Defining women’s leadership in the nonprofit world is tricky. Many organizations fail to recognize that women are driving forces in philanthropy. Jacki Zehner, chief engagement officer of the international donor community Women Moving Millions and a philanthropist on The Chronicle’s "Women to Watch" list, says her group has helped women see themselves as leaders. She questions whether being a good leader requires followers; more important, she contends, is to have knowledge, commitment, and expertise.
On a recent visit to The Chronicle’s Washington, D.C., offices, Ms. Zehner sat down with reporter Maria Di Mento to talk about raising women’s profile in the giving world. The transcript below has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Maria Di Mento: Hi, I’m Maria Di Mento with The Chronicle of Philanthropy and I’m joined today by Jacki Zehner. She and her husband have a family foundation, but she is also the chief engagement officer of an organization called Women Moving Millions. And she’s a former Goldman Sachs partner. Thank you for joining us.
Jacki Zehner: Pleasure to be here. Thank you.
Maria Di Mento: I’m happy to have you here today and have enjoyed hearing what you’ve had to say about women’s leadership in the nonprofit space. I want to talk a little bit more about that and hear from you on what you think about women’s leadership in the philanthropy space right now, and also what is Women Moving Millions doing in that space. I want to hear a little bit about the programs that it’s doing related to leadership.
Jacki Zehner: Well, when I think about women’s philanthropic leadership, I’m more talking from the donor point of view — you know, thinking about women in particular that might be heading their family foundations that are deeply engaging with their giving versus leadership within the nonprofit sector more generally.
I think it’s such an exciting time. There’s the personal story that I might have of having had a career on Wall Street for a long time, 14 years, and being fortunate, blessed to reach the upper echelons of having a career as a leader in the financial-services sector at Goldman Sachs, and then deciding to leave that career and really think about how I use my time, treasure, and talent to engage in a different way, to make the world a better place. And my personal history is really engaging around women and women’s leadership, empowerment, and inclusion.
But it really took a while for me to think of myself as a philanthropic leader and what the journey is when you make that decision to go in a direction like that. To me, it’s a journey, not a destination in some ways. I see a lot of women thinking about the same thing. I’ve just been amazed in the context especially of Women Moving Millions, now a global community of over 260 women, and a few men, that have each made gifts of a million or more to women and girls’ causes and issues. To see so many women going through that same process, or having come through that same process, just thinking, "OK, when have I arrived? When can I actually call myself a philanthropist or, better yet, a philanthropic leader?"
Maria Di Mento: What do you think are the challenges in getting to that point of being able to say that instead of wondering about it?
Jacki Zehner: I think it’s a journey. A lot stems from when you think of yourself as a leader. In fact, I’m here in D.C. because my daughter is part of an amazing girls’ leadership program called "Girl Up." So I’ve been hearing and listening to conversations about leadership with a room full of 13- to 18-year-old girls for the past two days. And what they hear from the stage is, "You are a leader." You just name and claim it because, really, what is it? Do you have to have followers to be a leader? And what defines [it] if you have your 4-year-old little brother? Are you now a leader? When have you arrived?
In some ways, I feel like it’s a term that a lot of people use but perhaps lacks some clarity in definition. I think maybe technically the dictionary says you have to have followers or actually lead something. But for me, what are the components of that? Certainly knowledge, commitment, expertise go along with all of those things, I would say, especially in the philanthropy space because it is pretty amorphic in that way.
I know I feel very much in a community of philanthropic leaders in Women Moving Millions. And I think some of our work is helping them to see themselves as the leaders they already are.
Maria Di Mento: Tell us a little about the work the organization is doing in that space.
Jacki Zehner: We were on this journey of creating a community for primarily women, inclusive of men, that want to engage more holistically in their philanthropic resources and see women and girls as a population they really want to serve.
You know, we’ve only been around a few years as a formal organization. We’re doing a lot of programs for our members where we have educational programs around issue areas as well as skill-space training. And a couple of years into it, we really kind of realized that what we were doing was leadership development. And then we sat down, actually, at the end of last year and said, "My gosh, that is what we are." We are a philanthropic-leadership-development organization. And in that context, we kind of named it and claimed it. Now we’re being much more intentional in terms of the programmatic offerings that we’re offering our members.
We’re thinking of it really in four areas that we do content development, which means both virtual experiences and in-person experiences; reading, resources, tools, knowledge in four areas that we’re saying to us to represent a pretty holistic view of philanthropic-leadership development. The first being financial engagement. How we are using our financial resources, both giving but also our investment capital and our purchasing power, in alignment with our vision and values and the change we want to see in the world.
Two, a big pillar around voice and influence. So, how do you develop yourself as a thought leader? How do you write an op-ed? How do you have media training so you’re comfortable doing interviews like this?
The third one is philanthropic strategy. You know, how to be a great donor, great philanthropist in terms of more of the how-tos of philanthropy.
And the fourth that we’re really recognizing as critical to all of this — and if you don’t have this, perhaps none of the other things matter — is self-awareness and self-care.
So, big huge buckets when you think of those. But we’re in the process now of really developing content and partnership in all of those four areas.
Maria Di Mento: That sounds great. Thank you very much. It was great to hear about your organization. Thank you for joining us today. We really appreciate it.
Jacki Zehner: My pleasure.