Emily Nielsen Jones

An Edited Transcript of a Conversation with

NEID Member Emily Nielsen Jones for the

 2017 Boston Foundation Annual Report:

The Problem Solvers

How a Group of Unusually Creative Philanthropists

Are Helping to Solve Some of Boston’s Big Problems

TBF: What was the evolution of your involvement with philanthropy? 

Emily Nielsen Jones

ENJ:  There have been many shifts but one for me personally was when our kids were getting out of the little kid stage and I got to a point—I believe it was around the Occupy Movement—where I became more aware of economic issues. I had been worked in education reform and more on the nonprofit side of things, so I had always been in the world of social change but I have to admit that I wasn’t so interested or engaged in our own “balance sheet.” My husband [Emily’s husband is Ross M. Jones] had done well in his work in private equity and we had gotten to a point where we had more significant accumulated wealth than I fully realized.  It sort of snuck up on me. We had always been aligned in feeling that we wanted to live below our means and have always tried to be good stewards of our resources but we got to a point where relative to our own “denominator” and to the economic realities of our world, we just felt a nudge to do more.

My soul has a hard time with the kind of wealth accumulation that’s conventional in American society, so we started talking more about our balance sheet; we started asking ourselves if we should do something more or start a foundation. We didn’t get much philanthropic advice. We just had informal conversations. What is ours to do? This question gripped us and made us feel both uncomfortable and excited to learn and network to discern where to direct our energies and our resources.

The more conventional route would have been to wait until we had more gray hair, but we thought why not do it now when we can be more engaged? So we were having these conversations for a year or so. And then we decided to go on a sabbatical for three months. We yanked our kids out of school (the oldest was in 6th grade and the youngest in 1st grade), and went on a trip around the national parks in an RV.  Our kids were at just the right age for an experience like this so we seized the moment.

We too felt like we were at one of those life junctures and wanted to think together about what we wanted to do—and we ended up deciding that we should just jump in and try our hand at philanthropy. Why wait? And so we began our foundation in 2009. The name, Imago Dei Fund, conveys something of our motivation and the ideals that were prompting us. We’re all made in God’s image. We’re more alike than not alike. We share a common humanity and our faith inspires us to do all we can to “love our neighbor as ourselves” and just do our part to make the world a little more kind and just.  So, we bring a little spirituality into what we do. Most of what we support is not religious per se. But we’re inspired by faith as are so many of the NGOs we support.

So, we got started without much philanthropic advising and we’ve been learning by joining networks. And when we heard that there was an international network, NEID (New England International Donors), I literally joined that day! I had met Karen Ansara before that. [NOTE: Karen Ansara is the Boston Foundation donor who started NEID] Everything is about relationships. Change happens through a network of relationships. We’re so grateful for networks like NEID and if there wasn’t a big foundation like the Boston Foundation to really support networking like this, we wouldn’t have such a vibrant philanthropic community here in Boston.

TBF: TPI (The Philanthropic Initiative) played such a great role in getting NEID off the ground and NEID is now a program of both the Boston Foundation and TPI. [NOTE: TPI is a distinct operating unit of the Boston Foundation.]

ENJ: Yes! And now after doing philanthropy for eight plus years I see why all of this philanthropic advising exists. It’s great to have thought partners. Everyone does things in their own unique way, but it’s just good to be in an ecosystem where we can learn together. I was just at a workshop on measurement and evaluation, which is a hard nut to crack. Everyone has a different idea about how to go about it.

TBF: How has NEID worked as a networking opportunity?

ENJ: Now I’m on the steering committee, so I know more about it. There are plenty of onramps. The first gathering I attended had about 20 people or so. There are some larger events for 100 people or more--and then there are smaller dinners.  On average NEID does 25 events a year focusing on many different areas of international giving (education, health, refugees, poverty, women, climate change, etc). The goal is to create a meaningful dialogue about wherever you are in your philanthropic journey.

One thing I’ve learned is that everyone likes the idea of collaboration, but it doesn’t happen on its own. The desire to collaborate without some support is very hard.  Especially to have sustained collaboration, you need an infrastructure to keep the momentum going.  And I can really see that in the Giving Circle on Women & Girls NEID set the table for collaboration and and learning to happen.

TBF: So, how did the Giving Circle come about?

ENJ: We are always thinking about how we can improve and deepen our collaboration. From the moment I met Karen Ansara, we have talked on and off about giving circles.  The idea of giving together, or alongside one another, is powerful. Most of NEID is a learning circle, which deepens your own knowledge base. I think the Ebola epidemic was the first collaborative vehicle that NEID did together. And that was great. So we thought for about a year about how we might do a giving circle. We had to have something to frame it, and the gender lens rose to the top. It isn’t a programmatic silo; it’s more horizontal. Finally, we said, “Let’s just try it and see who is interested.” It really couldn’t have happened without Ina Breuer and Odette Ponce at NEID creating the structure within which we could learn together and then create a pot of money from which to make grants. [Ina Breuer is the Executive Director of NEID.]

TBF: So, you’re making decisions together. You’re giving together.

