Spend an afternoon with Swanee Hunt, and one is guaranteed to leave feeling empowered. While her art-filled home exudes a sense of peace almost instantly, Hunt’s quick wit and stories about female leaders driving change send the energy level through the roof. After all, the president of Swanee Hunt Alternatives, Eleanor Roosevelt Lecturer in Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and former U.S. ambassador to Austria has focused for decades on gender parity and the advancement of women worldwide, from poverty to philanthropy to politics and beyond.
Women & Wealth Magazine recently had the privilege to sit down with Hunt to discuss topics including her approach to philanthropy, the need to involve senior-level women when resolving conflicts, fostering the next generation of social movement leaders, how to stop human trafficking in the United States, standing up in the face of adversity and finding your philanthropic North Star.
What called you to philanthropy, and how did you find your personal mission?
My parents influenced my interest in philanthropy in unique ways. My father worked in the oil business as a “wildcatter.” That means he would go out to locate oil basins by drilling experimental wells in the ground. This required a high risk tolerance since he was drilling in areas that had no proven resources. My father didn’t believe in organized philanthropy, but from him my three siblings and I inherited this attitude of “breaking new ground.” For us, the issue is not whether an action is doable, but whether it needs to be done.
My mother came from a poor family and didn’t have a background in philanthropy, but she had a generous spirit. For her, it was about teaching us the value of giving at church by having us put money in the offering plate whenever it was passed. I was raised Southern Baptist and grew up spending about 18 hours a week in church. I took the ideas seriously, and a big driver of my interest in helping others was Jesus’ command to take care of the vulnerable, such as women and orphans, and other people who were marginalized.
When we started to have some wealth, my sister and I made a pledge that we would each donate half of our income to philanthropy. At first I was focused on the hungry, homeless and mentally ill – the last of which was important to me because my half-brother was schizophrenic. Over time, I donated to about 400 organizations in the Denver area. We often gave them their first grant. That was our niche, looking for fledgling organizations with creative ideas and strong leaders – those that focused on the most difficult situations that philanthropy could solve. My general way of thinking was that if 10% of our grantees have not failed within five years, then we are not taking enough risk. That’s a different way to think of philanthropy. Most people don’t tend to think about there being such a range of risk in philanthropy, but there is, and I have a high risk tolerance.
What are the programmatic priorities of Swanee Hunt Alternatives, your family foundation?
We have three laser-focused programs right now – Inclusive Security, Prime Movers and Demand Abolition. We have also incubated other innovative ideas, such as Women Moving Millions.
When I came to Boston in 1997 after being the U.S. ambassador to Austria, we shifted from directly funding nonprofits to having our own narrowly targeted programs. I wanted to reinvent the foundation and started thinking about what I had learned as an ambassador – including my experience working with large departments of the U.S. government and multilateral organizations like the United Nations. I knew politics mattered, looking upstream from problems mattered and that usually the solutions were systemic.
Let’s start with Inclusive Security. How did this program start, and what work do you do?
I was working at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. We asked: “What is one big problem in the world?” I had just come from trying to intervene in genocide in Bosnia. Knowing that in general, there are 50 to 60 violent conflicts going on worldwide, we started thinking about how we could stop war in some way that wasn’t being tried.
The worst situation would be if there were these conflicts and nothing could be done about them, or if we were doing everything we could and it wasn’t working – that would be reason for despair. However, if we weren’t doing everything we could, then that was reason for hope. And what weren’t we doing? We weren’t looking at more than half of the population – women – except as victims.
We decided that we could look at stopping conflicts differently by identifying women leaders – those in the parliament or government, heading up major nongovernmental organizations or who are considered wise and respected in their communities. Women have as many leadership qualities as men, but systemically, the men rush into a power vacuum. However, something as simple as someone asserting that we should get women into leadership can spark tremendous change.
