Founding Board Member Retires June 30, 2022
Colleen Willoughby is a force for women’s leadership development and their engagement in civic life. It began early. Visiting Washington, DC as a high schooler and sitting in the seat of the first ever female US Senator Margaret Chase Smith during Girls Nation, Colleen had an epiphany which has been her North star. Like the Senator, she inherently believed in effective civic leadership and respect for women’s roles in our civil society. She has dedicated much of her life to creating opportunity for women to learn, participate and to continue their leadership development.
Colleen was born into an era in which women had very little power or opportunity. Yet, she found a way to work within the system to work against the system. Colleen may not say so, but she exhibits the skills and perseverance of an entrepreneur with a record of successful startups. In collaboration with separate small groups of women, she has established numerous, highly successful philanthropic organizations that continue today: Seattle CityClub, Washington Women’s Foundation, and Philanos to name just a few.
As a young fundraiser for numerous organizations, she realized that women she knew who could well afford to make significant donations were not comfortable doing so–not because they didn’t believe in the cause, but because they had never done it before and were unsure in their decision making. Simultaneously, Colleen realized that the financial landscape was changing—women WERE now making their own significant money. Colleen has often shared a comment said to her from a woman older than she: "You know how women come into money?” the woman said to Colleen, “They earn it, inherit it, or marry it.” The woman continued, "And do you know how men come into money? The same way!"
Having been trained as a teacher, Colleen set out to “teach” women that they not only had the capacity, but that they could gain the confidence to give in large amounts, and that by pooling funds and granting collectively, significant grants could be made. In addition to learning philanthropic skills regarding financial resources, women would develop their skills by doing. From inception women maintained control of every aspect of their organization and philanthropy efforts from vetting the non profits, to community relations, to membership development and retention–all of which increased the pool of grant dollars. As importantly, these dollars represented a category of new money available to the community. It was not a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul. The dollars raised had not been focused elsewhere. Over time these grants have become even more critical as they fill the gap where government services stop. Colleen had set about changing the face of philanthropy. It was no longer the face of an older white male, it was a woman philanthropist-of-any-age.
Colleen’s vision has had far-reaching impact. She has provided the spark and process. So many women have and will continue this work across all areas of philanthropy and geographic region. For example, five members of Washington Women’s Foundation decided to fund an Endowed Professorship for Philanthropy and Civil Society at the University of Washington’s Evans School. Each woman donated $100,000. This endowment was established by women with half a million dollars.
Research shows that men and women like to work differently and are motivated differently. Colleen tapped into the way women like to work: cooperatively, for the benefit of the greater community, to learn together and not necessarily motivated by name recognition. Colleen created an enduring template that encourages a highly structured grants process which also includes member education in philanthropic skills, understanding of the community needs and leadership development, all within the organization itself.
Unlike many visionaries who see only one vision and hold on to the strings of power, Colleen welcomes collaboration and expansion of her ideas. This grantmaking template can flex to fit any sized community in terms of member size, funding categories, and grant amounts. The local women make all these decisions. The ultimate goal for Colleen is for women philanthropists to gain a balance of power in the community, to have a seat at the table which means the grants must be large enough to get attention. Of equal importance in the founding model of this new collective making pooled grants, was allowing women to flex their philanthropic muscles by incorporating an individual grant in the model at Washington Women’s Foundation. This pass-through grant gave women a chance to exercise their philanthropic knowledge gained by membership in the collective. Using this template, Colleen co-founded the Washington Women’s Foundation in 1995 with 4 other women and was its President until 2008. WaWF thrives toady and has had more than 1200 women as members and granted over $19 million within Washington State over its 27 year history.
In 1988, Colleen and her philanthropic efforts were featured in People Magazine. Suddenly women from the around the country were calling Colleen as they wanted to do the same in their town. Colleen began satisfying women’s requests by providing in-person instruction anywhere it was requested around the country. She did this for years and the number of women’s collective giving organizations continued to grow.
In 2008, Colleen was in Boise, ID to celebrate Idaho Women’s Charitable Foundation’s having reached a $1M in grantmaking. Also in attendance were a handful of other organizations all with connections to Colleen. While there, a group of 8 women from around the country with Colleen’s leadership, determined the need for a national network of women’s grantmaking organizations to support these groups. Thus the collective giving network, Philanos was created, initially under the name the Women’s Collective Giving Grantmakers Network (WCGN).
