Swanee Hunt, oil heiress and feminist philanthropist, was reviewing her will recently. She decided that when she died, she would give $5 million to her sister, Helen, to invest in Helen’s philanthropy work.
But then it occurred to Hunt that if she was willing to write that donation into her will, why not simply make the donation today instead?
“People think philanthropy has to be all lined up and perfect before you act. That’s not how it works,” Hunt said during the first event of Northeastern’s new Experiential Philanthropy Series on Monday. “People who are philanthropic can just decide to give and be bold.”
Hunt told her sister about the $5 million donation. Generous as it was, Helen wasn’t satisfied. “What about $10 million?” her sister asked. They settled on a split—Swanee would give $8 million and Helen $2 million. Then Helen said: We’re going to turn this $10 million into $150 million.
That was in 2005. Today, the sisters’ philanthropy organization, called Women Moving Millions, has received commitments of up to $800 million for the advancement of women’s rights.
Diane MacGillivray, senior vice president for university advancement, introduced Hunt by quoting her from an article she had read about the philanthropist: “If my goal is bold enough, and my vision is far-reaching enough, I will never see success.”
“I have to say I disagree,” MacGillivray added. “Yes, your goals are incredibly bold. Yes, your vision is incredibly far-reaching, but I believe the success you’ve had can already be seen in the so many lives you touched, the people whose lives you’ve improved.”
Hunt explained that early memories of her parents—her father was a controlling, wealthy man and her mother was his mistress—motivated her to work towards women’s empowerment.
“My parents were raised poor. Like really poor. Couldn’t afford college poor,” Hunt explained. “But then my father got lucky and drilled an oil well, and bingo, he became the richest man in the world.”
Hunt was also inspired by her mother’s philanthropic tendencies. Even though she didn’t have a lot of money to give at the time, her mother spent many hours at the hospital comforting patients, Hunt explained.
“Philanthropy isn’t about money. It’s about a love of people,” she said. “Philanthropy is not for the rich. It’s for us all.”
Hunt’s family organization, Hunt Alternatives, was founded in the 1960s during the Civil Rights movement, said Alva Gardner-Perez, a graduate of the D’Amore McKim School of Business, Women Who Empower Ambassador and Young Global Leader who moderated the conversation.
Over the years, Gardner said, Hunt Alternatives has been able to fund over 400 community-based organizations addressing issues such as violence prevention, education and leadership development in urban communities.
“Today we find ourselves in a kind of civil rights movement again,” Gardner explained, citing movements like Black Lives Matter, women’s rights, climate justice, and the fight against COVID-19.
“How might we, as the next generation of leaders, make smart investments in our communities given that we’re back at this nexus where things are boiling over?” Gardner asked.
The key to success, Hunt said, is bringing people who are living with the issues you hope to solve to the decision-making table. In addition, she said, philanthropic leaders need to abandon their fears and doubts about what their efforts can achieve.
“This whole construct of ‘what’s possible?’—throw it out,” Hunt said. “That’s not how change happens. Nelson Mandela says, ‘It’s only impossible until someone does it.’”
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