Laurie Burns McRobbie

"Women's Philanthropy: Leading Change and Creating the Future"

Thank you, Fredricka.  I’m very pleased to be here to speak to all of you participating in the Academy for Cultivating Talent – great acronym!  ACT, and programs like them, are extremely valuable components of leadership development; too often we believe that talents, or the lack thereof, are inborn characteristics, when in many cases there are skills, methods and perspectives that we can learn, given an opportunity and a willingness to open yourself up, as I know you all have.  I have certainly experienced a tremendous amount of personal growth from programs that brought me into contact with people who have backgrounds different from my own, who are looking at futures different from my own, but who also seek many of the same competencies in following his or her own path.   ACT is a learning community, and I’m particularly pleased that it was supported by a grant from the Women’s Philanthropy Council, about which I’ll say more in a few minutes.


Today, I’d like to talk with you about women’s leadership and women’s philanthropy, which I believe are deeply connected.  Both are motivated by, and motivate others around, a vision for a better future.  They are about change, impact, and progress.  They are about individual passion and persistence, made public through large and small actions.  Women’s lives are inextricably entwined with the future – not just through motherhood but through the myriad ways we express our concern and compassion for others, for our communities, and for the institutions that guide and support us. 

In my talk today, I will focus on leadership and philanthropy in general, and describe what Indiana University is doing with women’s philanthropy and women’s leadership.  I’ll also give you a sense of my own journey that brought me to where I am today.  We’ll have time for questions and discussion, and I’m looking forward to talking more with you about your journeys, both the ones you’ve traveled and the ones you see ahead.  


We are in something of a leadership crisis, nationally and globally.  Now more than ever, we need to understand the dynamics of good leadership, and women in particular need to find ways to exercise our leadership voices. We are in an age where every sector is challenged by problems of daunting complexity and global impact, where trust in public and private institutions alike is on the decline, and where the wisdom of the past may not always address the technology-flattened world of the 21st century. In such a world, the work that the IU East Center for Leadership Development does is vital to increasing our understanding of effective, transformative leadership.  Through the Academy for Cultivating Talent, IU East is also doing particularly crucial work to ensure that we see diversity in our role models. 

Great leaders do have characteristics in common.  As Eleanor Roosevelt put it, good leaders must have the strength to face criticism and opposition with confidence, to be optimistic about the future, and to have a passionate commitment to their beliefs and to the potential for change.  But within these attributes lies a vast range of possibilities for how they are expressed and, of course, to what ends. 

The more we see leaders of all kinds – certainly both genders but also in all walks of life – the more we can be certain that the ways in which we make progress will reflect the range of interests present in today's world.  And the more likely we are to inspire the next generation of leaders.

Philanthropy is especially connected to women’s leadership.  Some of you may have seen the research showing that once factors like age, income, education, and so forth are held constant, women give more than men, in some cases nearly twice as much.  If you did see this research, perhaps you were surprised, as many people are.  The word “philanthropist” often conjures up a male face, and one that is making big, headline-grabbing gifts in the many millions of dollars, or getting his name on a beautiful new building. 

The fact is that women give differently than men, and our giving has different motivations – not better or worse, just different. 

Women tend to be egalitarian, spreading our gifts over a variety of organizations and causes rather than targeting one or two. 

Women are more likely to seek a deeper connection with the organizations to which we give and to demand accountability, rather than just putting our names on things. 

And we tend towards collective giving, to value the power of networks to amplify our own contributions.

We know all this because of the ground-breaking research into women’s giving patterns that is being done at the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at the IU School of Philanthropy – we believe the world’s first such school!  Given that we are in an era where virtually all nonprofits are more dependent than ever on private philanthropy, this research, along with the development of the practice of philanthropy, is extremely timely in helping to strengthen an essential sector of our economy and our society.  And in investigating the nature and extent of women’s philanthropy, the Women’s Philanthropy Institute is shining a light on innovative new ways for nonprofits to maximize private support.


At the IU Foundation, we are working to do just that.  Three years ago, the Foundation created a program in Women’s Philanthropy, headed by Holly Johnson (point out Holly and Casey).  Overall strategic direction for all of the activities of the program comes from the Women’s Philanthropy Council of Indiana University, founded in June of 2010. 

