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ON HELPING PEOPLE CONNECT TO THE BEAUTY AND BREADTH OF BLACK-LED ORGANIZATIONS: AN INTERVIEW WITH STEPHANIE ELLIS-SMITH

Our BlackHer Shero of the Week is Stephanie Ellis-Smith, CEO and Principal of Phila Engaged Giving. Ellis-Smith is a philanthropic advisor. She is also a co-founder of Give Blck, a marketplace to elevate Black organizations in the United States and advance racial equity in giving.

Stephanie, it’s great to finally meet you. What is a philanthropic advisor and how did you become one?

I have a unique job. I’m part life coach, part quasi-wealth advisor, part estate planner and social sector sherpa all rolled into one. As a philanthropic advisor, I work with high-net-worth individuals looking for ways to make their giving more meaningful and effective. 

Most people think that my main job is to recommend nonprofits to the wealthy. While it is true to a certain extent, it is only a small part of what I do. 

My main role is to help people find purpose in philanthropy, an endeavor that is an entirely voluntary exercise. I help folks figure out why they are engaging in giving in the first place and how they can do so with purpose and integrity. I also help folks look at all their assets – money, art, stocks, etc. – and determine how to put them to the best and highest use. At the end of the day, I’m a generalist who looks at life through the lens of philanthropy.

Becoming an advisor was something that evolved over time. At some point, I realized that I had been doing aspects of this work my entire career. Over the past 20+ years, I’ve worked as a foundation trustee, nonprofit leader, and board member. I also have some expertise in private equity and estates. I was helping families to think about and use their money in a way that is more thoughtful. 

How do you define success as a philanthropic advisor?

When I’m not needed anymore. I tell folks all the time that this is not brain surgery. No one dies if you make the wrong gift.  You just learn from it and try again.  

I also know that I’m successful when I’ve helped folks to get engaged in their giving and have trust in the process. I want to see more people get engaged in their community and leverage their “Four Ts” – time, talent, treasure, and testimony. 

You co-founded Give Blck with Christina Lewis, who is also a BlackHer Shero! Can you tell us a little about that?

Yes!  My co-founders, Christina Lewis, David Setiadi, and I, launched Give Blck in September 2020 to mobilize positive action for Black lives. Americans give $450B to charity each year but only a fraction of that goes to Black organizations.  We wanted to make it easier for anyone to connect with and give to Black organizations. Our goal is to raise dollars and awareness for Black nonprofits. Ultimately, we’d like to drive $1B to Black-led nonprofits over the next decade!

It’s a great platform and I love that you are addressing a common objection from white folks that they don’t know of or can’t find any Black-led nonprofits. 

Exactly. And we have so many great partners, including Charity Navigator. Anyone can go to Give Blck and make a donation to the organization of their choice.

One of the things that have been interesting to me is the breadth and beauty of Black-led organizations. There are Black organizations working in every sector – technology, the arts, education, civil rights, climate justice, and more. It reminds me of that quote by August Wilson, that speaks to the expansiveness of the Black experience. He refers to using African-Americans as a muse as, “The experiences of African Americans are as wide open as God’s closet.” 

These organizations represent everything that we are. 

In your philanthropic work, you’re also part of a movement to transform philanthropy from charity to justice. Can you tell us a little about that?

Philanthropy has traditionally approached giving as an act of charity, which to me is the equivalent of “trickle-down” economics. The idea was that, as a philanthropist, I could atone for all the nasty things I’d done to accumulate my wealth by patting you on the head and saying, “Sorry that I tore down your school.  Sorry that I polluted your neighborhood. Here’s a donation as recompense.”

Many folks in philanthropy recognize that givers and giving need to change. It’s like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Philanthropy is commendable but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic justice which make philanthropy necessary.” 

Amen.

But I want to be clear, I’m not talking to Black givers here. Black folks are generous.  We give a proportionately higher share of our income than any other demographic group. 

I’m talking about the very wealthy who haven’t had a connection to their communities or the society at large. I am urging folks to get connected, get engaged and in some cases actively work to repair the harm their wealth has created. 

And what better time than now?  If COVID-19 has taught us anything it’s that we really are all in this together. Sure, you may be in a bigger and sturdier boat but we are all adrift in the same stormy sea. 

Who are your BlackHer Sheroes?

In my industry, I really admire Erika Seth Davies. I know she is also one of your Sheroes. She’s leading great work to change the way money flows in our economy, especially by increasing diversity in finance and asset management.

I also really loved Cicely Tyson; she was so deeply determined to live her life on her own terms. 

But you know, my Shero is also the carefree Black woman, who is not a revolutionary or lighting the world on fire on the national stage, but is living her life to its fullest on her own terms. I admire women like this, who aren’t explicitly driven to be heroic or “magic”.

Is there anything else that you’d like to share that we haven’t talked about? 

Yes. We need to rest. There is so much going on and the pace is relentless.  Black women deserve deep restorative rest. 

Let me ask you the miracle question. You go to sleep tonight and wake up tomorrow and it’s April 2022 and a miracle has occurred for Black women. What happened?

Black women have space and grace to be all and everything that we need to be. We’re appreciated and heard and allowed to be our entire selves – not as magical beings, but as whole humans. 

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