Pay It Forward

One of my favorite books is “Pay It Forward” by Catherine Ryan Hyde which was then made into a movie starring Haley Joel Osment, Helen Hunt and Kevin Spacey. Unfortunately, as is so often the case, the movie did not do the book justice.  But, what can you do…Hollywood!

The storyline is that the thirteen year old protagonist, Trevor McKinney, is given an assignment by his social studies teacher to devise and put into action a plan that will change the world for the better. His plan — called “Pay It Forward” — is based on the networking of good deeds. He does a significant favor for three people, and then asks each recipient of a favor to do an equally significant favor for three others rather than paying the favor back to the person that did it for them. This notion of “paying it forward” has become a well-known meme but it begs a question about the notions of “paying back” and “paying forward” that have really interesting implications for philanthropy.

Looking at patterns of giving, we see that some of the highest philanthropic giving goes to churches, alma maters, etc. People feel very connected to places that have helped shape their lives in some way and are thus compelled to support them when they have the means. This kind of giving, while important and meaningful, really is about “giving back.”

Now, think about how the concept of “paying it forward” plays out in philanthropy.

There is a point in the story where Trevor believes that his experiment is a failure because it doesn’t catch on the way he had hoped. But in the book, as in life, we see that while paying back can offer more immediate results (we have that more direct connect between the benefactor and the beneficiary), paying it forward takes much more time and much more faith that our act of kindness — or in the case of philanthropy and generosity — yields what we hope it will: someone whose life has changed in a way that compels and allows them to do the same for others.

This pay it forward model of philanthropy is really what the work of The Women’s Foundation is about. But it takes a leap of faith, which is hard to do.  We already know that our churches and schools have helped us – we experience first-hand the impact on our own lives that these institutions have had. But how comfortable are we in making an investment in something that is often very much outside of our own experience, and/or will take time to yield dividends? Like the stock market, social change and pay it forward philanthropy is about the long-game. But also like the stock market, for those who are patient and willing to take some measure of “risk” by believing in the potential of something they have not yet seen come to pass or experienced, there is the opportunity to see incredible returns. It is clear that when you invest in the power and potential of people, the impact can be profound.

If you have any doubt about the power of “paying it forward,” just read Catherine Hyde Ryan’s book. And next time you think about your philanthropy, ask yourself – are you paying back, or can you be bold enough to also pay it forward?

Reflections on the Early Care and Education Funders Collaborative

Editor’s Note: Fight For Children has been a part of the Early Care and Education Funders Collaborative for the past four years. Skip McKoy, Fight for Children’s Director of Programmatic Initiatives, shares his reflections in this guest blog post.

Fight For Children, SkipAt the end of June, Fight For Children will transition off of the Washington Area Women’s Foundation’s Early Care and Education Funders Collaborative to focus our attention on Joe’s Champs, our early childhood, school-based education program. We developed Joe’s Champs to provide principals, assistant principals, and teachers with professional development and mentorship opportunities focused specifically on students ages 3-4, a period sometimes overlooked by educators but vitally important to a child’s academic and social development. Without the extensive discussions with funders of the early childhood space—including those we met through the Collaborative—we would not be as confident in the success of Joe’s Champs as we are today.

When Fight For Children joined the Collaborative in 2010, we were primarily a grant-making organization.  The Collaborative provided us with an opportunity to engage with and learn from other local organizations interested in supporting early childhood development. As Fight For Children shifts from a grant-maker to an organization that designs and runs its own programs, the Collaborative remains a valuable resource for us, other local funders, and early childhood education leaders.

