At the Helm of an Iconic Women's Foundation, and Determined to Seize the Moment

Teresa C. Younger, president and CEO, Ms. Foundation for Women

This is an exciting time for social change philanthropy, with different movements for equality joining forces in new ways. One recent example is Prosperity Togetherthe $100 million commitment by 28 women’s funds and foundations, including the Ms. Foundation for Women, to improve economic security for low-income women and girls, including many of color. One of the key leaders of this historic commitment, announced by the Obama Administration in November of 2015, is Teresa C. Younger, president and CEO of the Ms. Foundation for Women.

“A year ago in January, we came together, the Ms. Foundation and several other women’s foundations, and said, we need to make sure the federal government has an understanding of what is happening on the ground for women,” said Younger, in a recent interview with Inside Philanthropy. This meeting was one of the early seeds that led to the Prosperity Together initiative, with women’s funds coming together around the shared goal of economic security.

Younger has a deep history as a leader for both gender equity and civil liberties movements. As the first woman and first African American to serve as the executive director of the ACLU of Connecticut, Younger quickly became a force to be reckoned with in her career.

A board member of the Women’s Campaign School at Yale University, Younger is passionate about the need to get more women into elected and appointed government offices both in the U.S. and abroad. She is also a fierce defender of women’s reproductive rights, serving on the National Advisory Board on Religious Restrictions on Care, where she works to ensure that hospitals provide all health services, including birth control, when mergers take place with religiously based health systems.

And another thing Younger is passionate about: corporations getting onboard faster, and stronger, with their work to improve gender equity. “I think we have not fully begun to tap into the kinds of partnerships that are out there with corporations,” said Younger. She referenced the growing body of research showing that gender equity is good for business performance, and argued that corporations are ripe for further cultivation.

"Almost every major corporation has some kind of women’s affinity group that recognizes the needs of women in the workplace, and so we are going to continue to build partnerships with corporations to help them better understand and serve the needs of their women employees," said Younger.

She also described how the Ms. Foundation is using its influence on the investment side to talk to corporations about their gender equity strategies. “We have been developing a stronger gender lens strategy around our endowment. We are looking at corporations that we own in the endowment and asking questions about how many women they have on their boards, in leadership, and how women are treated as employees."

Since taking office in June of 2014, Younger has literally been on a nonstop tour of the country, convening with women across government, business, and the nonprofit sector to learn about their needs. She has clocked some 53,000 miles in travel that is meant to reintroduce the Ms. Foundation to new communities, to listen to what's on their minds in order to build a better grantee strategy, and to cultivate stronger partnerships to advance gender equity.

“When you look at the Ms. Foundation’s history, one thing we have always done is to listen to the community,” said Younger.

The Ms. Foundation also seeks to leverage its influence on the gender equity front as a convener. “We work very hard to conveneto be in spaces that bring people together who are looking at gender equity in innovative, holistic and intersectional ways.”

With regard to women’s safety, since its inception in 1973, the Ms. Foundation has played a key role in calling more attention to the issues of sexual assault and domestic violence. It has also done some of the breakthrough research on child sexual abuse prevention, including a $5 million research project from 2009 to 2012 called Child Sexual Abuse: A Social Justice Prevention Model.

Now, the foundation is reshaping its safety strategy. It hired Nakisha Lewis as senior strategist for safety, and she has been working to gather data and reformulate the approach. After a year of gathering information, the Ms. Foundation will move forward with a new safety strategy built on three key pillars: criminal justice, sexual violence, and state-sanctioned violence, viewing them through both a gender and race lens.

“We are, of course, looking at sexual assault and domestic violence, but we are also looking at the issue of safety more holistically, asking questions like, what does it mean to really live safe as a womanwhether it is in your home, on the street, in school, in churches,” said Younger. “We are also looking at the idea of being safe to use your voice, being safe to go to school, being safe to be politically active in your community, and that’s really a lot more in-depth and intersectional.” 

Another major focus for the Ms. Foundation in 2016 will be conducting interviews and surveying leaders of state-led strategies for women's economic empowerment, including grassroots organizations and public officials. The foundation will study legislative efforts underway and identifying emerging issues.

The Ms. Foundation will also invest in grassroots organizations in the American South in 2016, providing grants to Southern-based organizations fostering women's economic empowerment. All of this will culminate in the publication of a national blueprint for women’s economic justice that will offer guidance around legislative issues that impact women economically.

To say there is a lot going on at the Ms. Foundation these days would be an understatement. Others in the field are excited about the pivotal role the Ms. Foundation is playing on several fronts. Marcia Coné, chief strategist for the Women's Funding Network, said about Younger: "She is a tireless advocate for public policy to advance women and girls. She knows the issues, she understands the systems changes needed to advance those issues, and now she has the ability to direct resources to make a huge impact across the country."

This is one effort to build collective power for gender equity that we'll be watching super-closely.