Rena Greifinger On High Risk/High Return Grantmaking for Women
This interview is part of the Feminist Giving IRL series.
1. What do you wish you had known when you started out in your profession?
I’ve been working with and for nonprofits my entire career (15 years), yet only started working directly with philanthropists, and on the subject of philanthropy, in 2017. It has been one of the steepest and most joyful learning curves.
When I started out with the Maverick Collective, I wish that I had known more about how wealth is created and maintained — particularly in this country — and how much traditional philanthropy exists to preserve that wealth rather than redistribute it. For instance, I wish I had a deeper understanding then about how the tax system benefits the rich, how tiny the fraction of philanthropy and venture capital is invested in entrepreneurs who are women and people of color, and how crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic can make certain people (like billionaires) richer while millions more fall into poverty.
Alongside so many members of the Maverick Collective, I have spent the last few years deepening my learning about the entrenched inequities that philanthropy is built on and how the current system of philanthropy – the status quo – is perpetuating inequity rather than solving for it. We have been asking critical questions about how we can, in the words of Edgar Villanueva, “use money as medicine” rather than let it cause further division and harm, and particularly how to leverage the power of our own Collective to be part of that solution.
2. What is your current greatest professional challenge?
Maverick Collective is a community of women philanthropists making catalytic investments in health and reproductive rights to elevate women and girls everywhere. Members collaborate closely with experts and consumers through a unique Experiential Philanthropy model that
invites hands-on-engagement in the projects they fund. Each Member’s impact is tripled to transform the lives of women and girls, the world of philanthropy, and the Member herself.
Founded by Population Services International (PSI), Maverick Collective is spurring rapid innovation in global healthcare and helping to break down systemic barriers to women and girls’ access to health.
Through the Maverick Collective network and a shared learning journey, our Members are becoming informed advocates and strategic investors in social impact. Transforming the world of philanthropy is my greatest professional challenge, and of course one that nobody can achieve alone. We are talking about upending a centuries-old system that has been preserved by money and power. Systems change is not for the faint of heart. I am excited to be part of a growing movement of philanthropists and foundations that are working toward that transformation.
Each of our Maverick Collective programs – including MaverickNext, our immersive two-year fellowship program for young women beginning their philanthropic journey – provides an opportunity for women to gain hands-on learning experience in doing that kind of transformative philanthropic work. They get the rare opportunity of real proximity to the impact — working directly with and learning from the programs they are funding, hand-in-hand with PSI’s project teams around the world, in relationships built on mutual transparency and trust. Members come together to do the inner and outer work necessary to achieving a gender-equitable world, while exploring how they can redistribute their wealth in a way that aligns with their values.
3. What inspires you most about your work?
My work sits at the epicenter of my values of lifting up women and girls; pursuing gender equality and reproductive justice; and challenging the status quo. I learn (and unlearn and relearn) every single day, and get to interact and collaborate with some of the most interesting, inspiring and kind women (and some men) in the world.
I recently put the question out to a handful of women leaders in philanthropy that I look up to and look to for inspiration as to what they hope for a post-COVID future, and was just in awe of the rich and thoughtful responses I got from each. Responses about movement-building, collective power, trust, feminism and compassion. Responses that left me hopeful about the future, determined to keep working toward lofty goals like systems change and gender equality, and deeply honored to be in community with each of them.
4. How does your gender identity inform your work?
My identity as a cis-gender, heterosexual, white, American woman who has always had access to resources, combined with an understanding that this identity has protected me from trauma, ensured my bodily autonomy, and put me on more equal footing with men, is what informs my work. I simply believe that every person should have the same rights regardless of how they look, who they love, how they identify and where they were born.
While I may not come from the communities with whom I have worked or raised money for, I do come from a family of health, labor, and justice activists who have instilled in me passion, curiosity, empathy, humility, and impatience with the status quo. I believe deeply in the power of partnership between people with lived experience and those without it to inform the programs and movements that will change the world. That is what inspires my work with Maverick Collective and in philanthropy.
5. Do you think your gender identity has affected your career?
Fortunately, in my experience, my identity as a woman has helped my work in sexual and reproductive health. The first 15 years of my career were spent working more directly with communities of girls and young people, in places like London, Kampala, Yangon, and Boston. I have run overnight camps for young women living with HIV, conducted qualitative research with teen moms and sat in circles of women discussing their experiences of intimate partner violence. I have taught sex education, witnessed first menstruation, and held hands with a survivor as she testified about her rape.
While I do not share in these lived experiences and am not from the communities that they are from, I was welcomed comfortably into these spaces and part of that is due to my gender.
6. How can philanthropy support gender equality?
More philanthropic organizations should focus on funding programs that put women and girls in the center of their work, amplify their voices and remove barriers to exercising their rights and their power. Donors should also look to invest in organizations that are led by women and women of color – organizations centered around systems change efforts like reproductive justice, girls’ education, policy reform and improving gender data – while letting go of the reins and trusting credible organizations to make smart decisions with that funding.
Over $120 billion is sitting in Donor Advised Funds and community foundations already allocated for giving, yet doing nothing for the organizations and communities that need it most. We should be giving away more money and get going now. Donors should invest in themselves to become more informed about how gender intersects with nearly every other indicator of progress (i.e. health, education, poverty, or climate), and then build a giving strategy that allocates funds to organizations directly addressing these issues.
By doing so, we can better recognize (and fund) the organizations that are driving social change, and radically transform the funding landscape.
7. In the next 10 years, where do you see gender equality movements taking us?
I am cautiously hopeful about the next 10 years and the movement for gender equality. I am an eternal optimist and am fueled by the strength of the women’s movement here in the U.S., particularly in response to the atrocities of the Trump administration.
I am thrilled about Kamala Harris as Vice President, ecstatic about the legalization of abortion in Argentina, and grateful that so many country governments, including our own, are finally putting indigenous women in office. Scotland has made all period products free, countries like New Zealand are actively decreasing their gender pay gaps and women-led countries are some of the strongest respondents to COVID-19.
And yet, we have such a long way to go. We need these kinds of policy and social changes everywhere. We need more women in leadership positions, more gender data, more investment in women-led organizations and companies, and more men and boys stepping up as allies.
About Rena Greifinger: Rena Greifinger is the Managing Director of Maverick Collective, a network of strategic philanthropists cofounded by Melinda Gates that is dedicated to elevating the status of women and girls everywhere through access to healthcare. Rena leads the collective of women who, through their own $1 million investments to test women-centered healthcare concepts, work with experts on the ground to give women and girls the tools to improve their circumstances and make their own life decisions – a high-risk investment for an even bigger return.