As I reflect back on our four years as a Collaborative member, I am grateful for the many opportunities and lessons learned. Here are a few that stand out to me:

  1. On the Collaborative, Fight For Children has had the opportunity to join forces with other organizations to leverage our impact on local children. For example, in 2013, as a member of the Collaborative we contributed to the support of ten early childhood education projects, in addition to the projects we support on our own.
  2. Fight For Children has a small staff that goes into the community throughout the year to research potential organizations with which to partner. Being part of the Collaborative exposed us to projects otherwise unfamiliar to us, given our limited resources.
  3. As a non-profit focused on children within DC City limits, Fight For Children staff do not readily have opportunities to learn about innovative approaches occurring elsewhere in the DC, Maryland, and Virginia region. The Collaborative has facilitated our experiences with early childhood education and development projects outside of DC, which we were then able to reference during our development of Joe’s Champs.

Any of these reasons alone would be a powerful incentive for an early childhood funder to join the Collaborative. But, there is another value-add to being part of the Collaborative: the group of funders*represented at the table are all well-respected and thoughtful. They represent a cross-section of foundations and corporations dedicated to improving early childhood care and education in this region. Having different organizations bring to light the multiple sections of the proverbial early childhood education elephant provides a better sense of the big picture, allowing each of us to be more thoughtful change agents and resulting in an even greater, systemic impact.

* The Early Care and Education Funders Collaborative currently includes: The Boeing Company, Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation, Fight for Children, The J. Willard and Alice S. Marriott Foundation, Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation, PNC Foundation, Richard E. and Nancy P. Marriott Foundation, Washington Area Women’s Foundation, and Weissberg Foundation.

What Do You Look for in an Ideal Workplace?

Why-I-love-my-job-PhotoI’m sure everyone has their own perspective on what would constitute their ideal workplace, but for me, I have learned that I need to be wholly aligned with the vision and mission of the organization I work for; that I need to feel that the organization is contributing to “the greater good;” that I am happiest when I get along well with my colleagues and feel respected for my professional contribution; when I work in an environment that promotes a healthy work/life balance; and that I desire a workplace that values and supports professional development.

When I came to work at Washington Area Women’s Foundation three months ago, I had a pretty good feeling that those attributes wouldn’t be hard to find here. From my first interview it was easy to see that this is an office brimming with excitement; it doesn’t take long to realize that the people who work here do so because they’re seriously passionate about economically empowering the women and girls of our region. What I couldn’t have expected was how my list of ideal workplace attributes would be made to feel puny compared to the awesomeness of working at The Women’s Foundation. That may sound hyperbolic, but let me explain.

I have always been passionate about working with women, and coming from a business background, I see economic security as a huge component of a woman’s overall ability to thrive. The Women’s Foundation celebrated its 15th anniversary this year at our annual Leadership Luncheon, and I am so glad that I was able to be a part of it. Hearing about the incredible work of the foundation, listening to our speaker Sharon’s remarks on how the Foundation had impacted her and witnessing the incredible outpouring of support from our community – helping us blow past our $700,000 fundraising goal – reiterated to me how The Women’s Foundation is not just contributing to an abstract idea of “the greater good,” but is pushing for tangible and systematic change that will ultimately positively impact us all.

Valuing a workplace where I can get along with my coworkers and feel supported in my professional career, I was excited to see The Women’s Foundation’s commitment to this ideal when I witnessed a coworker express interest in additional responsibilities outside of her current job. The Foundation fostered that interest, committed to training her and ultimately celebrated her accomplishments by promoting her to a role that encompassed those new skills.

Seeing the progression of my coworker was so heartening, but I never could have imagined that the women I work with would not only guide and mentor me professionally, but they would also become champions of my personal successes. In my first three months with the Foundation, my (then) fiancé and I finalized the purchase of our first home and got married at the wedding of our dreams (yeah, it’s been a good year). I felt lucky that The Women’s Foundation was flexible in allowing me time off for all the little things that go into the home-buying process, along with pre-approving leave for my wedding and honeymoon. But I was blown away when I came back from closing on our condo to an office-wide celebration. All of my co-workers, who had known me less than a month at this point, said they wanted to celebrate this life milestone with me and promote our asset-building act of purchasing a home. I couldn’t believe it! That set the precedent, but somehow I was still unprepared for their incredible generosity this past week when I got married. My wonderful coworkers threw me a surprise wedding celebration, sneakily invited my husband, and showered us both with their love and well-wishes for our new life together. I am still reeling! I have never worked in an environment that so celebrated and promoted their employees in every aspect, and I feel incredibly blessed.

