The Power of Women

May 10, 2012

Nancy Brinker, CEO of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, delivers keynote at GW Women and Philanthropy Forum.

At the fourth annual GW Women and Philanthropy Forum, held Wednesday at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Washington, Susan G. Komen for the Cure founder and CEO Nancy Brinker delivered a keynote speech highlighting the ways that women can drive change and success in philanthropy.

The forum’s goal was to encourage “worldwide and lifelong engagement” with philanthropy, said Adrienne Rulnick, associate vice president of alumni relations and development.

George Washington President Steven Knapp thanked the forum speakers and guests for “exploring the critically important role women are playing in enhancement and preservation of human welfare through such active and visionary philanthropy.” He highlighted the university’s new Global Women’s Institute and its newly hired director Mary Ellsberg. The institute aims to enhance the roles of women and girls worldwide through research, teaching and engaged service in the areas of health, education, rights and security.

Diane Robinson Knapp introduced Ms. Brinker, who, in addition to her work with the Komen organization, served as U.S. ambassador to Hungary from 2001 to 2003, as well as U.S. chief of protocol from 2007 to 2009 under President Bush. She was also awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, by President Obama in 2009.

Ms. Brinker described her childhood in Peoria, Ill., growing up with her sister Suzy and a mother who strongly emphasized the girls’ responsibility to be involved in community service. Her first fundraising event was a neighborhood song-and-dance show she planned with her sister, in which 64 neighbors bought tickets to support local children diagnosed with polio.

She provided audience members with several pieces of advice she gained from her years as the CEO of one of the world’s largest charities. The first piece of advice, she said, was to learn on the job every single day. “The world is always changing, and it’s changing today more rapidly than ever before,” she said. The ability to learn and adapt quickly is essential.

It’s also vital that women in philanthropy truly understand the causes and issues they spend their time and money supporting, Ms. Brinker said. When she started speaking about breast cancer in the early 1980s, few women knew much about it and there was a strong sense of shame involved. Ms. Brinker spoke to every physician and scientist she met, as well as read everything she could find, to become well-versed on the topic. “I tried not to let other people do it for me, and you shouldn’t either,” she said.

Ms. Brinker also spoke about effectively responding to criticism, explaining that the most vocal and visible people—often those who lead successful organizations—are the most easily criticized. “Be open to criticism and don’t let it rattle or distract you,” she advised. “No one is served by getting bogged down in ideological conflicts, because it detracts from one’s mission.”

Women are effective fundraisers because of their strong networks, Ms. Brinker said. “Networking and being connectors is a powerful force that all of us know how to use extraordinarily well,” she said. These networks are what can transform philanthropy, and it is important to support and nurture the connections that lead to influence and change.

Finally, don’t fear mistakes, but learn from them and move forward, Ms. Brinker advised the audience. “Not all the research we’ve supported has been successful,” she said. “Some of these have led to dead ends. But we’ve been transparent about our failures as well as our successes, and we’ve learned to build trust, which allows us to keep pursuing groundbreaking efforts such as the world’s first breast cancer vaccine.”

Ms. Brinker closed her remarks by quoting American anthropologist Margaret Mead, who said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

“I hope, because of our talent, our work and our leadership, we are no longer a small group,” Ms. Brinker said. “And together we are changing the world.”

The forum also included a panel discussion with prominent female philanthropic leaders, including Cynthia Steele Vance, B.A.’79, a broadcast journalist and member of GW’s board of trustees; Madeleine Jacobs, B.S. ’68, executive director of the American Chemical Society; and Mahsa Pelosky, member of the boards of directors of several New York foundations. It also featured remarks from Nicky Goren, president and CEO of the Washington Area Women’s Foundation, and Sherri Rose, a 2005 GW graduate and winner of the GW Alumni Association’s 2011 Recent Alumni Achievement Award, about the need for the next generation of women to become involved in philanthropic advisory work.