PhiLab Interview: Bonnie Shepherd, Chief Development Officer, Equality Fund

Par Bonnie Shepherd , Chief Development Officer, Equality Fund
28 mars 2020

Bonnie Shepherd Equality Fund


A message from Bonnie Shepherd: 

This interview was conducted before the coronavirus pandemic. We know from experience that crises like natural disasters, wars, and economic downturns exacerbate inequality and we anticipate the pandemic will do the same.  During this crisis, women will bear the brunt and they need all the support they can get. This pandemic only makes our work more urgent as we need long-lasting, sustained change for gender equality. 


Bonnie Shepherd Equality Fund


Bonnie Shepherd is the Chief Development Officer for the Equality Fund and, like so many of you, now suddenly has a second full-time day job as Mama to her five- and two-year-old kids. What better time to rethink the funding strategy for building the world’s largest feminist funding organization then while being interrupted every 13 seconds?


What is behind the women’s philanthropy movement in Canada? 

First, timing is everything. We see a few things, all happening right now, that are making this the moment of a paradigm shift in women’s philanthropy.

Women are earning and acquiring capital faster than any other time in history. At the same time, they are recognizing the deep imbalances in wealth and poverty both here in Canada and around the world. The incredible women I meet are not interested in consuming more and acquiring more, but in redistributing wealth by shifting and sharing power. They want a role in shaping a new, more feminist, world.

We are undergoing a powerful, collective realization that the world is not going to change itself. If we want to live in a better world, we are going to have to build it ourselves.  Philanthropy is only one way to do that – it will take a shift in all aspects of society – but philanthropy is powerful because it can play a leadership role by moving quickly and nimbly in a more positive direction, leading the way to inspire a change of thinking and spur action for other fields.

This question immediately made me think of our co-CEO, Jessica Houssian, whose favourite quote is one from Arundhati Roy:

“Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”

How have Canadian women changed the Canadian philanthropic ecosystem? 

As women become more and more involved in philanthropy, we may see a shift away from the days of tiered sponsorship or pyramid models of fundraising, and movement towards flatter giving levels. I believe women are less about hierarchy, less about having a big flashy ‘show’ of their charitable giving. In my experience, Canadian women are keen to come to the table as equals in their giving, rather than entering tiered levels of power and privilege based on their wealth and giving.   

Feminist philanthropy has a deep focus on working as part of a collaborative community, bringing more and diverse partners to the table, to create an even greater positive impact. Women also tend to bring their whole selves to their partnerships. For them, philanthropy is not just their financial investment, but their time, their energy, their brainpower, and their networks.   

Has women’s philanthropy brought about social change in Canada? What are the new directions for women’s philanthropy?

The shift is just starting, but we are seeing it.  Women’s philanthropy is more collaborative and more participatory. It also means being willing to fund in a more trusting way: Feminist philanthropists seek out the right partner and then trust their expertise to do the work they need to do in the best way they know how. That means unrestricted, flexible, multi-year funding to free up the organization’s time and energy to focus on their work, rather than on navigating often-complicated power dynamics with their funders.

Have you witnessed any gender generational differences? Increased concerns around climate change for example? Any marked differences in management styles between female and male philanthropists?

There is a willingness now to look to the younger generation as true leaders and to make space for them to lead:  Greta, Autumn, Malala. Women don’t cling to their own power. We don’t look at them and say “your time to lead will come”. Instead, we acknowledge and follow them as some of the most revered and relevant current leaders of our time. They are walking the talk and demanding that we take a hard look in the mirror at the role we all have played for decades in perpetuating a world that is hellbent on destroying our planet, allowing a relatively tiny portion of the population to gain control over the vast majority of the wealth while billions are left with their basic human rights violated. They’re calling out our hypocrisy and not having any part of it. Instead of fighting them, older generations are agreeing with them, and finally starting to take action.  It’s this intersectional approach – the fact that we can’t approach complex problems and solutions in isolation – that is the feminist way forward.

What ethnic and cultural differences are important in women’s giving? How are younger generations of women giving? 

Younger generations are modelling an expansion of philanthropy to include giving with their whole selves. Their philanthropic efforts include their activism, their leadership and their resources. Philanthropy isn’t just about the money: it’s creating momentum to shift power and disrupt traditional systems that aren’t serving the world.  

In early conversations about the Equality Fund, we listened to women representing diverse cultural and ethnic communities, along with other diversities. We have heard that while women from these communities want to be included in traditional giving opportunities, within these, they want to be connected with women of similar backgrounds and experiences to explore shared lived experiences and address their common realities.

How can non-profit institutions develop more women donors and what does that mean for their future? 

We recognize that this is where the world is headed. Women will hold more wealth than ever before.  Already, women often lead a family’s philanthropic decision making. I’ve met so many women who were turned off of organizations or institutions because their contacts insisted on requesting a meeting with them and their husbands or fathers as the assumed decision makers, or put proposals in front of them that appealed to a very tired and traditional (dare I say patriarchal) way of raising funds. 

Women are telling us that the first thing they did when they assumed full control over their family’s finances was fire their investment managers and advisors because when they inquired about aligning their investments with their values and applying a gender lens, they were patted on the head and told ‘it’s not possible’.  It IS possible. And we know it is. If you want to attract women donors, investors and clients, you cannot rely on what you have always done from a business development perspective. It will not work. Instead, you must think creatively and co-design a meaningful partnership journey. Women are change makers – they want to be part of building the solutions, and for the most part they are looking for ways to build a more equitable world.  

As a very practical first step, I recommend starting with a listening tour with your current women donors to unearth and deeply understand their motivation to give to you. Then, you can use that information to look for patterns in backgrounds, geographies, interests, occupations, or other commonalities to understand if there are groups of women worth building a specific and targeted partnership journey strategy around.  Be creative, be responsive, and make sure they are at the table with you in whatever partnership journey you design.

Are women accepting the power of their new status as philanthropic leaders? How should women be encouraged to become philanthropic leaders and to encourage others to become leaders as well?

They are accepting the power, but slowly. I think this shift will take time, as women begin to understand and get comfortable with the idea that strong women leaders are needed in this space to inspire others. A new philanthropy is not only possible, it’s here.  And it needs a groundswell of women like Gina Cody to understand that representation matters everywhere, from when we are fighting to change societal inequalities, to when we’re influencing the next generations of women philanthropists. We need brave women to be public in this space to inspire confidence in others to do the same.

I have also noticed that women often feel more comfortable taking on new adventures when they know (and like) at least one other person involved in advance. If we want to encourage other women to become leaders, it may be as simple as inviting them to play a leadership role as a collective, alongside their peers, friends and family.

What might the world look like if feminist philanthropy was the accepted way for everyone to give?

It is definitely the world I want to live in. It’s a shift away from the model of power and privilege, of winners and losers, of haves and have nots, that has built the world we live in today. It means moving towards a model based on shared power and collaboration. It means putting our world’s climate and a shared future based on human rights for all ahead of power and profit.  And because working on these deeply complex issues every day is not always easy, humour is everything for me. If you haven’t already, you must watch Baroness Von Sketch’s hopeful and hilarious sketch. It’s the year 2050. The heads of state are all women. And the biggest problem they face is where to go for wings after their meeting. This is the table I want to help build for my young daughter’s generation to sit at one day.

This interview is part of our special edition on Feminist Philanthropy