It might seem strange to wax so poetically about one’s place of employment – especially on said place of employment’s blog – but the reason I wanted to share this today is because this is the type of job The Women’s Foundation believes every woman should hold, and every single day we work to make that a reality. The Foundation’s clamor for paid sick leave, flexible schedules, better working conditions and jobs that pay a living wage; the push for pathways to career advancement through professional development; and the commitment of everyone at The Foundation to philanthropy, sharing kindness and celebrating personal successes –  this work we do at the Foundation is a natural outpouring because all of this is so engrained in our own organizational culture. I’m lucky to work here, but I hope that because I do, every woman in our region will have the ability to write a blog post exactly like this.

If this sounds like the type of place you’d like to work, check out our job openings page to find out how you can join our team! 

Sharon Williams Luncheon Remarks

Sharon-SpeakingOn October 23, Sharon Williams spoke at The Women’s Foundation’s 2013 Leadership Luncheon. The following are her remarks. After speaking, Sharon received a Visionary Award for her commitment to improving the lives of women and their families. Please click here to learn more about the Visionary Awards and click here to see a video featuring Sharon and her story.

Good afternoon everyone- It is kind of strange seeing myself up there on the big screen.  As I listen to myself talk – it really does remind me of how much my life has changed. You saw a little of my story in the video, and I’d like to share a bit more with you now.

Upwards of 10 years ago, my life was very different. I spent a lot time asking God, “Why me?”

I was in high school – 10th grade to be exact when I had my first child. I’m not sure if I was afraid – but I can tell you that I was more determined than ever to be and make a difference for my child. Part of that difference was getting married – which I did at 17.  By the time I was 21 years old, I had two children, my own successful daycare business, three vehicles and I purchased my first home – with a white picket fence. I decided that having a daycare was the best thing because I wanted to spend time with my children and everything that I did was for them.

That all sounds nice, but my personal situation was not good, but as I look back on it now I still feel like I made the right decisions especially with the cards that I had been dealt.

And then – life happened.   I got divorced. I closed my business – moved out of my home into an apartment– shared custody of my children and I felt cheated. I began to ask God, “Why me? I’ve done my best – I’ve tried so hard to be a better person and now look!”

I was getting frustrated with life itself and something within me stirred up like a fire and once again – I wanted to make this situation better for my children.

I began taking classes at Prince George’s Community College.   I learned about the Next Step Training and Education Program and I wanted to try it out.

This was one of the best decisions that I could have made.  The Next Step program not only assisted me with tuition but I was also given additional supportive services and tools to aid in my future success.  One of the most rewarding on the most rewarding gift that I took away from the program is a lifelong mentor in Cecelia Knox, the program’s director.

Once I was accepted into the nursing program I was ecstatic!  You would have thought that I hit the Powerball ten times over – and I don’t even play the lottery!

I want you to understand how huge it was for me to go back to school. College was never a goal for me. So you can imagine how shocked I was not only to be back in school… not only to be passing all of my classes… but getting a 4.0 GPA!

I must say to you all – and especially Cecelia – I am so grateful that the Next Step program was in place to assist me when life happened. What do I mean by “life happening?” What I mean is this: When circumstances place you in situations beyond your immediate control. No two situations are the same, and I know everyone in this room can relate to that.

Next Step put me back in control. You see life wasn’t just happening to me but it was I that decided what life would be.

For me, that meant becoming a registered nurse at MedStar Southern Maryland Hospital Center. It meant an opportunity to provide my children with more stability and security.  It meant taking advantage of opportunities to travel the world – and I have.