The Council is a 36-member group that works to educate, through outreach and example, alumnae and women friends of IU about their own capacity to make a difference in the future of Indiana University, and by extension the state of Indiana and beyond.  The Council also functions as a giving group, and last spring allocated over $100,000 to eight innovative programs on five IU campuses, including the Academy for Cultivating Talent!  Since the Council’s inception, its members have raised over $1 million in new money for IU.  The Council, along with several interrelated programs, is charting a new course for the Foundation in how to capture the energy in our alumnae community in service of IU.

Let me tell you a little bit about how the Council is organized, and I’ll also give you my own view about why I think it’s been so successful.  Many of you here today are going to go out into the Richmond community or other cities and will start or contribute to nonprofit organizations, and hearing about the Council’s evolution may give you some useful ideas.

The Council functions as an engagement group of the IU Foundation Board, a roughly 65-person group of committed IU alums who work to increase private support of Indiana University.  The Council is semi-autonomous; that is, the Board has no role in choosing its chair or its members. 

The Council is divided into three working groups, one for membership, which oversees the annual process of selecting new members and generally ensures the health of our membership processes and activities; one for programs and outreach, which oversees the planning and execution of a range of wonderful programs at IU and around the state and the country where we have large concentrations of alumni; and one for the WPC Fund, which oversees the review of grant applications and the selection of recipients for funding.  Each Council member is on one of these groups (and a couple are on more than one).   As various ideas and issues arise, we form ad hoc discussion groups to clarify the problem or opportunity and chart next steps, and then assign the work to one of the working groups or to the Executive Committee, which is made up of the chairs of the Working Groups plus the Council chairs and the Director of Women’s Philanthropy.  We meet in person three times a year but much of the Council’s work is done on conference calls between meetings, a necessary way of conducting business with members located around the country, leading very busy lives.


I think there are four reasons why we got off to such a great start, and have been able to keep our momentum and build on it. 

The first reason for our success is that we designated the first two years as a founding period, which meant that the inaugural cohort of members were in charge of working out the Council’s structure and organization.  Because of this, they not only created something that they knew would work well, but more importantly, they create an entity that they were invested in.  It felt like THEIR Council from the start.

The second reason was that we chose to focus on women’s giving, not women’s causes.   This was crucial to ensuring we stayed open to women of every background, perspective, and age.  The Council’s mission is focused on boosting the number of women engaged with Indiana University, and increasing their giving to IU, not to just to improving the climate for women at IU (although we certainly do that too).  This focus on women’s engagement and women’s giving also meant that we could include men, and in fact, two of our members are men.   It was one of these, David Jacobs (whose mother Barbara made the gift that named our renowned IU School of Music), who has made it possible for us to give each of you a copy of “The She Spot: Why Women are the Market for Changing the World, and How to Reach Them.”  The book was co-written by a member of the WPI’s Advisory Council, Lisa Witter.

The third reason for our success is that we asked every Council member to make a gift upon joining the Council, to the IU area of her or his choice, and we encouraged everyone to put half of that gift into the WPC Fund that the Council manages.  This is where the money comes from that we grant out every year (and that came your way!), and a number of non-Council members have contributed as well.  I should make a quick aside here to say that we have a brand-new program called “Partners in Women’s Philanthropy”, which allows anyone to get involved by virtue of a contribution of any size, even $25.  For this, you will be added to our mailing list, receive our publications and event invitations, and generally get to keep up with what’s going on.  The Council also has a website and a Facebook page, and across all of these forms of media we keep the wider IU community up to date on what we’re doing.  If you’re interested, please see Holly!

Establishing the WPC Fund was crucial, because it meant we collectively had control over the means of setting of good example.  ACT is a beneficiary of this “walking the talk” – and working through the process of selecting recipients for funding was possibly the single most powerful unifying activity of the Council, the one that gave each of us a very deep sense of purpose. 

