Swanee Hunt


Swanee Hunt is founder and president of Swanee Hunt Alternatives, a family foundation with a multi-million dollar annual budget funding programs that provoke social change at local, national, and global levels. At Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Dr Hunt is the Eleanor Roosevelt Lecturer in Public Policy, core faculty at the Center for Public Leadership and senior advisor to The Initiative to Stop Human Trafficking in the Carr Center for Human Rights. Her foundation’s current programs advance women’s leadership for peace and security; confront illegal sexual exploitation by stopping the buyers; and strengthen the leaders of social movements.

How did you first become involved in philanthropy?

I’m not from a family where philanthropy was considered ‘the norm’. My parents were both raised on farms and our wealth was the result of an oil deal that my father put together. He became the largest individual owner in the East Texas oilfield. My father never went to school, so you can imagine how strange this all was.  He made a point of saying that he didn’t believe in organised philanthropy, and that his philanthropy was providing jobs for people. My mother also had no experience of philanthropy except through church, though she was an extraordinarily generous human being. So philanthropy wasn’t something I took on from my parents, but rather I would say it was inspired more by my own Christian faith.

Do you remember the first grant that you made and what it was for?

Oh sure! Before I had much wealth I made a pledge to myself that I would give away half of my income, and I have done that since 1980. The first year, half my income was about $35,000. I could make grants of maybe $1,000 to $5,000 so it was very important to define the kind of philanthropy I wanted to do. My sister Helen and I decided that we were going to work on behalf of marginalised people in our society. The very first grant was to get a telephone and a filing cabinet for an organisation helping people with mental illnesses.

We focused on being the first grantor to organisations or people who had a good idea. It’s really hard for an organisation to get a grant from a foundation if they don’t have any other funding, because then the foundation asks, “who’s your largest donor?”  they have to say “well, we don’t have any”. These organisations are really stuck, so we helped them jump-start. We also decided that we would measure our success in terms of how many of our grantees failed. If we gave 10 grants, and three years later all 10 organisations were alive, that was a failure on our part because we had not been risk-tolerant enough.

How did your philanthropy develop from that point?

We started working on homelessness, because there is a great overlap between homelessness and mental illness. Helen and I decided to support soup kitchens. Then we moved to helping the hungry people in line at the soup kitchens. And then after a couple of years we asked, “Why are these people in line at soup kitchens?! What is going on?” That was an important question, because what we realised was that the policies were wrong, and we needed to change the system.

After a few years, Helen and I decided to work collaboratively, with separate foundations. By that point I had a little more money, and some credibility because I was a funder in the community, so I started working with the Governor and the Mayor to change who was running the mental health programmes. We started having some success, and I kept meeting with the Governor, saying he should do more for these people in need. To keep me quiet, I think, he told me to create the Governor’s Commission on Housing and Homelessness. I was 33.  I had no idea what to do. And it was terrifying! But it became a great learning experience for me. I went from making grants, to trying to change systems, to actually organising a public entity, which is very different.  

At the meetings I chaired were high-level officials from the state and the business community leaders, but also people who were mentally ill or homeless. That was an extremely important idea for me, that you must always include the people who are affected by your work – “nothing about us, without us”.

One of the areas you now focus on is ‘Inclusive Security’. Can you tell us how that came about?

In 1993 I was appointed US Ambassador to Austria. I was very concerned that I didn’t have foreign policy experience, but then I got there and found 70,000 refugees fleeing horrible atrocities as Yugoslavia fell apart. (Those years of war were today’s Syria.) I discovered that my work on homelessness and mental health was directly relevant; I knew more about how to deal with refugees than a lot of the foreign service people did. And so it all came together there.

From that experience, I learned a lot about war and about leadership, and that led to what is by far the most important work I’ve done in philanthropy: ‘Inclusive Security’. It means is that you find the women who are waging peace and you convince the policymakers that these women should be supported as they’re organising street protests to prevent a war; they should be appointed to the negotiating table; they should become the Ministers of Defence and the Ministers of the Interior.

War has been with us for so long that it’s easy just to say, “Oh, those people can never live together” -- but that’s nonsense. We know that when women get involved, peace agreements are much more likely to last, because women bring a different life perspective to the table, and because they're more trusted back in their communities where the agreement has to be accepted.

