Relief in a Pandemic
Why do we avoid talking about money? It’s often a taboo subject. How would you feel if we chatted and I asked: “How much do you make? What are you invested in? How much do you save for retirement? Are you in debt?” It seems to be particularly difficult for women, perhaps in part because (over generations) they haven’t had access to and did not create this debt based monetary system, but that’s a story for another time (and something I started writing about here). Over the last ten years, I’ve been working with a leading economist and a top business leader to make business more conscious, but in the last year, my perception on money completely shifted. Thank goodness, because all of that preparation helped me use philanthropy for good, rather than as a bandaid solution, during the time of COVID.
In September of this year, while speaking at the Women and Money convening in Austin, TX, I met Dr. Stephanie Gripne, Founder and Executive Director of the Impact Finance Center. She is a mind-blowingly brilliant human put on the earth to do good. Do you ever have one of those moments where you fall in love with someone almost purely because of the way their brain works? Steph takes so much of what I’ve heard talked about as innovative models and brings the people together to put it into practice. A few months after this connection, she invited me to join her in co-teaching a course at the Net Impact conference in Detroit. Together, we held a room that easily went to max capacity and invited other professionals to coach groups of MBA students through a process of shifting perspective on corporate giving.
Here’s what we learned: the traditional philanthropic model is good, but/AND it could be better. When we give away funds, Steph asks, what’s the return on the investment? An easy inclination would be to say, 0%. Well, ok, but let’s say you make a regular financial investment and get no return on the funds. What is the return on that one? 0%? So actually, a grant, Steph says, is a -100% donation. Believe me when I say, the room had rapt attention when she demonstrated. All of a sudden, our mindset on MONEY, not just philanthropy, can completely change.
Over the last ten years, I’ve been working with Eileen Fisher in her Foundation. I’ve run leadership programs, shared our practices and engaged in intrapreneurship — creatively working to solve a problem from within an existing system. During a recent League of Intrapreneurs conversation, Otto Scharmer (senior lecturer at MIT) described intrapreneurs as working FROM an organization rather than working FOR an organization. So true. Eileen has talked about Business as a Movement (probably for as long as I’ve known her). She’s always wanted business to solve a problem, believing that capitalism is not evil, it’s a system that can evolve. Money isn’t the problem; the way we use it can be. Together, we think of money as energy. It’s an expression of the flow of how we live and work together. Stay with me on this and follow the money.
March 2020. Just as we were thinking 2020 was about to be OUR YEAR — the year that would be so much better than 2019 — we saw our year take a nose dive. Retail was one of the first things to go. The Internet had already changed our way of life — department stores were already fading to online shopping; and recycled clothing, no longer a hipster fad, was getting prominent placement in the Wall St. Journal. I remember the moment my mother called me to tell me she had used (and loved) Thred Up. She used to be a loyal devotee of Lord & Taylor, meaning the tides were already shifting. We saw, within one week of COVID becoming a global pandemic, the economy slide into immense chaos.
Right around the same time, on March 27th, Otto Scharmer and I, with the outstanding Presencing Institute team, started the GAIA Journey, a 13,000 person movement of global changemakers. One of the first things we knew was that systems which were already not sustainable were hitting the wall. Here’s one of the things that Otto and I shared: “Everything we knew was not working in our societies is now collapsing… Everything we have gone through in our lives has prepared us for THIS moment.” We encouraged this community to ’stay with’ and breathe through this incredibly challenging time — staying open to what was about to come. Otto has done incredible work outlining the science of awareness based action and what it takes to move towards conscious capitalism, or what he called capitalism 4.0.
In the same moment, EILEEN FISHER Inc (EF) was facing a series of difficult choices. One of the more immediate things EF did was close all stores. Closing those doors was an incredibly difficult choice, but it was aligned with the values of the company and if any business is a values based business, it’s EF. So, the doors closed. The reality of keeping everyone safe from a health standpoint, as we all know so well, was a potential economic disaster. Over 700 employees had to be furloughed at that time. Eileen was generous enough to make sure everyone could keep their benefits but it was a tricky time, and continues to be, for her and for the country (world). Do we keep the economy going, or do we take care of our public health? It’s the core issue at the root of whether or not we send our kids to school too. It’s not the root of the whole idiocy behind people not wearing a mask, but it IS one of the root issues of RACISM too. Do we care about human life, or do we make as much money as possible, at all costs?
