How One Backpack Could Change the World

This post was originally published in the Council on Foundations January 28, 2013  edition of Re:Philanthropy. In this version, I have included at the bottom a number of relevant links, upcoming events and other resources.


This year’s Council on Foundations Family Philanthropy Conference (January 26-29, Silicon Valley) is challenging those of us in family philanthropy to consider how systems thinking applies to our work.

At the opening plenary, David Peter Stroh of Bridgeway Partners defined a system as “an interconnected set of elements organized to achieve something.” In a philanthropic context, systems thinking involves rewiring our minds, organizations, and grantmaking practices to address both the obvious and less obvious aspects of the systems in which we and our grantees operate.

For example, consider the life of a young girl. She could live in the United States or another country. She could live in a rural or urban environment. Now consider all of the forces at play determining whether or not that young girl will grow into a happy, healthy, and productive adult.

Yesterday afternoon Victoria Dunning, vice president for programs at The Global Fund for Children, led a lively panel session, Investing in Girls and Women: Innovations and Opportunities for Impact,” about how systems thinking applies to investing in women and girls.

She took a school backpack, held it in front of her, and slowly unpacked the objects inside. The 10 objects symbolize things every girl should have in her life:

  1. A water bottle representing access to clean water and healthy living.
  2. A notebook representing education.
  3. A compass whistle representing mobility, survival, safety and her ability to map her life path.
  4. An identity card representing links to her name, her family, her culture, and available resources should she find herself as a refugee or asylum seeker.
  5. A book representing literacy and the chance to learn and dream about the wider world and other possible futures.
  6. A cell phone representing social networks, access to information, and banking.
  7. A purse representing financial literacy and paths to making a living.
  8. Clean underwear, menstrual pads, and tissues supporting her mobility and ability to be an active member of her community.
  9. A condom representing her ability to have control over her sexual life and choices.
  10.  A pocket copy of the Universal Declaration for Human Rights because every girl should know and practice her rights as a human being and active global citizen.

These 10 objects represent some of the forces at play in shaping the lives of young women. They also symbolize the many different ways we as grantmakers can consider investing in women and girls.

Imagine how different the world would look if every girl in the world—the United States included—had tangible access to the resources represented in this backpack.

Even if you don’t (yet) have an explicit investment strategy focused on women and girls, imagine how different the world would look if you took steps to bring an awareness of how your grantmaking—from environmental issues to health issues to economic development issues—directly and indirectly impacts the future for women and girls.

Systems are powerful; they are forged by deep forces. But they are also fragile; if one element is taken away, the whole system changes. The bad news about this paradoxical tension is that an ill-conceived philanthropic investment can bring on an avalanche of negative unintended consequences, sometimes costing livelihoods and lives. The good news is that family philanthropy, at its best and most conscious and informed by diverse perspectives, can also make big differences even with small, well-placed investments.

Here’s to continuing the conversation about the risks and opportunities of systems-level change over the next few days, and the upcoming decades.


“Investing in Women and Girls” Session Panelists: Karen Ashmore, Executive Director, Global Education Fund; Victoria Dunning, Vice President for Programs, The Global Fund for Children; Pamela Shifman, Director, Initiatives for Girls and Women, NoVo Foundation
Moderator(s): Katrin Wilde, Executive Director, Channel Foundation
Session Designer(s): Karen Ashmore, Executive Director, Global Education Fund; Victoria Dunning, Vice President for Programs, The Global Fund for Children; Caitlin Ho, Associate, Initiatives for Girls and Women, NoVo Foundation; Pamela Shifman, Director, Initiatives for Girls and Women, NoVo Foundation

Some organizations mentioned during the session:

  • Catapult: brand new crowdfunding site for girl-led initiatives
  • AwareGirls: young women led organization working for women empowerment, gender equality, and peace in Pakistan.
  • Kakenya’s Dream: a primary boarding school focused on serving the most vulnerable underprivileged Maasai girls
  • Media Concern Initiative for Women & Children (MediaCon) is a non-governmental organization working in the field of sexual violence prevention and response in Nigeria and Africa.
  • National Domestic Workers Alliance working to win the protection and recognition that this essential workforce deserves.

Resources and Events:

  • The UN’s Women’s Watch events calendar: especially the 57th meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women, United Nations Headquarters in New York from 4 to 15 March 2013. The two-week session will include a high-level round table, interactive dialogues and panels, and parallel events.
  • On February 14, this Valentine’s Day get involved with One Billion Rising to end violence against women
  • GrantCraft “Grantmaking with a Gender Lens” handbook (awesome free downloads online)
  • Polaris Project: hub for some of the best organizations working on human trafficking
  • ECPAT International: A global network of organizations and individuals working together for the elimination of child prostitution, child pornography and the trafficking of children
  • Mama Cash’s reports “Untapped Potential: European Foundation Funding for Women and Girls”  and “Funding for Inclusion” about global gender related philanthropic investing trends, and how to incorporate gender lens regardless of topline areas of interest
  • Global Fund for Women increasing resources and investment for women’s issues and organizations around the world
  • Apne Aap Women Worldwide: a grassroots movement to end sex trafficking
  • Bridgeway Partners: systemic change experts and advisors
  • And last but not least, our conveners, the Council on Foundations! They can connect council members with a number of peers working on various issues.


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