The fourth reason for our success was that we focused – and still do – on finding leadership opportunities for the members; in fact, we see the Council as part of a larger “leadership ladder”.  Indiana University and the Foundation, despite having more women than men in its alumni community, has some gaps to close on the Board of Trustees and the IU Foundation Board.  Among IU Trustees at the moment, two of the nine members are women, and one of these is our student Trustee who serves a shorter term than the others.  On the IU Foundation Board, women comprise roughly 24% of the membership.  The Council has no official role in selecting members for either board, but we saw our role as creating opportunities for our members to be seen as leaders –of the working groups, of the steering committees for the many programs we put on, and of the Council itself.  These opportunities are also ends in themselves, of course – whether our members join the Foundation Board or become university Trustees, the Council is a place where women’s leadership flourishes.


In its short existence, the Council is already setting a new bar, certainly within higher education, for engaging women philanthropists and leaders.  In a sense, however, the WPC is simply carrying on with an ages-old tradition of women’s leadership in voluntary support.  From Colonial times to well into the 20th century, women found an outlet for their otherwise untapped intellectual and organizational capacities in charitable work.  Cut off as they were from the worlds of business and politics, women used voluntary associations to exercise public influence and to shape American concepts of community responsibility.

It is not a stretch to say that through these efforts, both volunteer work and financial contributions, American women created the nonprofit sector in this country.  As the historian Kathleen McCarthy has said,

“Female philanthropy has served…as the means through which American women…have made a lasting imprint on social and institutional reforms, professionalization, legislation, and even the Constitution itself.”

Women were the founding forces behind organizations we take for granted in our lives today, such as the American Red Cross.  They have led the development of whole areas of human endeavor, such as the discipline and practice of social work.  They have been in the forefront of educational support.

One of my predecessors as Indiana University First Lady is a particularly wonderful example of philanthropic support for public higher education, and it’s worth my telling you her story. Frances Morgan Swain, the wife of IU’s 9th president, Joseph Swain, served as university first lady from 1893 to 1902, and from that role she led the first capital campaign in university history, an unusual act for a woman of her time and an even more unusual act for a presidential spouse.  Women were first admitted to IU in 1867, making it one of the first public universities to open its doors to women.  When Joseph Swain became president of Indiana University in 1893, women comprised over a third of the IU student body.  However, both President and Mrs. Swain were concerned about the inhospitable conditions of late 19th century Bloomington that could dissuade parents from sending their daughters there to study.  IU had no residence halls at that time – students took rooms in local boarding houses.   But there weren’t always enough, and to make matters worse, some house managers apparently preferred to rent to men, because young women had a tendency to take over the entire house.  (As the mother of four daughters, I do understand this!)

Inspired by a visit to the University of Michigan, where the Michigan League building had been constructed to provide a women’s facility as a counterpart to the male-only Michigan Union, Frances Swain proposed to the IU Trustees in April of 1902 that a Woman’s Building be built to “contain the woman’s gymnasium, with all modern equipments, an auditorium, parlors, committee rooms, and greatly needed resting rooms.”  As she stood before the Trustees, Mrs. Swain had already raised $6,000 (nearly $200,000 in today’s dollars), with the first gift coming from the Local Council of Women.

The building was not completed until 1906, after Joseph Swain left IU to become president of Swarthmore, but before they left, Frances Swain raised considerably more money, including securing a matching commitment from John D. Rockefeller, Jr.  It was Rockefeller who, in making his gift of $50,000, stipulated an expansion of the building plans to include a wing for men, which in turn necessitated a name change to the Student Building. Today, the Student Building stands just inside the Sample Gates on the Bloomington campus, with a dedicatory plaque to Frances Swain in the entryway.  It is easily one of the most iconic images of Indiana University, and it is Frances Morgan Swain’s building.


I know about Frances Swain because for the last six years, I’ve been working on compiling a history of IU’s First Ladies, from Margaret Wylie, who moved her family of nine children to Bloomington in 1829, to myself, who became IU’s 18th First Lady in July of 2007.  Investigating and writing about IU’s presidential spouses has reawakened my interest in women’s history, which was my area of concentration when I earned my undergraduate degree at the University of Michigan. 