That’s what we started doing. The first year we brought together 100 top-level women from different sides of 10 conflicts for two weeks. The final day, the same number of policymakers – from the White House, European Union, State Department, U.N., Congress and so forth – flew in, on their own dime. Seventy researchers came from across the world. No one had ever seen anything like it.
The women first were reaching across different countries to tell each other what they were doing to prevent and stop wars. But we also had chosen women from different sides of a conflict in the same country; they needed to work together. For all the women, knowing they weren’t alone was a tremendous relief and, therefore, release of their power. Since then, we have brought together well over 2,000 women.
Still, this isn’t a women’s empowerment or training project. Instead, the key was and is to link the policymakers with the women. These top-level women need to think at a higher level because we need them at the negotiating table to stop a war. And we had to reach those who decided on the number of chairs at the table and the invitation list of negotiators. It is special envoys from the U.N., the U.S. or another country. We know that if there are a substantial number of women at that table to prevent or stop a war, and if they’re in senior roles (such as minister of finance or head of the World Bank in that country), you won’t have the same level of corruption, and there’s a better chance that you can stabilize that conflict region. That’s the hope.
How do we get more women into those senior positions?
It happens two ways. First, the women need to push up and organize. To get that to happen, we work with them on their self-perception as leaders and explain what’s going on in other countries – sometimes they’re stunned to realize that other women leaders are in much more dire situations. We use films and case studies for discussion, and we keep bringing them together. We’ve brought together women from about 40 conflicts. They’re tremendously more confident when they’re in a group of women; we’ve found that being with only women puts them in a much better position to compete against men for a position.
The second key, then, is the pull from the top, and this is where the policymakers come in. We’ve worked with about 6,000 policymakers – male and female – up to the highest level. On different continents, we’ll bring the women to meet with them until we think the policymakers get what we’re talking about. However, the system is so strong and male-oriented that even when you have one or two male policymakers who understand the situation, it’s easy for them to put these meetings on the back burner – so we have to keep going back and reminding them of the power and influence these women have and their value in creating stability in their war zone. That’s what we do with Inclusive Security.
Moving to your work in Prime Movers, how are you fostering leaders through that program?
Prime Movers is about supporting social movement leadership in the United States – by that we mean persons who have hundreds of thousands, or millions, of followers. We have 64 fellows, from their late 20s to early 70s.
We approach this in two parts. First, we identify what these leaders need in order to be as successful as they can be. We contract with a Prime Mover for specific help – two $30,000 grants in two years. For example, she may need to hire a research assistant to help her write a book on ending homelessness, or he may need a finance coach to help him understand budgets and investments for his organization pushing for immigration reform.
The second thing we do is bring them together. A leader in a certain social movement area can’t very well go to a meeting with other leaders in that field and talk about personal problems, such as concerns about getting fired or failing relationships. However, bringing together leaders from different causes allows them to voice those issues. There’s a strong sense of trust then as they decide how to work to push for policy changes. This isn’t someone new coming up with a good idea; these are people who have been in the trenches, often for decades.
How are you taking a different approach to ending the sex trade through Demand Abolition?
Like Inclusive Security, this is an upstream story. You hear people talk about sex trafficking and rescuing girls, but eventually, you have to ask why these girls are being pimped. It’s a basic market dynamic: Women and girls are supplied by poverty, and they are delivered by pimps because they’re demanded by buyers. We started looking at this closely.
The simplest solution to trafficking is to stop the buying. Stopping the pimps – the distributors – is extremely difficult; they have an average income in the $300,000s, so they can afford any defense attorney. Instead, let’s stop the people who are driving the demand. People who break the law and buy trafficked women or girls often receive a warning or a miniscule citation. To end the buying, law enforcement must be trained to go after the men instead of the people being harmed. Right now, the arrest ratio is about 10 females to one male.
When you have days where you feel overwhelmed by the hurdles you have to overcome to achieve your mission, what drives you?
