Five things you should know about Susan Benford
Collective giving is the philosophy behind The Philanthropy Connection, a group of Boston-area women who pool their money and use it to make grants to nonprofits that help “low-resource individuals and families.” To join, women over 35 contribute $1,110 annually, and those 35 or younger contribute $550.
Founded in 2012, the organization will make 10 grants of $25,000 this year, and estimates it will have donated more than $1 million by June 2018. Its president is Belmont resident Susan Benford, who last year succeeded cofounder Marla Felcher in that leadership role. Benford spoke about her philanthropic role models, charitable giving in the Trump era, and the career path she wishes she had taken.
1. Benford says a late uncle was her mentor when it came to charities. He was a pediatric ophthalmologist surgeon who spent a month each year volunteering for the Orbis Flying Eye Hospital, an aircraft that ferries volunteer eye doctors around the world to train medical professionals in other countries, with the goal of fighting blindness.
He was my father figure in life, and he often invited me on those trips, and he modeled for me what philanthropy could look like. When I grew up, I thought of philanthropy as something performed by rich white men, and one of the things that attracted me to The Philanthropy Connection was its definition of philanthropy as giving of time, talent, and money. That really opens up the world of philanthropy to so many more participants in so many different venues of life, instead of the old white men’s network.
2. Benford believes the role of philanthropy has changed since the election of Donald Trump, whose proposed tax reforms could reduce incentives for charitable giving. Trump’s crackdown on immigrants also threatens constituencies served by many nonprofits, and his pledge to cut government spending has caused federally funded groups to wonder if their budgets may be on the chopping block.
What we do is so much more important now because of the pending cuts that are going to come to so many nonprofits. Needless to say, organizations that work with immigrant and detainee populations are going to have their funding cut, and they’re going to need support from organizations like ours to keep the lights on and keep doing what they’re doing. Our work has never been more critical. And don’t even get me started on ranting about Trump.
3. The Philanthropy Connection prides itself on encouraging younger women to think philanthropically, no matter their income level. Benford says about 20 percent of the group’s 300 donors are under 35 years old, and many work full-time.
Some of these women are MBAs volunteering their financial skills or helping write grants or serving on strategic planning committees, so it’s a pretty high-level contribution of skills. Many of them work for nonprofits and give a lot of their time to help run The Philanthropy Connection by serving on our grants teams or marketing committee. Our members also get to interact with grantees, and often end up volunteering for grantees or serving on their boards. So it’s about forging relationships, not just writing checks.
4. In her professional life, Benford jokes, she has been “consistently unable to decide what I want to do.” After earning an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin, she was a financial analyst for Intel, and later worked in software sales. She has also dabbled in politics, lobbying, and fund-raising, but says her true love lies elsewhere.
If money had not been an object, I would have studied art, because I was considered artistic as a child. But I shied away from it because I was hellbent on showing that I could do anything a male could do, and that veered me into finance and marketing. Otherwise, I would have gone into painting or art history, because my soul is there.
5. To satisfy her artistic leanings, Benford created Masterpiece Cards, a set of art history flashcards offering tutorials on 250 of the most famous paintings from the Renaissance through the pop art era.
I think of it as the greatest hits in the painting world. My main markets are teachers and students of art history, and sometimes teachers use them in lieu of textbooks just because textbooks are so expensive. It’s a way for people who don’t have access to art museums or who can’t afford a $200 art history text to get an overview of art history. Another main market is people who travel, so they can get a quick introduction of what they’re going to see at the Louvre, for example. I had a blast doing it. It was like getting a master’s degree in art history, and it gave me an excuse to go to art museums, which I love doing.