I received a full scholarship to Notre Dame of MD University to complete my Bachelor’s Degree.  I traveled to Australia and South Africa – learning about their health care systems and volunteering with TB clinics and HIV orphanages.  I visited Nelson Mandela’s prison cell – I walked in his garden – I strolled in the limestone quarry – just like he did.

But what made a most lasting effect on me was my visit to a nursing home – because that’s where I met Mrs. Christian.  She was a proud elderly South African woman who grew up in the brutality of apartheid.

I sat at her feet as she told our group about seeing the horrors of families being ripped apart and how she stood on the front line with the activists in fight to end to apartheid. Although her comments were towards the group as a whole – she looked into my eyes as she spoke – and I found myself once again asking God, “Why me?”

“I have fought for you to be free,” she said. “And you are under obligation to take advantage of the education available to you and use it to better yourself, your family and your community!”

And she told me – me – that she was proud of me and in that moment my priorities in life changed and my thinking changed and I made a conscious effort to see greatness in others.

I began to believe within myself that if given the opportunity – people living in less than ideal conditions and having less than ideal situations could and would do great things – and  honestly my friends – that is the belief that NSTEP had in me.

As a Registered Nurse I have helped a lot of people old and young alike and I have found babies to be the most interesting species of them all.

Some of them come out kicking and screaming and ready to run for the world and others are born not so active.  They need extra attention – maybe some oxygen and a sternal rub in order to get them to breathe – to get their arms flailing and their legs kicking so they too can be ready to run for the world.

It’s that way for adults sometimes too –  Some are fortunate enough to have had a background and upbringing that allowed them to take off running – while Others need that sternal rub so to speak to help us breath again and give us the strength to stand up and take off for the world as it were –  And when we do – it’s a beautiful thing.

It’s been about two years now since my trip to South Africa and I have worked hard to help others. I know that I have encouraged and inspired others to go back to school.   I often have the privilege of returning to Prince George’s Community College to speaking with women in orientation for the Next Step program and I listen to their stories – I listen to their hopes and dreams without judgment – because I remember being in their seat.

Today, I work roughly 10 miles from where I grew up. Knowing my history – knowing where I come from and where I am now has caused me to ask at times:  Am I one in a million? A needle in a haystack – No.   There are many success stories emerging from the streets of S.E. Washington, DC just like mine.  How? Because we have been given an opportunity and found someone to believe in us more than we believed in ourselves and for me – that was Cecelia Knox and Ms. Myrtle Christian.

Today, my conversations with God are very different. I say a humbled thank you for my 22-year-old son who is my pride and joy – for my 20-year-old daughter who completed high school at 15 years old and is now is studying to become a child psychologist… and for my 11-year-old daughter who is smart and so talented and plays the violin exceptionally well!

Today, I say thank you to God for the courage to keep my head up despite adversity and for allowing me to become an example for those who have the potential to succeed although they may not even realize it – yet.

I’m thankful for the opportunity to be with you fine people today and have you hear my story.  I am grateful that The Women’s Foundation invests in places like Prince George’s Community College – a place that has assisted me in my present and future successes – and hopefully I have been able to show you that what appears to be impossible is possible.

Today, I place you all under obligation to take advantage of what is before you and join me in making our community better than it was yesterday.

Thank you.

VIDEO: Families are Transformed When We Stand With Women

We are so excited to announce the release of our new video from Stone Soup Films!  With your help, we are using strategic investments to create economic security for women and girls in the Washington region.

Great change is possible – when we make smart investments in our community.  Please share this inspiring new video with your networks!

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Turning 15: Celebrating Our Supporters

What do you remember about turning 15? What I remember most about that incredible year was learning to drive. Getting a learner’s permit and being able to hit the road (with a licensed adult) was my first really big step toward independence and, if my mother’s terrified face over in the passenger’s seat was any indication, I was starting out enthusiastically but needed a little guidance. Her hand on the wheel helped steer me away from the mailboxes and signs that lined Roswell Road. Her slightly strained voice reminded me that I needed to switch lanes after checking my blind spot (and turning just my head, not the whole minivan). She taught me how to read a map to make sure that I was going in the right direction. Eventually, she kept her hands off the wheel and trusted me to change lanes without saying “car! Car! CAR!” to me with increasing urgency.

