Farewell from Our Founder, Suzanne
Succession: Why now? What’s next?
Beginning as an UnPhilanthropist
Truth is, I never did like philanthropy.
When I had the good fortune to launch Skees Foundation 18 years ago, I didn’t look like a “philanthropist” (being female, middle class, and a single mom), and I didn’t want to act like one, either (writing checks to people who stroked my ego, or tossing money at persistent symptoms). I strove to overturn power inequities by:
- Investing in human potential –e.g., schools, microloans, skills training, and job-creation programs,
- Inverting the power imbalance between funder and nonprofit by calling it out, deferring to our partners’ and clients’ expertise, asking for blunt feedback, and offering unrestricted grants,
- Straining to listen to what’s needed rather than impose my preconceptions,
- Offering anything else I could give beyond a dollar–e.g., communications strategy and stories, program development, fundraising, referrals, and good old-fashioned moral support, and
- Relentlessly tugging at family members to share the joy and power of giving through this channel.
Being a Student at Work
I’ve learned enough from the brilliance and empathy of our partners and the social-justice passion of my family to write another four books.
I’ve reveled in traveling with our partners to 26 countries, not for mere “horse and pony” shows, but to serve them as a volunteer storyteller (and often, an amateur photographer), resulting in hundreds of pieces here on Seeds of Hope as well as Medium, Stanford Social Innovation Review, Huffington Post, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Working Woman, etc.
Learning How to Give Better
Since its inception, Skees Foundation has supported over 100 partners, investing more than $2.25 million to end poverty through equal access to education and jobs for the ultra-poor in the U.S. and around the world. We’ve learned enough to:
- Provide multiyear, unrestricted grants to small and startup NPOs and NGOs to give them a running “pre-seed” start with complete freedom, respect, and budget security,
- Shift from organizations led by well-meaning Americans to community-based leaders who know experientially what locals need,
- Convert “the other 95%” beyond our grants, from traditional investments to a 100% green, clean, social-good portfolio combining ESG companies with impact investments,
- Grow our leadership from a ridiculously tiny board consisting of just me, a CPA, and an attorney, to my parents, sisters, nieces, and partner,
- Bust open the family parameters to bring in new nonprofit experts (see Brienne’s piece on who and why), authorized completely to rewrite our mission and strategy.
What’s next? I don’t know. But I trust completely the team we’ve invited to become our new global, inclusive, dedicated family.
My sister Sally Skees-Helly, whose excellent leadership has quietly driven Skees Foundation for the last several years while I’ve focused on our fundraising MY JOB book series, will stay on as collaborative manager of the vastly unknown and open future of this organization.
Every founder grows stale, and I’m out the door before I begin to decompose (I hope!). No regrets: I believe the only authentic way to lead, in the end, is to bow out, to create space for others to wield their capable talent.
My life so far has gifted me with miracles beyond my imagination and challenged me with traumas that have knocked me to the floor …
But all along, this foundation has expanded my vision and inspired me profoundly.
I’ve lost myself in the joyful process of experiencing the intimate grace of real people, hearing and composing our stories–e.g., an abused woman turned midwife in Guatemala, a nonliterate widow given her first job breeding sheep and goats right outside her hut in India, and an agronomist inventing a manual tomato-processor in rural Ghana.
I’ve sustained my motivation through the resilience and ingenuity of our clients, and I’ve been pulled out of my egotism by 18 years of observing heroines and heroes toiling every day to improve the lives of as many humans as they possibly serve, too often without affirmation or a decent paycheck, too often in areas of extreme poverty, political conflict, and war.
I hope that you, my friends and colleagues, believe me when I tell you that it has been an infinite honor to work alongside you. I will hold you in my heart.
And please, FARE WELL. — Suzanne
Cover photograph courtesy of Upaya Social Ventures.