ENJ: Yes. And that’s not the easiest thing to do but it was really a fun process of getting to know an awesome group of women and learning together. I always have the desire to expand the table around the advancement of women and girls globally. How can we encourage women who are working in the corporate world and have climbed the ladder to look back and think about how much harder it is for women of color? And then, how do you expand your awareness beyond the United States or your city or your company? Gender norms are so heartbreakingly severe in so many places. How can we become more aware so that we can do something more? A little money goes a long way globally.  It was great to see everyone in the giving circle connect their own experiences as women with the struggles of women and girls globally and think together about key leverage points to make a difference.

TBF: What inspired your interest in global philanthropy?

ENJ: We did our philanthropy a little backwards: We started globally and then we started to think about the fact that the world is right here! We could have started in the Boston area with a donor advised fund. But somehow we knew that we wanted to engage globally. When we got started, we did get informal advice suggesting that we choose one thing, one region, and go after that so that we could “build our legacy” around measure our impact. There is nothing wrong with this approach but we just didn’t want to limit ourselves in that way. So we asked, “What are some movements in the world that are already happening that we can dive into to support and accelerate? How can we join in where change is already happening and add value? Where is impact already happening? Where is social change already happening?” To me this is a more human and spiritual approach to philanthropy that I never want to lose even as we get more “strategic” and investment oriented.  How and where one gives stems from a very personal place inside of each of us.  After we started our foundation in 2009, it seemed like anti-trafficking was one of these movements bringing together various constituencies across the religious/secular divide so we dove in there. 

From there, it wasn’t long before we started to see that it wasn’t an accident that it’s primarily girls and women who fall into the web of human trafficking.  My learning curve around the harsh condition of girls’ and women’s lives happened very quickly and you could say that my “inner feminist” was awakened! For most of my life I had been wearing rose-colored glasses and presumed that progress for women was marching forward. 

As I learned about the conditions that make women and girls so vulnerable to being trafficked, I came to understand that as much as we want to blame it on traffickers, this problem really starts within our own communities, our own social norms and all of the traditions that continue to persist which say because you are female you are lesser than, you are meant to serve and submit.

In this journey, I really became sort of obsessed with learning more about the status of the women’s movement around the world and again and again have heard women’s human rights defenders report that they have seen the needle sliding backwards for girls and women.  As a mother of a young girl, this keeps me up at night.  I simply cannot bear to watch things go backwards for girls like my own —not if I can help it!

Then, there’s the role of religion, of faith, which can be a source of empowerment and strength but everywhere in the world is still very much a mixed bag when it comes to women’s full equality and empowerment. So many of the faith-based organizations we began supporting are doing such incredible anti-trafficking work, yet many are still caught in a harmful web of gender norms which is undermining their stated humanitarian goals.  I started to see these stunning gender contradictions everywhere I turned it seemed—all this talk about rescuing girls and women from brothels and even “empowering women” in faraway places—but then seeing that some of these very ministries and organizations themselves they have no women on their boards!  Or they hold a conference and they don’t have any women speakers. They want to rescue girls and women from trafficking, but they don’t want them to be in positions of power on their boards. To me that’s not justice. That’s not equality. But the change has to be done in a very sensitive way. 

Over the course of our philanthropy, we really have come to see that supporting faith-inspired change-agents working to restore balance—what the Hebrews called “shalom”—across the gender line as sort of the sweet-spot of our philanthropy.  There are many programmatic “levers” of change to stem the massive tide of enslavement in our world but on an invisible, systemic level, gender equality is the most effective anti-trafficking intervention!

Two programs I love which engage faith to create more balanced gender norms are World Vision’s Channels of Hope for Gender and Beyond Border’s Rethinking Power, both of which engage religious leaders and bring men and women together to reflect on their own taken-for-granted gender norms—what it was like to grow up as a girl or grow up as a boy—and dialogue across the gender line to really develop empathy. It can be very cathartic. You find men saying, “I have to get down on my knees before my wife and before God, because I used to treat her like a slave.” It is hard to believe that in many places around the world, it is still seen as a man’s “role” to be the sole authority and the wife’s role to be submissive and often this gives them a sense of entitlement even to beat their wives.  So, they’re transforming, but it takes a while.

There are a few organizations that really are trying to move the needle forward, but they’re caught in incongruent gender norms that undermine their work.

You can’t have it both ways. You can’t believe in equality and democracy and still want to hold on to these traditional norms and beliefs that go back some 4,000 years when women were not even seen as fully human but rather as family property.

Some of the organizations we’ve supported are still straddling these contradictions and working on them. We wouldn’t support organizations that are not even trying to change. But we will support the ones that are trying to change and trying to get more on board with gender equality. At times, I’m stunned that we are in the 21st century and we’re still dealing with these issues. In the religious domain, there are many sacred cows that preserve a harmful male entitlement and presumption to “power over” but in reality—as this “Me Too” movement is revealing—this exists everywhere, in some places more blatantly than others.   

