Money, Empathy, Power and the Women Who Drive Philanthropy — A Conversation with Red Cross of Illinois CEO Celena Roldan and William Blair Partner Laura Linger

What does the impact of women in the philanthropic space look like? For the panelists at the May 18 Founder’s Fireside Chat — hosted by Make It Better Media Group — it looks a lot like owning your power, thinking big picture and doing all that you can for what you’re passionate about. Those present at the panel, offering their lived experiences and insight, were Laura M. Linger, Partner at William Blair; Celena Roldan, CEO of American Red Cross of Illinois; and moderated by Susan B. Noyes, Founder and Chief Visionary Officer of Make It Better Media Group.

Women using their power, finances and voice for the sake of philanthropy was the headline of the virtual discussion, however, the conversation manifested into the nuances of what make women a force to be reckoned with in any given field, especially business. To begin, Linger shared statistics that support this. “Working women and business owners … they are charting their own path and that is so exciting because they have an annual earned income of over $13 trillion today, which is increasing in the next five years to $18 trillion. So, we see business ownership for women growing substantially from just 29% a few years ago to 38% today.”

FFC May 18 screenshot

The pathway to this skyward success is forged by steady commitment. For both Linger and Roldan, the seed for giving outside of themselves was planted early on and nurtured by their families’ respective philanthropic missions. Having had that mindset instilled early on made the choice to pursue a career in the same vein second nature. “I never knew anything different other than to find ways to contribute,” Linger said.

The American Red Cross is another commonality between the discussion’s participants, as all are members of the Red Cross’ Tiffany Circle — an international group of generous, hands-on women dedicated to the Red Cross’ various causes and the people they serve. With as many as 1,200 national members who bring in multi-million dollars in funding annually, Noyes noted “That’s the power of hearts and hands right there.”

Roldan, as CEO of American Red Cross Illinois, said that what spurs further investment in the issues donors care about, especially among women, is seeing the direct application of their funds. For instance, when a donor can track through the organization that their money is being funneled to directly support victims of natural disasters — or one of the Red Cross’ other four primary categories of service — they are emboldened to keep doing so. “The American Red Cross is able to show that 90 cents of every dollar goes toward our humanitarian services mission. So individuals really know that there is direct impact and that their dollars are going to be put to good use,” she said.

For those only beginning their philanthropic journey, a subsection of the work Linger does includes philanthropic advising. She relayed to the audience that anyone with the mindset “I’d like to get involved with philanthropy, but I don’t really know what to do?” should assess their values before going forward.

The assessment asks women to consider:

  1. What moves you or fills your heart? And where do you want to see change?
  2. What will you share? And when can you recognize enough is enough?
  3. What are your world of possibilities? And what exists beyond that?

Moreover, Linger said that what accompanies this journey is often the prospect of new-found partnerships and friendships. “Be prepared to be delighted in your new friendships. There is joy in partnering with other women and in sitting down with others,” she said. A common thread throughout the conversation then became the importance of having not only a community that can support you and share your vision, but one also willing to push you past what you already know in the pursuit of what is next. “Women need to build their teams around them so that they have those that embody similar values to them,” Linger continued.

Noyes posed to the panel how they might define impact and how that helps clients and fellow women navigate their chosen journey. Linger immediately made mention of William Blair’s Chairman, John Ettelson, who is quoted saying, “Investing in our communities yields the greatest return.” Furthermore, she reiterated the importance of having a strategic plan in mind and knowing your boundaries. Whether that is disruptive giving — such as donating a large sum that could support a single project — or offering only what you comfortably can.

“We don’t want to, under any circumstances, diminish any gift because every gift is so important. And if it’s only your time you can give — that’s how you start. And if it’s only a hundred dollars that you can give — that’s an impact,” the Willaim Blair partner said.

In agreement with that notion, the conversation came to a conclusion the way it began, as Noyes noted, bringing home the all-important idea of “ woman owning [their] power. You don’t need permission to do this. We all need to lean in and own our power even more so.”

Watch the full discussion below:


More from Better:


Margaret Smith is a Chicago-based writer and editor with a passion for socio-political storytelling about their community. They are a graduate of Columbia College Chicago.