Often, we make a decision to stop caring. We say to ourselves, ‘well, I have to pick something — something has to be sacrificed.’ While sharing the story of how we started this employee relief fund in a webinar recently, I shared, it almost feels like the little kid thing to do — caring for the world — but in fact, it’s the most mature, adult act we can do: Care. Uncle Noel (or Dr. Noel Nannup) an Aboriginal Elder of the Noongar community in Western Australia, the oldest unbroken culture in our world, shares how important it is to care, he says, “we are the carers of everything.” The reality, in my view, is that somewhere along the line, we learned to compartmentalize and fragment things out. Perhaps it’s a protection mechanism — so that we don’t have to feel the pain of failure or the pain of the world. But, what if we stepped up to that pain, let ourselves fully feel it?
When EF faced this moment, a few of us immediately thought, ok, the Foundation was created for charitable purposes. If there’s ever a time that we need to be charitable, it’s now — how can we support the furloughed employees facing hardship. The immediate thought was to go to our old tools: let’s give a grant. Just as immediately, we saw how surface level this would be — we saw how little it would solve. We realized (in talking to Steph and the IFC team) that we needed to assess the need, quickly. So, we sent out a survey and with over 200 respondents within hours, we had results from which to extrapolate. It turns out that when you ask people what they need, they tell you.
For most, they knew they would be able to get back on their feet — that this was a setback of the moment. One of the biggest gaps was between their last paycheck and getting unemployment.
Here’s the thing, -100% money, a traditional grant, would not be able to cover the need. If we did even one of the highest grants we give, it would only cover 10–20 employees. What if we cared for everyone? What if we believed that business for good would come back? What if we believed that the employees would be able to get back on their feet? What if we believed in people and they believed in us?
After connecting with an old friend, Kim Jacobs of Community Capital New York, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, B Lab and others, we quickly realized that the model we were looking at was incredibly rare. It mostly doesn’t happen in the United States. Kim directed me to Spring Bank, a fellow B Corp and a CDFI, to talk through the options. It turned out that the stars were aligned, and Spring Bank was on board to help us. In fact, they had already been doing a well-loved employee loan program with an easy online application in partnership with Happy Mango. We could leverage Foundation dollars to guarantee a batch of low interest loans that could serve all employees if they needed it. The program also came with financial counseling for ALL employees, regardless if they took out a loan. Typically, a foundation can’t actually take on a program like this, but during a time of hardship, a private foundation can support employees in need. Setting the fund up this way also meant that we could still practice the art of grant making and continue supporting our non-profit partners. Eileen’s response to the idea, and the sign of her outstanding leadership was, “Antoinette, how quickly can we make this happen?” At every turn, she wanted to do what was right, and the absolute best she could for her employees.
At any point, any of us could’ve thrown in the towel and said, well, we can only do so much. We could have said, there’s not enough precedent to do this — if we help ten people, it will be enough. At every turn, EF Inc leadership said, what’s the most good we can do for the most people. At every turn, Eileen was ready to invest in people. At every turn, even in moments of extreme self doubt (that I wasn’t qualified enough, didn’t have enough time, didn’t know enough about money), or in the moments of looking through the need in the survey responses and feeling a sense of immense overwhelm, I asked myself (and my dear friend Katie Stubley, lead faculty of the Ecosystem Leadership Program of the Presencing Institute, and one of the leaders of the Social Impact Festival in Perth, asked me) well, what if I could care for everyone here? What would that look like?
It’s not going to be perfect but it’s going to be a step in the right direction. So here’s what I keep telling myself…
Act in an instant.
Special thanks to Sheila Klatzky, Katie and John Stubley and Stephanie Gripne for reviewing this article prior to publication.