One of my passions is finding ways to support brave leaders in their own culture to do this work. You can’t come in from the outside and change deeply engrained social norms.  And you have to stay close to the pulse of life.  So small can be more powerful when it comes to social norm change.  To really create a deeper change of mind and heart is not easy and requires great sensitivity; but when it happens it is so inspiring and powerful. One great example of this sort of inside-out social transformation is Dandelion Africa, one of the organizations selected by the Giving Circle, which engages boys and men in the work of creating a more level gender norm where girls are treated as equals. 

So, there is great work being done by NGOs, but if the gender norms in which they are working don’t change, this undermines all of the incredible work they are doing. We have some exciting partners who are engaging faith leaders to work at transforming these deeper attitudes and beliefs that are still being perpetuated within religion itself that say to be female is not to possess innate power and agency but rather to be accept a secondary, submissive “role”.  The real power that can help propel our world forward is in unlocking the liberating current within fath that is on the side of peace and justice and interdependence.

TBF: How does the Giving Circle work?

ENJ: When we got started, we looked at different Giving Circle models. And we had multiple objectives. I was excited that we chose to do something around women and girls. My goal is always to expand the table of people who are focused on the advancement of women and girls so I really enjoyed working to create this collaborative giving vehicle. We attracted a nice mix of women to the group who had a range of giving abilities and differing levels of knowledge and engagement with global gender issues.

We spend the first few meetings getting to know one another and connecting our own personal experience as women with the larger social and humanitarian struggles of girls and women globally. This set the stage for engaging head and heart in our philanthropic project of deciding where to focus as a giving circle. The world is a big place and “women and girls” is a broad topic so the challenge was how to decide together where and how to ‘land the plane’. How were we going to slice and dice it?

Eventually, in this year’s version of the giving circle, we developed three focus areas: women’s economic empowerment; girls’ schooling; and systems dynamics.  The last area related to really changing the system, so we read a bunch of articles about systems change. For economic empowerment, we brought some organizations in to hear from them. And then for girls’ schooling we did the same.

Then we got to the point where we began to discuss how we were going to do grant making. We developed a committee and discussed how to make decisions together. Everyone had organizations that were on their radar screen, so we decided that to have a grants committee would make the process less cumbersome. Everyone could recommend three organizations to the grants committee.

I value the idea of making philanthropy more democratic, so by supporting a giving circle we not only direct money to great organizations we also support the learning process of all of the members and expand the table around giving to women and girls globally. And this is what NEID does so well. Because the Giving Circle for Women and Girls was a huge success, NEID is launching a second one in 2018 that will have a different theme every year.  The theme for 2018 is climate change, global health is in discussion for 2019.  The one on women and girls will run every year. With two giving circles managed by NEID there will be plenty of opportunity to learn.

TBF: In recent years, I understand that you’ve also made local grants from the Imago Dei Fund.

ENJ: Yes, early on we supported Boston Health Care for the Homeless in part because I have diabetes and feel empathy with how hard it must be to have a chronic illness and be homeless. Even though our focus was more global at first, when we started our foundation, we asked ourselves what we could do for Boston. The winter was pretty bad that year and it was 2009 so the economy was still really struggling. You can’t, as a foundation, give money to individuals but we came up with an idea that would enable us in a very human way to be a good neighbor here in the city.

Most local churches have a fund that provides resources directly to a family if someone needs them for a funeral or an emergency. For instance, in the winter, heating bills escalate. So we decided to create a small fund within our foundation to match those kinds of dollars. We’ve worked through the Black Ministerial Alliance and the Emmanuel Gospel Center to build a relationship with local pastors who are “boots on the ground” and in a good position to decide who and when and how to lend a helping hand. It’s not a lot of money, but who better would you trust to do that kind of more direct giving? Then we discovered that a lot of these churches, the ones that are really activist and outreach oriented, also have after-school programs, including some pretty sizable efforts. I would say that’s how we started developing relationships here in the city and then we decided to bring on a local program officer to really help us expand into Boston and deepen these relationships. We often refer to this work as “The Church as Change Agent” and we are excited to continue to expand this work locally and globally. We also have developed a local focus on educational equity and support a number of education-related organizations including Teach for America, Build, One Hen/Scores, the Boston Schools Fund, Boston Trinity Academy, and Invest in Girls.

In so many ways, every problem is local and global. As we see with the refugee crisis, the world is right here at our doorsteps. What happens in one corner of the world affects us all.  So now we don’t have a domestic and global focus; we just see it as one portfolio with a series of “nodes” or priorities where we seek to lean in and ask, “What is ours to do?” In all that we do, we use a “gender-lens,” which always asks, “How does this particular program or project create more or less gender balance in the world?” We also use a “faith-lens” that asks how can we engage the liberating side of faith to transform the deeper roots of so many social problems and how can we nurture and support the inner “spark” that is the lifeblood of real positive change in the world.

As we look to what’s next for Imago Dei 2.0, we are so grateful for the rich philanthropic community here in Boston that has inspired and shaped us in so many ways and for the leadership of the Boston Foundation which is such a great resource for the local dimension of all of the issues we are engaged with locally and globally.