A new view on giving and philanthropy: Interview with Kristen Corning Bedford

People | March 5, 2020
Profile of author Kristen Corning Bedford

In honour of International Women’s Day, we spoke with Kristen Corning Bedford, author of A Generous Heart: Changing the World Through Feminist Philanthropy. She shared with us some thoughts on her approach to giving, which she created to bring more intention and meaning to donors. 

Philanthropic strategist and author Kristen Corning Bedford is equipped with a multifaceted view of philanthropy and giving. By starting a small charity for providing prom and formal wear to low-income teens, she saw firsthand the struggles faced by smaller charities. Then, through a job at a foundation, she saw things from the donor perspective — by discovering what inspired people to give and what they were interested in.

For Corning Bedford, what ties the different sides of giving together is an approach to philanthropy rooted in feminism. Through her current work, she hopes to share her perspective. Her goal is to help others discover and act on their charitable purposes. 

Her definition of a feminist philanthropist is someone who is informed, intentional, and joyful. Yes, anyone can be a feminist philanthropist. It takes being informed in the things they are most interested in and passionate about, being intentional about how they spend their resources, and being joyful in their giving (and receiving). 

This concept of informed, meaningful, and intentional giving also exists at the core of Charitable Impact. Everyone has something to give and anyone can give on our platform, whether they have $5 or more. 

Corning Bedford said that in talking with donors, and even with her own friends and family, she had noticed individuals with less wealth often disregarded the many ways they were contributing to the world. “We are all philanthropists if we care about the world around us. I was working to create a structure for people to embrace that word for themselves, and then to be more intentional about how they are moving through the world and taking their place,” said Corning Bedford. 

Here is more of our conversation…

Charitable Impact: What does feminism have to do with philanthropy?

Kristen Corning Bedford: Women are so engaged and involved in philanthropy. We are seeing the amount of money that women have has increased: both the money they are making and the money they are inheriting. Women are increasingly coming into the conversation around philanthropy saying “I want to have more impact, I want to build relationships, I want to be involved in a different way.” 

There are three tenets of feminism that I have come to appreciate: solidarity, reciprocity, and agency. There is a real bridge between them and what philanthropy could be. These are things that I see as structurally part of the feminist movement and these are the same things I was seeing in some of the conversations about philanthropy, too. 

Charitable Impact: Do you think that we can all be feminists?

KCB: It’s about equality and the ability for people to have choice and agency in their own lives, to be able to have a voice. Across the board, that should be true for everybody.  

For many years, I was coming out of conversations with people who said they didn’t have that much money, they don’t have that much to give. We all have resources to give. 

Philanthropy might look dependent on how much money you have, but there’s a lot of money in the world and we still haven’t solved homelessness or many other issues. I don’t think solutions are going to be contingent on how much money there is, but rather, in people engaging with the conversation with creativity and innovation — thinking differently about solutions. 

Charitable Impact: And you define philanthropy as more than just giving away money. What other things can people give? 

KCB: Volunteering your time, the things that you have in your house, being mindful of what you bring in and what you are able to let go of, attention and network. For example, I have little kids and have the ability to set aside other things and just fully participate with my children. That’s a gift and I liken it to a gift to humanity: I am helping to raise the next generation. Part of my philanthropy is how I give of myself to my family.

Then there are networks and influence. Being really mindful that as you are moving through the world, you are influencing people and how you talk about things. Once you know what you’re trying to change, it gets easier to cut out all the extra stuff that doesn’t support that intention. Getting clear about your intention allows you to align your resources toward that goal, and then you can live your legacy while you’re still alive. 

Charitable Impact: In Canada, there is a trend towards declining monetary donations. Do you think that volunteering and other forms of philanthropy could be gateways to donating money and to an increase in charitable donations?

KCB: They can be gateways. There is so much noise, there are so many places that want your time, attention, and money. There’s a real need for guides and people to make sense of it all. 

All movements and industries have moments and then they evolve, and I think that philanthropy is at that juncture. There are new ways of giving. You look at trends, and a decline can be a wave pulling back before it comes back on the shore. But it might come back on the shore looking really different. 

There’s some of that flip happening right now in philanthropy. As younger generations come into their own wealth and figuring out what they are interested in, there is so much more language around systems and paying attention to systems. Donors are really taking a look at what has become entrenched and what they can do about it. 

Charitable Impact: Your approach to philanthropy involves some introspection and taking time for meditation on the topic. What if someone says they just don’t have time for that? What would you recommend?

KCB: If only you can sit down and jot down a little bit of what you have given to and where you are currently spending your time. Get a sense of your own personal landscape, and what feels good, what it is that you want to move towards. There are a number of really great resources, like Charitable Impact, that make it really easy to do a search if you are going to do a financial gift.  

If you have even a little more time, I think it’s really helpful to engage with the nonprofit before you start making donations. Get to know who the players are and if they are speaking in a way that you understand and you believe in. Be really clear with your expectations of your charitable giving. Is the cause you are interested in something that you are going to give to throughout the year, or will you make a one-time gift?

It’s helpful for a nonprofit to know who their donors are. They can only do that if the donors really know who they are, what they are interested in, and what their expectations are. 

Bottom line, just get started somewhere. Introspection can be a part of the process, part of the journey. In fact, some of the most impactful philanthropists’ giving has evolved as they’re doing the work. It’s all a cycle of discovery and action. 

Charitable Impact: What do you say to people who say “I don’t see my impact”? 

KCB: Once you get engaged with ideas and initiatives you’re interested in, your legacy is about seeing the forest that you planted, not the seeds. You are thinking about future generations.  

It really goes back to relationships and being able to trust and believe in the people who are doing the work and who are seeing those little shifts. 

“Impact” is such a loaded word these days, and the impact can be that one woman is off the street tonight and, to her, that’s the whole world. Everything is embedded. It’s setting a big goal and then paying attention to the little wins along the way. 

This interview has been edited. 

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