In January we announced that Washington Area Women’s Foundation turns 15 this year. Our anniversary comes on the heels of some big transformations (strategic planning, a new mission, and a new logo) and right in the middle of a growth spurt (the Campaign to Prosperity). Since 1998, there have been several donors whose guidance, generosity and support have helped the Foundation grow into the catalyst for change it is today.

Marion Ballard began making donations to The Women’s Foundation even before the organization was incorporated. She holds the record for longest consecutive giving history (17 years!). Anne Morrison, Anne Mosle and Jim Whitney have been giving for 16 years each. And Nancy Folger has been giving for 15 years. Donors who have supported the Foundation consecutively for the past 13-14 years are: Maya Ajmera, Coralie Bryant, Susan L. Butler, Donna Callejon, Lisa Claudy Fleischman, Julia Horman and Marjorie Pray.

More than a decade ago, these donors made a commitment to a small organization with a big goal: to transform our community by investing in women and girls. That commitment has been reflected in their continued philanthropy, but it goes beyond that. They have helped us grow by enthusiastically sharing our work with others – in fact, many of you probably heard about The Women’s Foundation through one of them. They have helped us map out our future. They trust the staff of experts at the Foundation to make changes when the environment and community call for them. And they remain well-informed and connected throughout the region, helping us keep an eye on the blind spots.

Thank you to the donors who got on the road with us 15 years ago and to those who have joined the ride since.

Want to share a memory about one of our early donors? Leave a comment below or email us at communications@wawf.org.

Celebrating All of Our Naana's on International Women's Day

JB_GrandmotherI was born and raised in Ghana in a society where, traditionally, a woman’s role in the community was limited to motherhood. Only a few had the audacity to transcend social expectations and affect the lives of other women around them. My grandmother was one of them.

I saw my grandmother lead and inspire. I saw a great teacher who devoted her life to transforming the lives of young women in her community. As the leader of the women’s group at her local church, Naana, as everyone affectionately called her, became the mother many people wished they had. She counseled women of all ages with various life issues – some coming from low-income households, single-mothers, and teenage mothers. For them, she offered hope. As a young girl, I could hardly understand what she talked about, but I grew up with a constant reminder of the smile that wiped the tears off the women’s cheeks and carefully tucked it onto my memory.

My grandmother took care of her family and worked as a volunteer pastor. And though she had no formal training, most people considered her a teacher and a counselor. I became convinced that hers was the most important profession; no matter how informal the setting, she was still very effective. My grandmother’s counseling sessions did not end in her makeshift office at the church premises. Women in our neighborhood sat next to her for hours in my family’s living room. She prayed with those who needed prayer, she shared her Christian faith and offered hope. Some women needed to learn vocations like cooking, sewing and handmade crafts. My Naana taught them all of that and so much more.

As a young girl, nothing made a bigger impression on me than my grandmother’s ability to connect with other women from different ethnic and tribal backgrounds, social and academic statuses, and with religious differences. When I was old enough to understand the wisdom in her words, I found out how the best teaching moments are in sharing one’s life lessons and the wisdom gained from those experiences. Also, Naana not only shared lessons learned, through her connections she helped some of the women gain apprenticeships and work with local traders who found their skills very valuable, thereby helping them gain economic security. For them, this teacher didn’t only impart knowledge to them; Naana had given them a lifelong desire for hard work and dignity. Most importantly, she had given them hope.

