Philanthropy vs. Patriarchy: Emily Nielsen Jones and the Fight On Faith

Emily Nielsen Jones, President and Co-Founder, Imago Dei FundHere’s the story of how Emily Nielsen Jones and her husband, Ross Jones, discovered their niche of integrating a gender focus into their faith-inspired philanthropy. The Boston-based couple once funded Christian Union, an Ivy League campus ministry, to launch a new branch at their alma mater, Dartmouth College. They were impressed with the organization at first because of its interest in mobilizing students to engage in combating human trafficking.  

But as Jones got closer to the organization and started asking gender-related questions, she uncovered that within its own organization, the Christian Union promotes what it calls a “complementarian” leadership structure, which excludes women from top leadership positions. Once the couple gained more awareness about this policy, which creates gender ceilings for both staff and students, they engaged in a dialogue to encourage Christian Union to reconsider its practices of limiting women in the organization. 

“After much dialogue back and forth encouraging change, the organization remained resolved that it would continue to reserve top leadership positions for men. That seemed so contrary to the ideals of student life and equality presumed by Ivy League schools."

On a very personal level, this gender incongruity at a new ministry at Jones's own college struck a sensitive chord with her, at a time when she was engaging more globally and seeing how girls and women are still subjugated around the world. Jones says that "after a few years of patiently nudging and hoping for change, we decided to pull our funding."

Jones is on a delicate mission to address these faith-based gender contradictions and work for change not only on a humanitarian level, but also on the deeper level of ideas and beliefs that continue to sanction a harmful consolidation of power in the hands of men. By having one foot in the world of gender-based philanthropy, in which best practices are still being developed and work is unfolding in new directions all the time, and one foot in the “faith pond," as she calls it, Jones is buidling bridges to help faith-based organizations develop a stronger integration between their faith narratives and basic human rights for women.

Through the foundation that she co-founded with her husband in 2009, Imago Dei Fund (IDF), Jones is bringing heightened gender awareness to religious-based philanthropy and equipping faith-inspired nonprofits to align their own gender norms and practices with their stated humanitarian goals of freeing the world of slavery and injustice. Jones has many days when she feels frustrated. “The nexus of religion and social change can feel exasperating at times with so many regressive movements happening around the world."

During our interview and subsequent email exchanges, Jones led me down many disturbing rabbit holes of contradictory policies and practices within organizations right in my own backyard of New England, as well as around the globe. "On the one hand, many of these organizations and ministries are trying to achieve humanitarian goals like freeing girls and women from trafficking and other forms of injustice, while they themselves are still caught in the same male-dominated social structure which lies at the root of these problems," says Jones.

This is one reason I love writing about women leaders in philanthropymany have a keen eye out for gender inequities embedded in a range of institutions. While I was aware of the way that fundamentalist religion subjugates women, Jones illuminated it in a new wayone that connects the problem with real steps that can transform gender norms within religious organizations and communities.

The strategy of IDF is to work from within the faith pond to shift from a male-dominated social structure to create more gender-balanced families, communities and organizations. For Jones, the desire to focus on supporting the ongoing process of “gender balancing” faith-inspired organizations grew out of seeing firsthand the “gender incongruencies” of so many evangelical development organizations doing important anti-trafficking and development work around the world, yet whose humanitarian goals were undermined by the same disempowering gender norms that are so oppressive to girls and women.

“As I started doing more engaged, hands-on philanthropy after we started the IDF, I was so excited to learn about and partner with some great Christian NGOS and organizations working to promote justice. Yet I hit this point of acute disillusionment where, in a short period of time, I uncovered so many gender inconsistencies." Jones found these inconsistencies among many of the donors and foundations supporting these groups. Many of these organizations did not have any women on their boards, hosted all-male speaker panels, and did not invite spiritually mature adult women into the leadership.

The more Jones dug around, the more she found that many of these ministries are part of a coordinated neo-patriarchal movement led by an organization called the Gospel Coalition, which uses the antiquated word “patriarch” and authoritarian titles like ‘CEO’ and even ‘king’ and ‘priest’ to reclaim an all-male leadership norm.

"I kept saying to myself, 'How could this be in the 21st century?’ Looking back, I can see that my own angst at the gender regressions happening in my own evangelical faith pond has propelled me to channel my voice and philanthropic platform to look for strategic and grace-filled ways to support an internal process of change in these organizations.” 

In 2015, IDF made grants totaling roughly $5 million to 150 small, medium and large nonprofits, with grants varying in amount based on the capacity, size and mission alignment of the organization. Within the U.S., IDF has partnered with a number of organizations, including Christians for Biblical Equality, which works around the world to promote interpretations of the Bible that teach the fundamental equality of all genders and races. IDF has also partnered with Gordon College, and sponsored a study beginning in 2014 researching progress toward gender parity in evangelical higher education and nonprofits. This study is in its final phase and will spotlight examples of institutions that embody best practices of gender-balanced organizations.