In the 20 years I’ve been working on this, we’ve had enormous success. Now it’s a theme that’s been taken up by the US government and the United Nations. Some 63 countries are working on it.

But the greatest impact is in partnerships. 


I made a pledge to myself that I would give away half of my income

Which other areas do you focus on, and how did you decide on these themes?

Choosing where to focus my philanthropy, my first question was not, “What can we do?” but “What needs to change in the world?”

One of our focus areas is Demand Abolition – eradicating the demand for purchased sex. While I was Ambassador we saw lots of changes after the fall of Communism. We thought life was going to get better for women, but in fact it got worse because the childcare and healthcare were suddenly gone and the women were the first to be laid off from their jobs. We saw a huge number of women and girls who were trafficked from Eastern Europe and forced into prostitution.

When I came back to the US I knew we had to deal with this, so we spent a whole year studying trafficking. I went to Norway and Sweden, met with members of parliament and the Queen of Sweden, and realised that the Nordic countries had the answer – which is that you stop men from buying women and girls. Guys don’t say to a woman who is being advertised on the internet, “by the way, I want to make sure you’re doing this by choice”. And even if they did ask, she’s not going to say “yes I’ve been trafficked”, because her pimp would beat her up. These women are really stuck, and so it’s up to us to put a stop to it. We have to get the message out that it’s not OK to buy sex, just like it’s not OK to hit your wife or your partner.

We’re going after the demand, not the supply, and not the pimps.  I mean the men with the check books and the choices buying other people’s bodies for sex. People don’t realize that the majority of people in prostitution in the US started as children, and many of them had been sexually abused.

We want to be spreading this approach to bring about the massive change we seek on behalf of women and girls. We’re working with the Norwegians; France now has passed the law we need to have in the US; and we’re  working in 12 different cities who are experimenting with different tactics.  For example, the police may be putting fake ads on the internet, then arresting the men who show up at the hotel room. When we see how these cities are stopping prostitution, we can go to the Federal government and say “it can be done”.

The third area you’re working on is Prime Movers – supporting leaders of social movements. Can you tell us more about that?

Oh, this has become so exciting since our presidential election! We look for leaders of social movements who have hundreds of thousands of followers then figure out how to increase the effectiveness of those leaders. We don’t give money to the movements themselves, or to any organisations that these people are working on. What we’re interested in is what they need as individuals to be stronger leaders. For example, you may have someone who can read a budget but isn’t great at speaking to the media, while on the other hand you have someone who is brilliant on TV but doesn’t know how to read a budget himself or assess the people in his own organisation who are handling the finances.

So once they figure out what their weaknesses are, we fund a couple of years’ worth of whatever coaching they need to really sharpen their capacity. These men and women can’t say to their boards of directors, “look, I need to take $50,000 out of our budget so that I can do some training in financial management over the next three years”, so that’s where we come in. The leaders say there’s nobody else helping them with these problems.

The other key piece is that we get them together. These are visionaries. You can have a leader stopping  climate change sitting next to a leader ending homelessness in the United States, next to a person working with illegal immigrants. The great thing is that they’re in different movements and can be honest and share things with each other that they couldn’t say to someone in their own movement, where they have to be this great, fearless leader. I think that’s as important as anything we do -- bringing them together.

It sounds like using your convening power and encouraging collaboration underpins a lot of your philanthropy. How does this play out in ideas like Women Moving Millions, which you helped to develop?

Women Moving Millions creates a group – a family, really – of women who are committed to changing the hard reality for women and girls in the world. For example, the UN says that one in three women has experienced "violence/sexual abuse", and 60 percent of the chronically hungry people are women and girls. So we say that if a donor pledges to give at least $1m to support women and girls, that’s all she has to do to be part of this movement. The money goes to charitable organizations. It doesn’t come to us, and there’s no ‘litmus test’ – she doesn’t have to say she’s pro-choice instead of anti-abortion, for example. If she says she’s making the gifts, we trust that she’s doing it. The main thing is for all these women to know, educate, and encourage each other.  

What we have found is that it’s all about partnerships. If we can inspire partnerships for other people around work that we’re not involved in, to me that’s as important as us doing the work ourselves.


Choosing where to focus my philanthropy, my first question was: What needs to change in the world?