Since joining Washington Area Women’s Foundation, I’ve learned that there are many Naanas right here in our community. They teach every day. They inspire in every moment. They challenge us all to commit ourselves to our vocations – any vocation – and give it our best effort. They give us the audacity to believe in our own futures, and to contribute to the community around us. They validate the Ghanaian proverb, “Obi nnim a, obi kyere,” which means: “If one does not know, another man teaches him.”

My grandmother’s work and impact were all the more impressive because she was redefining her role in our community and getting other women to think about theirs, too. My mother, for instance, opened her own business, a story that I shared last year on International Women’s Day. And as it turns out, Naana was ahead of her time. Now, when I go back to visit Ghana, I’m amazed by all of the progress. The women I grew up with are lawyers and engineers in addition to having families – or choosing not to. We are Naana’s legacy; the result of her investments in our community.

Mother Teresa once shared her thoughts about seemingly insignificant actions: “We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.” My Naana understood her value even as a “drop”. The Women’s Foundation celebrates the value of women like my grandmother Naana. We celebrate the commitment that women all over the world make to positively impact someone else’s life in spite of their own challenges.

Julliet Boye is the development associate at The Women’s Foundation.

Where Are the Black Women During Black History Month?

Ida b. Wells February was always one of my favorite months growing up. Being the shortest month of the school year definitely helped, but serving as the host of some of the best holidays of the year mainly sealed the deal for me.  I recall the joy of exchanging candy and cards for Valentine’s Day and the pride I felt learning about my history while celebrating Black History Month. The month of February provided me with an opportunity to showcase my knowledge of African-American trailblazers and learn more about ones I was unfamiliar with. My love for Black History Month grew because it gave me a chance to learn about people that actually looked like me. It wasn’t until about the fourth grade that I realized that almost all of the black people I learned about during my black history lessons were men.

Conflicted by my new discovery I asked my mother, “Why do we learn about the same people during Black History Month every year?” My mother, a teacher by profession, simply replied, “Well whose fault is that?” She took that moment to share with me that it was my responsibility to find what was missing in my history books. So that evening in our local public library, we embarked on a journey navigating through the halls of African-American history that featured countless influential African-Americans who aren’t celebrated on a consistent basis. This journey through black history challenged me to learn more about notable young and female African-Americans who impacted our rich history. After reading about how Ida B. Wells-Barnett refused to give up her seat on a train and consequently sued the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad Company, I was hooked. As an Ohio native, I had previous knowledge of the railroad company and was fascinated that a black woman in the 1800s was courageous enough to sue for discrimination. Although Wells-Barnett initially won her case in local circuit courts, the railroad company appealed and the Tennessee Supreme Court reversed the ruling. Rather than being discouraged, she used that experience as a catalyst to begin a career in journalism. As soon as I read about her, I found my new role model.

Luckily, I had great women in my life and a newly found hero, but too many girls today aren’t as fortunate. Young women shouldn’t have to wait until Black History Month to learn about a woman that they can aspire to be one day. It is imperative that women of color invest in young girls through volunteering and mentoring to ensure the success of our younger generation. Use this Black History Month to begin or continue “paying it forward.” Our girls are counting on you.

Top Blog Posts of 2012

An election, volunteering, a new logo, historic events, and opportunities to learn more about the needs and lives of women in our community. 2012 was a very busy year at Washington Area Women’s Foundation and much of it was captured on our blog. Here are our favorite blog posts of the year:

# 10: A Lot Left Unsaid at Presidential Debate Donna Wiedeman, executive assistant to the president of the Foundation, took the presidential candidates to task after the second debate when they failed to talk about Americans living in poverty and safety nets for low-income women and children.

#9: A New Look for The Women’s Foundation In this post, Foundation President Nicky Goren shared her excitement about unveiling our new logo and tagline, “Stand Together. So She Can Stand on Her Own.”

#8: The Women’s Foundation Supporters Volunteer on the MLK Day of Service Nearly 100 volunteers joined us as we helped A Wider Circle (a Foundation Grantee Partner) prepare donated items for families in poverty on the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service.

