Real Talk With New Member Jennifer Risher
New member Jennifer Risher, author of We Need to Talk, tells us how she’s shaking up the conversation about wealth and philanthropy.
You have an interesting story about how you became wealthy. Can you share it with us?
I am lucky. For one, I was born into a white body, into a stable family, and had access to a good education. Then, in 1991, I had the opportunity to join Microsoft where I met my husband, David, and received stock worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Six years later, when David and I were married and expecting our first child, David took a job at a small, unknown start-up selling books on the internet – called Amazon.com. We were in our early thirties, the company went public, and we had more money than we could wrap our heads around.
You recently published your book We Need to Talk: A Memoir About Wealth, a book that took you 14 years to write. Why did you write it and what are you hoping it will accomplish?
Money makes life easier. I am very fortunate. But wealth surprised me. After growing up saving my pennies, wary of the rich, having a lot of money put my identity at stake. People looked at me differently. Wealth had an impact on my relationships with family members and friends as well. It felt isolating. There were other challenges too: How were we going to keep from spoiling our children? What was I going to do about a friend’s jealousy? It was painful to feel my parents disapproved of what we had and shocking to have friends ask us for $25,000. I had no idea how to think about charitable giving, either.
Even though eight out of ten people with wealth grew up middle-class or poor and are new to the experience of having a lot of money, no one talks about the emotional issues that arise. Money is a taboo subject. So, I wrote the book I wanted and needed to read – and hope my story helps the millions of Americans like me understand their own stories and realize they aren’t alone. I also wrote the book to get us talking.
This last year spotlighted the reality of racial and economic inequality. I should pay more taxes. The minimum wage needs to be higher. We need a stronger social safety net. We need to make reparations. So many policy changes are needed. But change is needed at a personal level, too. Our silence around money holds power. Not only does silence keep us from examining our relationship with money as individuals and families, staying quiet keeps existing systems in place. My goal is to move money out of the taboo category and help us have much-needed conversations as a way to connect, learn from each other, and shake up the status quo.
You’re a recent member of WDN, you joined in April 2021. What drew you to join the network?
In May of 2020, I heard WDN’s President and CEO Donna Hall speak, and loved WDN’s focus on economic and racial equality, environmental sustainability, and supporting women and BIPOC-lead movements and ideas. Since then, I’ve met several WDN members. I’m excited to be part of this group of progressive women, sharing ideas and discussing ways to challenge and change the world for the better. Communities of women can be so supportive and powerful. Together, we can also have more impact – and more fun.
In the world of philanthropy, you’re also well known for #HalfMyDAF. What’s the story behind this initiative?
In April of 2020, David and I were sitting in our backyard, sheltering in place, our hearts going out to nonprofits. Charitable organizations were working harder than ever and struggling for funding. We had already doubled down and accelerated our three-year gifts but wanted to do more. Meanwhile, we were highly aware of the $120 billion (now over $140 billion) stuck in donor-advised funds. Our conversation led us to the idea of using our money to inspire others to give more from DAFs.
We offered up $1 million in the form of matching grants to anyone who committed to spending down half of the money in their DAF. In just five months:
- Our $1 million moved a total of $8.6 million from DAFs to nonprofits;
- Over 150 DAF donors gave 900 grants to 750 nonprofits;
- And #HalfMyDAF matched 340 dollar-for-dollar grants up to $10K, with some up to $25K.
It was exciting to feel the sense of community, too. Donors told us, “This was the nudge I needed.” We also heard stories of families sitting around the dinner table having conversations about giving.
Now, in 2021, we are going bigger. Thanks to our partners, Kathy Kwan, Robin & Court Lorenzini, and Brighton Jones Wealth Management, we have $1.175 million to give to organizations supported by those who commit to halving their DAFs. Another big, “Thank you,” to our daughters, Zoe & Mia Risher, Stasia Obremskey & Dan Carroll, and Laura & Greg Spivy for an additional $2 million focused on supporting racial justice, climate & environment, education in underserved communities, and reproductive health.
On May 15th, 2021 #HalfMyDAF gave $1.3 million in matching grants to 220 nonprofits. On October 9th, 2021 we will be giving another $1.8 million.
You seem to be motivated to shake up systems and ways of thinking or doing things that may no longer serve us. We Need to Talk starts a conversation that many people are afraid to have about their wealth. #HalfMyDAF addresses the over $140 billion sitting, unused, in donor-advised funds across the country. What other aspects of philanthropy need to be shaken up?
My motivation for writing We Need to Talk and starting #HalfMyDAF grew out of my personal experience, not a desire to change systems. I believe the best way to shake up systems is to look within, tap into our deepest beliefs and struggles, then follow where our passions and desires lead us. The same is true of our approach to philanthropy. When we give to places and causes that resonate with our values, we are more likely to be engaged, get involved, and have a long-term impact.
At a structural level, philanthropy needs a major shakeup. Capitalism, racism, and philanthropy are so intertwined. To shake things up, donors must cede power and control. We also need to stop over-thinking, over-researching, and over-planning out of fear that the money won’t be put to good use or that we’ll get it wrong. I believe in trust-based giving. Leaders on the ground and from communities being served know best how to put resources to work. I also believe in taking action and giving now. A scarcity mindset is the enemy of philanthropy. We don’t need to worry about there being enough; there is plenty of wealth and more being created. What’s more, we can learn through the act of giving. And when we give today, we make a difference now that will have a positive effect tomorrow as well.
My current focus is on ceding power to Black, Indigenous, and people of color leaders and marginalized communities and putting my capital to work for the under-represented, under-resourced, and under-banked. I’m also focused on investing in Black women fund managers who have a gender and equality lens.
Where can readers keep up with your work?
You can learn more about my book, podcasts, press, and speaking events at www.jenniferrisher.com. You can also visit our #HalfMyDAF website. If you are a DAF holder, all you need to do is commit to spending down half of the money in your DAF by October 8th and start giving – to any organization (as long as it doesn’t support hate speech or gun violence). All the nonprofits you support will be eligible for dollar-for-dollar matches – most up to $10K, with two $50K and one $100K matches. If you run a nonprofit, let your DAF donors know about this opportunity for matching funds. You can find instructions for donors and nonprofits as well as a list of all the nonprofits being supported on our website. Please reach out to me with questions, ideas, or to share your work.