As I mark my 50th year on earth, I reflect upon a harrowing and rich “soul curriculum” that fuels a passion for impact, particularly around issues facing women and girls. In short, our deepest passions often spring from our deepest wounds.
I discovered this truth early, moved to action by seeing a filmstrip in my 3rd grade classroom of starving children in Africa. By then, I’d already had my share of deeply painful experiences and I found it baffling that the teacher would share haunting, heartbreaking images with a room full of eight-year-olds, yet offer no way to help solve the problem. I staged backyard fundraisers, which led to the realization that I didn’t have to sit with heartbreak, but could take action toward creating a better world.
A notable discovery was that I was resource-rich in a way that had nothing to do with money; in fact, at the time, my mother, four siblings, and I were living on food stamps and other government assistance. While today I have financial resources added to my arsenal, my heart of service, strategist brain and grit trumps my bank account in terms of the level of impact I’m able to have upon the world.
This resource-richness is a cornerstone of effective philanthropy. Giants like Warren Buffet, Oprah Winfrey, Melinda & Bill Gates, Abby Disney, Pierre & Pamela Omidyar and more have two key things in common: They lead with humility and are strategically outspoken about their giving. By putting a very public stake in the ground for the issues they want to help solve, they awaken others to their own potential as change agents.
Yet as I consider the journey toward impact, I admit my motives were not always lofty. Having founded and run an arts-based nonprofit for a decade, I found it was a vehicle for recognition and accolades, landing me on magazine covers and in the national arts press. I loved being behind the podium, aware of a “Look at me” quality that I grappled with. It wasn’t a “Look at me, I’m so great” missive; it was a “Look at me, I have worth” plea.
The stories that shaped that need to be seen and valued are all too common among women of my generation who spent their early years being marginalized or worse. The more I suffered through those identity-shaping experiences, the more I developed a “Not on my watch” warriorship on behalf of others. Yet, after bequeathing my nonprofit to the Denver Art Museum in 2011, I became an increasingly private person. My ego sated, a servant quality to my philanthropy reemerged. I found myself among the throngs of women who shy away from philanthropic recognition, feeling it sullied the purity of the intention. I found peace in the decision to back away from the spotlight.
Within a year, The Women’s Foundation of Colorado invited me to share my story publicly to help inspire others to bold action and giving. I initially declined for a number of reasons many private philanthropists identify with; but at the end of the day, I have a strategist brain and a voracious appetite for impact. While I gave financially and served quietly, I realized I had taken my two most powerful resources out the narrative: my voice and my ferocity.
And I felt like a hypocrite. All my life I knew, deep in my bones, that if I lived during the Civil Rights movement, I would have marched. If I had lived during the Civil War, I would have spoken out against slavery. Yet, by flying below the radar, I stopped inspiring others to think about their resources, financial and beyond, diminishing my own effectiveness. There is nothing to be gained for causes by keeping quiet about philanthropy, as it is a powerful call to action for others. It is also an indescribable joy, bringing kindreds together in a fulfilling and world-changing way. In the words of social impact leader Jonathan Lewis, “It’s as much fun as I have in public.”
The causes I care about need me to take my full space in the world. I ultimately got out of my own way, taking bold action toward greater impact by launching Black Fox Philanthropy and joining Women Moving Millions.
While I don’t seek the spotlight, I no longer shy away from it because it isn’t really about me. It’s about living a fully expressed life as a woman in an era that needs every woman’s voice at the table, at the podium, and in the halls of power that shape our world. Together, we are a FORCE.
Natalie Lynn Rekstad is an innovative strategist who helps raise vital funds for social change organizations around the globe via her consulting firm, Black Fox Philanthropy. She is a frequent panelist, speaker, and resource for a variety of organizations on the topic of philanthropy.
An active supporter of The Women’s Foundation of Colorado since 2007, Natalie now serves as a Board Trustee, and her firm funds the scholarship “Black Fox Scholars,” rewarding high school girls for excellence in philanthropy. Her ultimate vision: A world where men and `women lead together with full opportunity and equality. In addition to being a Women Moving Millions member, Natalie is an MCE Social Capital Guarantor, infusing $1 million in microfinance to women throughout the developing world; and is on the Global Advisory Board of World Pulse.