Do you think there is something distinctive about the role of women in philanthropy?

Well, I think it’s not just about women in philanthropy, it’s about women as a whole. We’re very relational compared to our brothers. Men tend to say they want to be in political office because they consider themselves strong leaders for our country, while women tend to say “I want to run for office because our communities are in trouble, and I think I can help through the political system”. And then they want to be in partnership with others, just like with philanthropy. Women organise in groups all the time, and that’s a strength we should build on.

You describe Swanee Hunt Alternatives as a two-generation family foundation. How is your family involved in your philanthropy?

When I married my second husband, Charles, I adopted his son, whose mother had died. Henry was 17, we had this foundation, and it was really important to me that Henry had an opportunity to learn about philanthropy, so he agreed to be a junior board member. That meant he went on site visits to look at potential grantees, then sit at the board table and argue for or against that grantee based on his view. He couldn’t vote at that age, but he could certainly let his voice be heard.

That was so successful that our next child became a junior board member at 15, and our third child became a junior board member too. The three of them then decided they would have their own group, and they were very clear about forging their own path. When they were having their first meeting to decide what they were going to do, I suggested they could use the building where we have our office, and they asked me when I was going to be there. I said, “Well, I’m coming in at 9 and leaving at 6”, and they said, “fine, we’ll meet at 7!” And they decided that they would not focus on what I was focusing on – instead of marginalised people they were going to focus on water and trees. Good for them!

What has been your biggest lesson learned from your philanthropy?

I think the biggest lesson is: one person can change the world. If you have a big idea, and you know how to organise around it and bring in the right partners, it can be incredible. Success has many mothers, failure is an orphan. I would say that Inclusive Security is this kind of big idea, and the work has outgrown our ability to support it all. So now we’re finding partners to meet the growing needs, and when we hear of other organisations starting to focus on women and peace, that’s nothing but success in my mind.

Another lesson I take very much to heart is from Mother Teresa, who said “God does not call us to do great things, but to do all things with great love”. I don’t measure myself by what other people would consider a success or a failure, but by asking, “Did I do it with great love?” Another of my heroes is South African Bishop Tutu, who was a courageous voice during the years of Apartheid.  He said, “Do your little bit of good where you are. It’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”

What advice would you give to someone who is embarking on their philanthropy journey?

I would start out by saying, “Be humble” – find a mentor, go to conferences, be a student of philanthropy. The second thing I would say is, “Be introspective”. Take the quiet time to hone in on what your core values are. What is your ‘North Star’?

Third, “Be inclusive”, by which I mean what I said earlier – “nothing about us, without us”. Always consult the people who will be affected by your philanthropy. People with wealth are often intimidated; we’re afraid to sit down with the people who are hurting and who need us. Push past your fear. Have them at the table.

Next I would say, “Be collaborative”. Join with other philanthropists, because there’s power in numbers. It can be hard, and coalitions are difficult, but I often use the African proverb, “if you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together”. And then if you get to a place where you can be a mentor, help the people coming up behind you.

Finally, I would say, “Be brave”. Follow your passion, break through barriers.

People often skip the first four of those ideas. They think, “I have this money, and I have a passion, and I’m going to do what needs to be done”. But to do that without examining yourself, learning, without making sure you’re consulting with those who are going to be affected, without bringing in partners? I don’t think that’s smart.

I’d say to a new philanthropist in particular, you’ve got to be willing to succeed by failing. You need to fail one out of every three times that you try to do something. And if you go into your giving with that thought in mind, you don’t feel defeated and you don’t go off into a corner licking your wounds!

Finally, you have to understand what you’re giving up and what you’re getting when you put your money into philanthropy.  I look at my wealth in terms of the relationships I’ve built – with colleagues, with staff, and with thousands of people that I’ll never meet whose lives have been somehow touched or enriched by what I’m doing. Of course I sometimes wonder how my life would have been different if I’d invested my philanthropic money in the stock market instead. Maybe Fortune magazine would list me in an even more elite category. So what? If that money was in an investment portfolio, I would have missed out on a whole different portfolio of warm embraces. 

Across all countries covered in this report there is a wealth of experience of major philanthropy. We asked donors to share their advice on giving donations of $1m or more.

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