#7: International Women’s Day – Celebrating the Impact of Women on the World Our Development Associate, Juliet Boye, shared how her mother’s entrepreneurial spirit in Ghana inspires Juliet’s work at the Foundation.

#6: Low-Income Women & Their Families Can’t Afford a Gender Wage Gap In this post, Nicky shared why working to “close the gender wage gap is part of ensuring that every woman and girl has the opportunity to reach her full potential and help her family and community thrive.”

#5: Food Stamp Challenge Foundation staff and other community members took part in the Food Stamp Challenge, spending a week learning how difficult it is to live on a food stamp budget – $30 per week. They reflected on the challenge in a series of blog posts.

#4: Closing the Achievement Gap for Students Begins Before Kindergarten After being extremely disappointed to learn about new educational goals for students based on race, I wrote to encourage educators to work on closing the achievement gap early on, so students and school districts won’t have to play catch-up later on.

#3: When the Clock is Ticking, Support Networks Become Lifelines for Working Parents Vice President Jennifer Lockwood-Shabat wrote about support networks that make all the difference to moms trying to juggle work and family.

#2: Witness to Olympic History Nicky recalled fulfilling her lifelong dream of attending the Olympics and how exciting it was to witness women’s history at the 2012 Olympics in London.

#1: Walk in Their Shoes How does safe, reliable transportation impact low-income women and their families? Walk in the shoes of a single mom who showed us her shockingly long commute in this short video.

Service Innovations Summit: Global Lessons on the Role of Nonprofits & Volunteerism

Nicky SpainAcross the globe, there’s growing recognition of the value of nonprofits and volunteers joining with corporations and governments to solve social issues.  Last month, I was honored to participate in a conversation about the most effective ways those sectors can come together at the inaugural Service Innovations Summit in Madrid. The international summit was co-hosted by the U.S. Ambassador to Spain, Alan Solomont, the Rafael del Pino Foundation in Madrid, and the Meridian Center in Washington.  The summit brought together the corporate sector, foundations, and NGO’s from Spain, a handful of other European countries, as well as the US to share information and best practices related to volunteering, corporate social responsibility, and public-private partnerships.  Being in Madrid added a sense of urgency to the summit: in Spain, one-in-four people is unemployed (one-in-two people under the age of 25 is unemployed) and in the middle of the conference there was a one-day negotiated general strike across the country to protest recent labor law changes that made it less costly to hire and fire workers.

I was invited to the summit to share some of my experiences and perspectives of service and volunteering from my years at the Corporation for National and Community Service, as well as great examples of some of The Women’s Foundation’s grantee partners, like A Wider Circle, who engage all levels of volunteers as part of their business models.  And I was able to connect with some of the nonprofits in Spain that provide important services to women and girls during these times of increasing need.

It was interesting to learn that Spain’s history and social and cultural norms have resulted in the government playing a significant role in funding for and solving social issues and, in many cases, limited the ability of NGOs and individuals to step in when there is a void.  As a fairly new democracy, the idea of voluntary “citizen service” is also relatively new and many participants in the summit were excited about the idea of spurring innovation and creative solutions to the challenges Spain is facing.  It is also worth noting how powerful a force family is in Spain – that one’s family is the major source of support, comfort, and sustenance when needed.

As enamored as I was with the city of Madrid, its history, art, culture, fashion, architecture, and food (funny how quickly I adapted to dinner at 10 pm!), I was even more enamored by the sense of optimism of the people I met – people who are determined to address the difficult economy the country is facing with renewed focus on the power and potential of nonprofits, foundations, corporations, volunteers, philanthropy, and the government collaborating in new ways and learning from each other – both within Spain and across the world.  As so many countries struggle to recover from economic downturns, it will be more important than ever for us to have gatherings like the Service Innovations Summit that facilitate the sharing of ideas and resources to ensure that all sectors are working as effectively as possible.

Nicky Goren is president of Washington Area Women’s Foundation.