My original career plan was to become a college history professor, and I started graduate work at Michigan in the early 1980s.  However, that was a time when the job market for history professors was very poor, and I had just gotten married and my first husband and I wanted to start a family.  I decided to put my academic work on hold, and I took a job with the state computer networking organization.  I figured I would work for a few years, then get back to plan A. 

But the early 80s happened to be a time of tremendous change, really the start of our modern, interconnected, “always on” computing era.  It didn’t take very long for me to get swept up in all the creativity and innovation, and plan A gradually became plan B, or even C.  I spent the next 25 years as a technologist in higher education, mostly at the University of Michigan and most recently with Internet2, the national consortium of research universities working on next generation Internet technologies. 

This turned out to be a fateful path, for it was through Internet2 that I met Michael McRobbie.  He and I have particular reason to be very happy about the modern computing era, however much we complain about too much email!  As you may know, in 1997 Michael was recruited from Australia by Myles Brand to be IU’s Vice President for Information Technology and CIO.  In that capacity, he was IU’s representative to a key advisory group for Internet2.  I guess we can truly say that the Internet brought us together!

However much I enjoyed my experience in the IT sector and had some measure of success, it always felt a bit at odds with my interest in history, but in fact my liberal arts background was a big advantage in working with my highly technical colleagues.  I was an interface person, working across the boundary between the creators and the users, and being able to synthesize and communicate information was a key competency that I brought to the table.  This experience taught me a lot about the importance of understanding your own value, even when it rests of things you may not see as unique.  Another attribute I brought was an ability to listen and to empathize, again, not things I would ever have thought had real workplace value but which became part of my career success.  I say all this not to toot my own horn, because I’m certainly not unique here, but to emphasize how easy it is to take one’s own abilities for granted when they are, in fact, essential to leadership.  It took me a while to learn this, and doing so was a huge part of my understanding of women’s leadership, indeed of my own journey as a woman.  To be sure, there is no substitute for content knowledge – one has to be able to understand the fundamentals of the organization or effort you are leading and to have a vision, but without the ability to communicate well and to truly hear the input and concerns of others, you may find yourself without anyone following you.

Another critical aspect of my own journey is that it was not just one, but several journeys.  I think this is an absolutely critical aspect of women’s lives today.  There’s not enough time to get into the issues surrounding women in the workforce, but I like to think, with a nod to Carole King, that women’s lives are tapestries, rather than a single piece of cloth.  My mother, who turns 90 this summer, often says that she had seven careers, including wife and mother, and I have always found this whole idea of being many things across one’s lifetime to be very powerful.  You may have heard the great saying, “you can have it all, just not all at once.”  Especially for those of us with families and at those times when just getting to work on time is a major achievement, it’s important to know that there are more chapters to your life after the kids are out of the house.  I believe strongly that for our society to do right by our children, we need to feel safe in dedicating ourselves to them – mothers and fathers – knowing that we can return to the workforce, and continue to make contributions.


Today, I am having a wonderful time weaving the threads of my life into a more coherent whole than they’ve felt at various points along the way.

I am part of helping to make my community stronger through board service.  I joined several boards when I arrived in Bloomington in 2005, as it was a great way to put down roots.  I’ve remained involved with several of these, particularly Bloomington’s domestic violence agency.

This involvement led me to take advantage of my technology career to work on the gender gap in IT, which is unfortunately just as much a problem now as it was when I got my start in computing in the 1980s.  As an adjunct faculty member in the School of Informatics and Computing, I founded a clinic called ServeIT, which is a service-learning program that puts teams of undergraduate students into Bloomington-area nonprofits to provide IT support.  It’s one of the ways we believe will help us attract and retain young women, and minorities, because these groups are more likely to want experiences that put the computer into a context and helps solve a social problem.  So far, the percentage of women interns in the clinic is double what it is in the general student population, and students, both men and women, rave about their experiences.

And, I am thoroughly emeshed in learning about philanthropy and in putting that learning into practice through the Women’s Philanthropy Council. 

I feel extremely fortunate to have this opportunity for involvement with a wonderful institution.


In closing, I want to congratulate Fredricka and all of you for your commitment to excellence in leadership.  I wish you every success in weaving your own tapestries and in finding your own unique leadership voices.  Thank you for inviting me to speak with you today.