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Founding Board Member Retires June 30, 2022

Colleen Willoughby
Washington Women's Foundation, Seattle, WA

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.”

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