Philanthropy in the City: Women Moving Millions Revolutionizes Fundraising

Women Moving Millions empowers women and girls by asking for unprecedented donations. By Nina Strochlic.

“Nobody’s ever asked me before,” the woman said, crying. “Of course I will.” She pledged to donate a million dollars.

Mission accomplished for Margot Franssen. About six years ago, Franssen became a founding member of a new breed of philanthropy that’s taking fundraising to an astronomical new high. Women Moving Millions (WMM) has a simple model: a network of powerful women agree to donate 1 million dollars, over the course of several years, to a charity or charities of their choice.

Intimidating as it sounds, the approach was an instant success and just a few years after its launch, the group has inspired $240 million in donations to various women-oriented organizations—soaring past their original goal of $150 million. Franssen stresses that wealthy women, like the one who cried when she was asked to donate, want to give, but don’t feel they have the connections or know-how to make it happen.

When Jacki Zehner was first approached to give a million dollars, her reaction wasn’t as positive. “My first answer was ‘No way, are you crazy?’” she remembers. Today, she’s the organization’s first CEO. On Thursday, for the United Nations’ first International Day of the Girl, WMM is pushing for more substantial donations to further the advancement of female empowerment.

In the United States, only 10 percent of charitable donations is slotted specifically for girls. In Europe the figure is closer to 5 percent. With those low statistics, it’s groups with a pinpointed purpose like WMM that could shake those figures up. Besides, it’s a win-win-win, Zehner says. “It’s helping the organizations who can count on continued support. It’s a win because it’s an invitation for people to be part of something truly bigger than themselves, and a chance to be part of history in the making.”

But it’s not just girls and women who will benefit from the pioneering approach of WMM. Zehner, who was also the youngest female ever to make partner at Goldman Sachs, imagines a new paradigm within the nonprofit world. She sees movements like WMM as a way to help reduce the millions doled out by charities on fundraising costs that could instead be allocated toward their on-the-ground work.

Working on a peer support model, WMM doesn’t make or give money—they pair up potential donors with potential gift recipients. “We don’t exist in a way other movements have existed before,” Zehner explains. “We have a completely new approach to supporting women and girls, which is what I love about us.” And it’s true—the group thrives off informal networking. The first question, “Will you donate a million dollars?” may be monumental, but the women have found it rakes in the results through a peer-to-peer level. “You’re really just sitting down [with other women] and saying come on do this. This is fun,” Franssen says.

Unwittingly, Zehner and Franssen use the same analogies to try to portray WMM’s unique power and the level of commitment involved. Both describe the transition between check writing and a multi-year involvement as the difference between dating and marriage. “It was a transformational moment because it just signified for me just how deeply committed I was to women and girls. Even though I’d been giving at that level,” Zehner says. “So at that moment I kind of got married to a few women’s foundations.”

They also say the unorthodox network feels more like a home than other charities. Franssen describes it: “You feel like, ‘Oh my God, I’ve just come home.’” She jokingly refers to it as “Philanthropy in the City”—a forum for women to discuss and learn about world issues, while throwing in the occasional shoe compliment.

Franssen—nicknamed a “trailblazer beyond trailblazer” by Zehner—was the founder of The Body Shop Canada, a job she says made her feel guilty for “selling women and girls things they don’t really need.” Franssen used her public platform for global campaigns because she realized it didn’t really affect sales one way or another. She plastered her hundred-plus stores in Canada with eye-opening messages about global issues, and ended up raising $1.3 million for violence prevention programs. After growing frustrated with the corporate world, Franssen picked WMM as her long-term project. Their method: “breakthrough philanthropy.”

The women know what they’re doing is more than a movement: it’s a lasting legacy that could redefine raising money. Zehner isn’t shy about her ambitions, and having already directed millions of dollars in gifts, not much could sound unreasonable coming from her. “I want to be, I wouldn’t say the world’s greatest fundraiser because that sounds cheesy, but one of the great enablers,” she says.