Discussing Wealth, #HalfMyDAF, & the State of Philanthropy: Q&A with Jen Risher

Courtesy of Floriane Vita on Unsplash

Courtesy of Floriane Vita on Unsplash

Jen Risher is the author of We Need to Talk: A Memoir About Wealth, and co-founded the #HalfMyDAF initiative in response to the pandemic. In this blog, Jen shares her personal reflections on wealth, the impetus for starting #HalfMyDAF, and perspectives on the current state of philanthropy.

Can you please share your story of coming into wealth?

I am lucky. For one, I was born into a white body, into a stable family, and had access to a good education. Then, in 1991, I had the opportunity to join Microsoft where I met my husband, David, and received stock worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Six years later, when David and I were married and expecting our first child, David took a job at a small, unknown start-up selling books on the internet—called Amazon.com. We were in our early thirties, the company went public, and we had more money than we could wrap our heads around.

You recently published We Need to Talk: A Memoir About Wealth, which took you 14 years to write. Why did you write your book and what are you hoping it will accomplish?  

Money makes life easier. I am very fortunate. But wealth surprised me. After growing up saving my pennies, wary of the rich, having a lot of money put my identity at stake. People looked at me differently. Wealth had an impact on my relationships with family members and friends. It felt isolating. There were other challenges too: How do we make sure our children recognize and understand their privilege? What was I going to do about a friend’s jealousy? It was painful to feel my parents disapproved of what we had and shocking to have friends ask us for $25,000. I had no idea how to think about charitable giving, either.

Even though eight out of ten people with wealth grew up middle-class or poor and are new to the experience of having a lot of money, no one talks about the emotional issues that arise. Money is a taboo subject. I ended up writing the book I needed and wanted to read—and hope my story helps the millions of Americans like me understand their own stories and realize they aren’t alone. I also wrote the book to get us talking and collaborating.

Last year spotlighted the reality of racial and economic inequality. I should pay more taxes. The minimum wage needs to be higher. We need a stronger social safety net. We need to make reparations. So many policy changes are needed. But change is needed at a personal level, too. Our silence around money holds power. Not only does silence keep us from examining our relationship with money as individuals and families, staying quiet keeps existing systems in place. My goal is to move money out of the taboo category and help us have much-needed conversations, so that we can connect, learn from each other, and shake up the status quo.

Can you share the story behind your #HalfMyDAF initiative? 

In May 2020, my husband and I started the #HalfMyDAF challenge to raise awareness of the money sitting in donor-advised funds (DAFs) and to inspire more giving.

Last year, when sheltering in place, David and I were sitting in our backyard, our hearts going out to nonprofits. There was so much need and charitable organizations were working harder than ever yet struggling for funding. We had already doubled down and accelerated our three-year gifts but wanted to do more. Meanwhile, we were highly aware of the $120 billion (now over $140 billion) in DAFs that was not being deployed. Our conversation led us to the idea of using our money to create a sense of urgency and inspire others to give more from DAFs.

We offered up $1 million in the form of matching grants to anyone who committed to spending down half of the money sitting in their donor-advised fund. Last year, the #HalfMyDAF challenge moved $8.6 million from DAFs to nonprofits in just five months. This year, we’ve kept the challenge going and have moved a total of $13.7 million to date. Currently, we have $1.8 million to give away in matching funds on October 9th.

In addition to moving money, #HalfMyDAF has started conversations and built a sense of community. We’ve had donors tell us, “This was the nudge I needed,” and “I’m sitting around the dinner table with my adult children, talking about values and where we want to give.” Meanwhile, our whole family has gotten involved. As a couple, David and I worked together to create a website, talk to press, and hold webinars for nonprofits. And our younger daughter (22) who was home sheltering in place during college helped with data entry. This year, our older daughter (24) is corresponding with donors and nonprofits. Best of all, last Christmas, both daughters surprised us with the gift of adding their own money to the #HalfMyDAF challenge. Our oldest earmarked her money for matches for racial justice efforts and our youngest dedicated her money to climate and environment.

Please look at our website for an inspiring list of places people have been giving: www.halfmydaf.com

What word do you think best describes the current state of philanthropy?

Reckoning. Those of us with financial and social capital, who currently control most of the philanthropic dollars need to acknowledge that our desire for control doesn’t always serve us well in our efforts to help others. We need to trust more and give power to the leaders doing the work—especially leaders who have traditionally been under-resourced and under-represented. People on the ground and from the communities being served know best how to put capital to good use.

You seem to be motivated to shake up systems and ways of thinking. We Need to Talk starts a conversation that many people are afraid to have about their wealth. #HalfMyDAF addresses the over $140 billion sitting, unused, in donor-advised funds across the country. What other aspects of philanthropy need to be shaken up?

My motivation for writing We Need to Talk and starting #HalfMyDAF grew out of my personal experience, not a desire to change systems. The best way to disrupt systems is to look within and follow where our deepest beliefs and struggles lead us. The same is true of philanthropy. When we give to places and causes that are truly aligned with our values, we are more likely to be engaged, get involved, and have a long-term impact. There is also a lot of power in giving as a family and as part of a community.

A scarcity mindset is the enemy of philanthropy. We don’t need to worry about there being enough next year or next decade; there is plenty of wealth and more being created. We should be giving with greater urgency—now.

What is your call to action for the family philanthropy community?

The world’s problems aren’t getting smaller, yet billions of dollars are sitting in DAFs and foundations, waiting to be put to work. We could all learn from the work MacKenzie Scott has done this year. Her giving reflects the values we’d like to see across the sector; she’s made large, unrestricted, trust-based gifts. She is also giving with urgency, undercutting the notion that philanthropy requires mountains of due diligence and years of back-and-forth conversations. We hope others are inspired to follow her lead.

Jen Risher is the author of “We Need to Talk: A Memoir About Wealth”

The views and opinions expressed in individual blog posts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the National Center for Family Philanthropy.