During one occasion in my life where my daughter almost passed away, I came home from the hospital and had so many “what ifs” racing through my head. Then, I thought about the women I had just met in Rwanda who had lost their husbands and children in violent ways during the genocide and about what they told me they did after that: They got up off the ground, and because they didn’t have any tools, they picked up spoons and started digging graves. I’ve thought about them so many times during devastating moments.
In the face of challenging situations, I tell people, “We’re all going to do the next right thing. And after that, the next right thing.” It’s either that or pull back. Never pull back in the face of adversity. What do you think you’re going to accomplish? What help will you be for those you care most about?
You and your sister co-founded Women Moving Millions, which has enabled women to wield an enormous amount of power through philanthropy. How have you done that?
We have 262 women in 14 countries who have pledged to give at least $1 million to organizations benefiting women and girls – that’s more than $1 billion among them. When we started Women Moving Millions, it was unheard of for women to do anything like this. My sister, Helen, gathered others, one at a time, to create this organization; there’s been only one leadership transfer in 10 years, and that was to the remarkably talented Jacki Zehner – one of the donors and the first female partner at Goldman Sachs. Helen and I are still relatively active, but we’re not guiding this work. When I go to the annual summits, I leave inspired. It’s exciting not to know the people in the room. I look out and think, “Who are all these women? Out of these 100 women, I know 14 of them. Success!”
What is your philanthropic mission? Is it related to empowering women and girls?
I don’t think of myself that way. I’m looking for answers that aren‘t obvious – where others haven’t taken the lead. We know so much about the neediness of women and girls, whether it relates to hunger, sexual abuse or other violence. What we don’t know is the power of women. We know them as survivors, but not as much about women as leaders. I was asked recently by someone about what would happen if women ran the world. I said that they would make sure that women weren’t running the world. That’s because women as a group tend to be more inclusive and rarely think they have all the answers.
How has your philanthropic focus been affected by your family?
We tend to think that one generation hands down the wisdom to the next, but that’s not always the case. For example, my daughter was psychotic and attempted suicide several times; she survived and overcame it. She has now established her own fund that makes grants to emerging organizations. I think about how I’m different because of her – not just what I transferred to her. She shaped me, and one way was by making me look at life and people differently. I’ve had a lot of exposure to mental illness – both within my family and in my work – but despite that, if I’m on a street corner and someone comes up to me mumbling and clearly delusional, I may get frightened. But there are thoughts that must go beyond the first reactions. And one thought is, “That person could be my son. In fact, that person is somebody else’s son.”
How do we engage the next generation in terms of wealth and philanthropy?
I’ve thought a lot about this. We brought each of our three kids into conversations around wealth when they were very young. I would take them on site visits to look at organizations that had asked us for a grant. They could officially become junior board members of our foundation when they were 13 if they wanted. They couldn’t vote, but they certainly had a voice at the table – but only if they went on at least one site visit, like every board member. They could decide if I, or a staff person, would go with them. At one point the kids organized and told me they were going to have their own programs – focused on anything that I wasn’t doing – and I couldn’t be in the building where they had their meetings. Once again, success!
Do you have advice for women who have created or inherited wealth as they think about how to leave their legacy through philanthropy?
It’s important to understand yourself and what your North Star is. Get to know your main values and where they come from. This takes time; it often takes relationships, writing in a journal, time in a house of worship or the right poetry, for example. It’s personal and individual. Go into that space, emerge from it, and say with real humility, “I want to learn how other people are making a difference.” That means going to conferences, finding a mentor and reading. Connecting to me, or to the people interviewing me right now! Go from being inside yourself to exploring.
Understand that whatever you do is going to be much stronger if it’s collective. Make one of your partners a person affected by your philanthropy. You can hurt people when you’re trying to help them, and they need to be at the table telling you why your efforts are working or why they’re not.
And finally, act out of your passion. The question is not “What can I do?” Ask “What needs to be done?” and then go there. Stay grounded, but be bold! When you let yourself pursue your passion, you’ll find strength that you can pull from deep inside yourself.
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