Philanthropy Roundtable President and CEO Elise Westhoff recently delivered remarks at the State Policy Network annual meeting in Florida. She discussed her personal connection to philanthropy and offered ways for donors to work closely with those on the ground to empower individuals and strengthen communities. To be most effective in charitable giving and other efforts to improve lives, she emphasized the importance of engaging deeply with humility.
Full remarks as prepared for delivery:
I met my first high school crush at the bus stop. I remember stressing out about what to wear and feeling this sense of nervous anticipation every morning as I made that walk. Would he be there? Would he finally notice me? He never did.
Now I’d like you to take a moment and think about your neighborhood and your walk to the bus stop when you were a kid. What was it like? What did you pass by? How did you feel as you did that walk each morning?
Now imagine your walk is a little different. You get a pit in your stomach, not from anticipation, but from fear. On your walk you see gang members arguing. You see people shooting up heroin on the side of the road. You try not to think about the little boy down the street who was shot the day before just because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
That’s exactly what that walk was like for Trinity.
Trinity is a friend of mine. She is a promising young woman who was dealt a really difficult hand in life. And a few years ago, she was trapped in a failing public school. Her morning walk wasn’t filled with thoughts about boys. She was thinking about survival.
When she was 15, she got a lifeline and got into a private school for foster youth like her who were facing serious life challenges. I got connected with Trinity through my former role running a foundation. We were supporting her school.
During my time in the world of grant-making, I always felt like there was something missing when I just delivered a check. So I decided to put my money where my mouth is and signed up to become a mentor. I was lucky enough to be matched with Trinity.
Trinity didn’t just inspire me, she taught me.
I learned about the incredible hurdles that children in the foster care system face: overloaded and inexperienced case workers, a public school system that is ill-equipped to handle trauma, the unique needs of kids who are in many ways alone in the world.
And I also learned about resilience.
Trinity is smart and independent. She embodies strength and courage. And despite everything she went through, and it was a lot, Trinity maintains a warm heart and an incredible drive to succeed.
She played the hand she was dealt. And this summer, during the height of the pandemic, Trinity graduated from high school. She didn’t just graduate. She was valedictorian of her class.
Watching her accept her diploma was a truly special moment. As I was watching her up on stage, I realized Trinity changed my life. She taught me the key principle to making the world around us better: We improve lives when we engage deeply with humility.
All of the issues I thought I understood, Trinity brought them to life in a way that caused me to reflect genuinely and seek solutions with a much greater sense of purpose.
Policy work took on a whole new meaning for me. Because, the truth is, policy, just like philanthropy, is about how we help real people facing real struggles. And there are difficult tradeoffs.
How do we balance Trinity’s right to walk to the bus stop without fear and anxiety with the realities of an overburdened and broken criminal justice system? What happens to neighborhoods when drugs are decriminalized? How do these decisions affect the lives of young people in struggling communities?
These are complex questions that require thoughtful and nuanced policy solutions.
We are all here because we believe in the power of individuals and communities to solve problems. We are committed to freedom and innovation. We are focused on state and local solutions rather than one-size-fits-all mandates.
And whether we realize it or not, we are part of a broader movement to make our country stronger, more compassionate and more free. Whatever role each of us currently plays, we all have the opportunity to be a leader, to inspire and help the people around us, and to be inspired.
Leadership is a tremendous responsibility.
I realized that before meeting Trinity several years ago, I used to become so focused on the endgame or the grand vision that I would forget to stop and ask questions: Are we solving the right problems? What are we really striving to accomplish? Are our solutions really best?
If Trinity can have the courage to thrive under her circumstances, I can have the courage to ask tough and honest questions. That’s what courageous leaders do.
I know so many of the groups represented here today exhibit the same courage.
As a board member of the Commonwealth Foundation, who I am proud to share the stage with today, I saw this firsthand. Charles Mitchell and Jennifer and their team recognize the importance of creating pathways to opportunity for people from all walks of life. So they engaged deeply with the schools, the parents, the business leaders — and they became better advocates.
And they aren’t the only ones. The work you in this room have all done during this unprecedented year, over 200 policy wins, is so inspiring. You’ve been there for your communities when they needed you most.
I run an organization that helps donors who care about liberty to be more effective. I see the opportunity we all have to meet the challenges of this moment together.
We’re building a movement to make our society more free.
How do we do that? We’re often told that those who share our values need to tell our story better. Or that we need more resources to match the enormous amount flowing into progressive organizations that seek to undermine the free market and impose top-down solutions.
Those things are important. But even more important and fundamental is the willingness to engage deeply with humility while grounding ourselves in our time-tested principles.
We need to listen deeply.
When we do that, the stories follow. The resources flow. The policy wins multiply. And at the end of the day, we do what we are all here to do: empower individuals, make communities stronger and more free, and improve lives.
My challenge to you today is to remember where we started and why we came to this work. I’ve yet to meet anyone who shares our values who doesn’t want to make this country stronger and a more compassionate place.
I hope you leave this meeting and make a commitment to engage. Mentor someone. Volunteer. Build relationships with the people in your communities who benefit from the policies you advance.
This engagement pays dividends, not only in our success as a movement, but most importantly, in the lives of the people we love, support, and fight for every day. Our fellow Americans. People like Trinity.
Photo / video courtesy of State Policy Network