On the global front over the past three years, IDF has prioritized funding indigenous-led efforts to engage faith leaders in transforming harmful traditional practices, beliefs and gender norms that consolidate power in the hands of men. As part of this work, Jones is co-authoring a book with Domnic Misolo, an Anglican pastor in Kenya, titled The Girl Child & Her Long Walk to Freedom: Putting Faith to Work, Through Love, To Transform Enslaving, Harmful Gender Norms At Their Root. The book-in-progress speaks to Jones’s hands-on, collaborative approach to IDF’s philanthropy, and how deeply she goes into the trenches to hear, support and amplify the voices of change agents who are enlisting faith to “co-create a more just, free, gender-balanced world”, the tagline of the IDF. 

One point that Jones emphasizes about gender equity work is that even promising interventions like keeping girls in school and freeing girls from sex trafficking are not silver bullets. "Philanthropists need to invest in a deeper social transformation of the very ideas and beliefs which devalue and disempower girls and women in the first place, making them so vulnerable to human rights violations and enslavement," says Jones.

Jones told the story of one young woman she interviewed for the book who left an indelible impression on her about the stark inequalities women still face. This woman was college educated and had been raised by her uncle in a traditional home in Tanzania, where girls get up early to do housework while their brothers sleep, and where they are expected to serve food on their knees to their brothers and father. After the young woman graduated from college, she returned to her uncle’s home and suffered an incident in which her brother beat her with a cane in public, because she didn’t make him food.

“A girl can go on to become a doctor or a lawyer, but when she sets foot in her own home, she is still expected to serve food on her knees,” said Jones of the young woman, who now has an impressive career within World Vision. “Her story embodies for me how critical it is that we work on changing the social norms about who has power.”

IDF’s work in developing nations spans a number of organizations doing this culturally sensitive work of transforming religious and cultural norms to affirm human rights, including Tostan’s Religious Leaders Program, World Vision’s Channels of Hope for Gender, Beyond Border’s Re-Thinking Power, the Global Fund for Women, World Relief, and the International Justice Mission. To carry out this work, Jones finds inspiration in meeting indigenous faith leaders around the world “who have this deep faith and are saying, 'we can read the Bible in a different way, one that grants women full equality and shared authority as image-bearers of God.'”  

Jones regards Women Moving Millions and the Women’s Donor Network as a needed “social tribe” that engaged her when belonging to her “faith tribe” was feeing more tenuous. Being around all the inspiring women activists in these networks gave her more power and confidence to grow into her own mission. “They modeled for me the importance of using a gender lens, and gave me the language to bring into our philanthropy more internally and effectively.” She went on to describe how one of the founders of Women Moving Millions, Helen LaKelly Hunt, a leader in the women’s funding movement who, like Jones, also grew up in the Southern Baptist Church, was instrumental in affirming for her that funding at the intersection of faith and justice can yield powerful dividends for our world. 

But every day, new challenges arise. In recent weeks, Jones discovered two more “distressing gender incongruencies” in upcoming Christian justice conferences, both of which are convening conferences with churches still rooted in an all-male leadership model. Shared Hope’s Just Faith Summit is co-sponsored by a network called Northland Church, which has no female pastors or “governing elders," and World Relief’s The Justice Conference is hosted by Park Community Church, which has many of the telltale signs of a highly patriarchal church, including a male-only slate of church elders

“Not exactly the most stellar picture of a 'just faith,'" says Jones. “It is so discouraging that despite the lofty Biblical language of ‘letting justice roll down’ and inspiring Nelson Mandela quotes that talk about yearning for justice and not just charity, so many Christians and even Christian NGOs seem to not fully connect the humanitarian and theological dots.”

Jones has already communicated her concern to both organizations, and World Relief has “responded very receptively to the concern and reiterated its commitment to gender equality." But Jones remains a wary and vigilant, given that World Relief partners with a range of churches all over the gender norm continuum, and still at times struggles with how to balance its own organizational commitment to justice for women in a larger faith context in which women’s leadership is called into question by partner churches. Shared Hope, which the IDF funded a few years ago to conduct a review of Massachusetts laws and policies around prostitution and sex trafficking, has yet to respond to her concern.

This is not the first time Jones has challenged the Justice Conference. At one of the early conferences, Jones discovered that World Relief’s church partner, the Antioch Church—led by Ken Wytsma, author of Pursuing Justice: The Call to Live and Die for Bigger Things—did not allow women to serve on its elder board. She confronted him about how contradictory this seemed with the ideals of the conference, and this has led to a friendly dialogue between Jones, World Relief, and Wytsma that Jones says “has been really constructive and has led to some positive changes in the right direction.” 

Jones affirmed her support for World Relief as an example of faith-based work committed to justice and shared leadership of women and men in the Evangelical world.

Straddling the ponds of faith and women’s empowerment can be uncomfortable, but Jones has persisted and is getting traction. “It is mind-boggling to me, but somehow it is easier for people to go to the other side of the world to ‘rescue’ girls and women than it is to put a little skin in the game right in one’s own pond to gender-balance one's own board, one’s own organization, and most importantly, one’s own beliefs about how we live together as male and female,” says Jones. 

And while she acknowledges inspirational moments of transformation that can happen in faith communities, she remains a steely-eyed realist about the prickly nature of this problem. “Our world is still very much caught in a web of disempowering, subjugating gender norms laced with tradition and theology. We sometimes don't see that the very ideas in our own brains and ministries are human rights violations waiting to happen.”

For more on IDF's work, see Jones's recent article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review: "Belief-based Social Innovation: Gender-Lens’ Next Frontier."