Women and Philanthropy Forum Highlights Giving, Community Involvement

Alumna and Duke Ellington School Co-founder Peggy Cooper Cafritz emphasizes local programs.

Peggy Cooper Cafritz
Peggy Cooper Cafritz provided keynote remarks at the Women and Philanthropy Forum.
May 12, 2014

By James Irwin

As she developed a plan for a summer program that would one day become the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, Peggy Cooper Cafritz wanted to emphasize three criteria.

“We wanted the school to serve the least among us, and we wanted economic integration,” she said of the program she created while she was a student at the George Washington University. “And we wanted to do that here, at home.”

Ms. Cafritz, B.A. ’68, J.D. ’71, spoke of both the social and geographic emphasis behind the founding of the Ellington School on Wednesday at the GW Women and Philanthropy Forum, hosted by the Division of Development and Alumni Relations. The sixth annual event featured panelists and speakers from a variety of industries who discussed efforts and strategies to provide more opportunities for female leadership in philanthropy.

“Today’s forum is one of the number of things we’ve been doing to put the development of women’s leadership at the forefront of our institution,” said President Steven Knapp, who cited the GW Global Women’s Institute and the university’s On the Board program (which prepares female executives to serve on corporate boards) as avenues for such leadership.

Pooling resources in the local community bubbled to the top of conversation throughout the day.

“We, as women, need to make alliances with one another, and we need to pay attention to what’s going on around us,” Ms. Cafritz said. “I know women who are wealthy who say they are no longer giving to programs in D.C.; they are giving all their money to Guatemala. I think that’s a cop-out. We have so many Relishas here; we have so many Relishas who could wind up at Ellington. And as we pool our money and we put it to work for the Relishas of the world, I think we will be building people.”

Philanthropic Philosophy

All the causes, funds and challenges in the world can make philanthropy overwhelming. Women and Philanthropy Forum panelists weighed in on how to build a strategy:

Heather Nesle, B.A. ’97, M.T.A. ’99
GW had a profound impact on me. I was lucky enough to have a scholarship here, so the minute I arrived on campus I was aware of the generosity of other people. As your life changes, you become personally passionate about certain causes and life events that determine where you give your time and money. We’re all building a legacy one piece at a time.

Annemargaret Connolly, J.D. ’88
I always thought you had to give a lot of money, and I’ve realized that every little dollar counts. Make a budget. It can be the equivalent of giving up a cup of coffee a week and turning the saved money into a donation. Sometimes you can only write a smaller check. In that case, I say, “I can only give a little, but I can make some calls, too.” So you call your friends. The worst they can say is “no.”

Diane Lebson, B.A. ’92
Philanthropy can also come in the form of offering your expertise. Boards and organizations are looking for particular skills, and they can be expensive to acquire. Your expertise in a particular field can sometimes be of the most value.

Venessa M. Perry, M.P.H. ’99
Recognizing that college was expensive is what compelled me to be involved philanthropically and be involved with the Office of Alumni Relations, the [Milken Institute] School of Public Health and the GW Alumni Association. I can give back to the university and develop relationships with other alumni who can give back to the university. They can endow scholarships like I have or support endeavors that will enable students to engage at GW.

Ms. Cafritz, who grew up in a Catholic household in Alabama and attended GW during the civil rights movement, is an Emmy and Peabody award-winning documentarian and a former president of the District of Columbia Board of Education. She addressed several topics during her 35-minute speech, including lying to her parents so she could attend GW—“I told them I had been rejected from Catholic and Georgetown”—and organizing a protest of the then-segregated Greek community on the third day of her freshman year.

“The dean of women and the dean of men spent a great deal of their time dealing with sororities and fraternities,” she said. “Our parents were paying full tuition, why should our tuition subsidize the people who are spending all this time dealing with groups and organizations we couldn’t get into?”

The foundation of the Ellington School began with a summer program at GW, created by Ms. Cafritz and Mike Malone in 1968 and approved by then-President Lloyd Elliott. But the idea for it, Ms. Cafritz said, was born out of a desire to change the community for the better. That, she emphasized, is where philanthropic efforts often start.

“We thought the kids without money would vest the kids who were more affluent with empathy,” Ms. Cafritz said. “And we thought the kids who were more affluent would vest the kids without money with aspiration.”

Passion also fuels the philanthropy of Marisa Ranieri, B.A. ’12, an Elliott School of International Affairs graduate and founder of the Nyota Fund. Her program provides full academic support to 50 secondary school students in Tanzania’s Ngara District.

Ms. Ranieri, who grew up in Southeast Asia and whose parents incorporated giving into her day-to-day life at a young age, said she became overwhelmed in her late teens, wanting to give to every cause that mattered to her. She started shaping her personal definition for philanthropy while at GW.

“The university really pushed you to decide what mattered most to you,” she said. “After a while, I realized being a leader and being a philanthropist are almost synonymous. A philanthropist is someone who has something to offer—to help ensure the aspirations, dreams and wishes of others are able to come to fruition.”

Join these philanthropists in improving the lives of GW students and faculty by making a gift to the university today. View images from the forum.