our lifetime, or whether we will leave funds for our children. They see us working full time for the organisations and causes we care about in addition to giving money, which I believe is really important. There have been grantee partners we have engaged with as a family unit, which have been very powerful experiences. We also constantly host events in our home to raise awareness and funds, thereby enabling our children to engage with amazing non-profit leaders. There is no lack of exposure; we just hope it sticks.

From your perspective as a leader in giving to women and girls, what do you think can be done to grow and strengthen philanthropy in the US, and what are the main challenges?

Oh boy, I could talk for hours on this topic! I think the costs and challenges of fundraising are extraordinary. I’ve seen statistics that say costs of as much as 10-20% are incurred in raising money. When total charitable giving is around $330bn in the US alone that is potentially up to $66bn spent annually on simply raising that money. Imagine if even a small percentage of that went directly to serving organisations’ core missions instead? I think there will be more focus in the future on how to do fundraising differently and more effectively. Communities like WMM that do peer-to-peer engagement are certainly part of the solution. 

Another big opportunity for the sector is to more fully support donor engagement and leadership.   We have seen the emergence of numerous donor networks, which is a great trend.  I cannot imagine where I would be had I not found the community of Women Moving Millions.  Not only did it accelerate my learning, but studies have shown that when people are part of giving communities, they give more and feel that their giving has more impact.  Think about how much expertise and comprehensive due diligence is unshared in the sector - networks, tools and platforms to share information have to be more readily available. This will drive collaboration and accelerate change.