Today, Philanos has 80 affiliate member organizations including affiliates in England and Australia with 18,000 women and collectively the affiliates have granted over $175 million. Colleen has extended her philanthropic efforts worldwide. At the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Policy and Government, she founded an organization, Global Women - Partners in Philanthropy to advance the model of collective giving throughout the world. It has been introduced in Shanghai, China.Colleen has been the recipient of so many awards honoring her unflagging commitment to teach women to lead and to positively impact the world. And while she is stepping off the Philanos Board, having been a member and the guiding light since its inception in 2008, her insights, leadership, and culture of learning and action has been well inculcated in untold number of women who are and will carry it forward into other endeavors. But as she is Colleen, she is never far from the pulse of her efforts. Speaking on a panel with other non-profit founders, Colleen said, she is "still energized by the whole idea of women understanding their potential," and "bringing younger and younger women into philanthropy". Comparing the work to that of an artist, she said, "None of us have put our brushes down. You paint until you can’t.”
Laura served as the founding board chair of Philanos (then called WCGN) from 2013 to 2015. She’s an active member of two Philanos affiliates, the Wood River Women’s Foundation in Ketchum, ID (since 2014) and Washington Women’s Foundation in Seattle (since 2002), where she was a WaWF director for nine years and served in numerous leadership roles. She proudly co-chaired PowerUP! The Spark That Ignites Change, Philanos’ national conference in February 2020 for 370 leaders who convened in Seattle to advance their understanding and commitment to equitable grantmaking and inclusivity in our organizations. She led securing nearly $200,000 in grants, major gifts and earned revenue for the network that still contributes to its sustainability today.
When asked to consider her last decade with Philanos, Laura reflected on her long and deep commitment to collective giving, starting with the inspiration from Colleen Willoughby, founder of Washington Women’s Foundation (WaWF). In fact, Laura created the Colleen S. Willoughby Award to honor her mentor, who was also her boss for two years while Laura filled in for a key staff person’s vacancy at WaWF (twice). From those years around the office to innumerable meeting tables, Laura witnessed how the broader movement was a natural outgrowth of Colleen’s national speaking engagements and joined the “thought leader group” developed after a 2009 conference in Boise demonstrated that many women there had a genuine desire to form a network where they could continue learning from each other’s experiences and inspiring one another to grow the women’s collective giving grantmaking movement. This core group recognized that they were catalyzing a “spark” when they were together; they were not just rehashing old ideas in philanthropy.
Laura feels that those who joined the fledgling network—the Women’s Collective Giving Grantmaking Network (WCGN) as it was called at the time—did so because they were open to reimaging and continually improving on the work they were doing, to serve their members and communities better. These leaders were sharing their resources and ideas, continually raising the bar, challenging each other to do better and be better. Beyond being stronger together, Laura feels that because of the network, we’ve been able to braver together.
Now more than ever, Laura wants women’s collective giving to rise up. Women found our voices decades ago and you can’t put those genies back in the bottle, despite some who are trying. Our organizations reflect our members, and respond to the needs in our home communities, but rather than react, we must be innovative and progressive, uncomfortable and smart. When Laura pitched the theme for the 2020 conference to the Philanos board, she was thrilled this national organization, which selected Seattle for its next conference, adopted increasing equity in grantmaking as the focus for all our conversations during the conference. Laura says it now feels prescient that we offered this remarkable curriculum just one week before the pandemic shut down the US and a few months before George Floyd’s murder. In light of the reversal of Roe v Wade, our humility for the work to be done (and ultimately redone) means self-reflection and continual reassessment of the landscape. But admittedly, women of our affiliates now find ourselves in an odd spot – the injustices we have stood up to and approaches we allied with now include defense of ourselves. It’s proof that injustice requires alliance and what better way to attack this than through a collective.
All our affiliates share missions that state, with varying impassioned language, a commitment to educate their members to make their communities stronger and better, more inclusive and equitable, and more socially just. It is how we each go about doing that which drives us to affiliate, to learn from one another’s new ideas and experimentations, and to celebrate those who take on new and inspiring ideas in a meaningful framework. We celebrate the good work of each other as a springboard to channel our own work.
In considering the future of philanthropy, and women’s collective giving, Laura sees the network’s first decade closing out with a keener sense of the power of democratized philanthropy. As for the next decade, women’s collective giving can ramp up inclusiveness, allyship, and collaboration, so that the rights of people who have been historically put down are aligned with those whose rights have been freshly and unjustly eliminated. Laura finds inspiration and purpose in the words of Emma Lazarus “Until we are all free, we are none of us free”.