Run With The Baton: Ruth Ann Harnisch’s Mission Of Equity for Women and Girls
It was different then.
“I was a stubborn, angry girl who grew up in a world that was clearly not fair. The world kept telling me things were not true that I knew were,” says Ruth Ann Harnisch, founder and president of The Harnisch Foundation,
It is logical then, that after a career as a journalist and truth teller, Harnisch would turn to philanthropy and creating the Harnisch Foundation with her husband, Bill Harnisch, in 1998, with the mission “to create a fair, equitable and inclusive world.” The site states, “We support the work of effective leaders and creative communities working to advance equality and inclusivity, with a focus on women and girls.”
“There are times when children learn things that lead them to conclusions about who will tell them lies. If you cannot rely on anyone else, you must believe your eyes, ears and guts,” says Harnisch, who grew up in Buffalo, NY, where she started as a teen deejay at a local radio station.
“I clearly could see boys were not inherently better than girls. I wondered why do newspaper ads say ‘Help Wanted Male’ and ‘Help Wanted Female?’ And why do I have to change my name?”
Harnisch spent three decades in radio and Emmy-nominated TV in Nashville, becoming the first woman to anchor in the evening broadcast on WLAC-AM, also becoming a radio show host and working 17 years as a columnist for the Nashville Banner.
“I’m closer to 70 now,” says Harnisch, “and when I started hanging around radio stations at 15 in the Mad Men era, those were my years in broadcast when it was really difficult for women. White men covered everything, ran everything and did everything.”
She adds, “I am proud of my storytelling career in journalism. Now I can choose the stories in which to invest. And stories I believe need to be told.”
That foundation in her own career has led to underwriting StudioH, a new media lab started in 2008, with Harnisch providing annual scholarships aimed at empowering new voices in journalism at Baruch College. To date, 75 Harnisch Family Scholars have graduated from Baruch.
Harnisch also provided the founding funding in 2011 to the Center for Sustainable Journalism at Kennesaw State University. More recently, “We were the first to support the Chicken & Egg Pictures Diversity Fellows Initiative – and we still do. The program supports various non-fiction projects helmed by first or second-time women directors, and the participants (chosen from over hundreds of applicants!) will receive six months of mentorship,” according to the site. The initiative offers workshops and programming over the next year for a class of Fellows in documentary filmmaking.
After retiring from journalism, Harnisch chaired the board of More Than Money, a national nonprofit assisting top wealth-holders in “putting their money where their values are.” In 2000, More than Money gave its first $1 million grant, allowing them “to develop a public platform where the top 5 percent of wealthholders could connect and learn how to be better stewards of their affluence. The MTM founders also created the 50% League (now Bolder Giving) that inspired the Billionaires Giving Pledge,” according to the site.
In 2002, Harnisch joined the Women Donors Network, “a community of progressive women who multiply their energy, strategic savvy, and philanthropic dollars to build a more just and fair world, WDN addresses many of the HF’s focus areas,” according to the site. Harnisch recently joined the WDN Media Circle.
“The final frontier of feminism is finance,” says Harnisch. “Women have been relegated to the ‘he makes it, she spends it’ model.” She adds, “Investment for profit can be the best philanthropy because you are creating jobs. I invest in female-founded companies and I buy from female-founded companies wherever possible.”
“Between 2004 — the year the Center of Venture Research started tracking angel investors by gender — and 2017, the number of women angels has increased five fold. Of angels who started investing within the last two years, 30% are women, according to The American Angel, commissioned by the Angel Capital Association,” writes Geri Stangel, president of Ventureneer, in Forbes.
Harnisch has invested in Magdalene, a residential program for women who have survived prostitution, trafficking and addiction. “By establishing matching funds for Individual Development Accounts, women had the financial means to rebuild their lives. What began as a small organization in Nashville, became an international movement to empower survivors,” according to the site.
Bonnie Chiu writes in Forbes, “There are no official statistics as to the percentage of female philanthropists that give to the cause of women and girls, but anecdotal evidence suggests that they are more likely to sympathize with the gender cause. According to AidData as reported by UBS, funding received by causes related to gender equality, received only 2.6 percent of donations between 2000-2013. Recognizing that the cause of women and girls is underfunded, the 2007 creation of the Women Moving Millions initiative was seminal. Since 2007, Women Moving Millions has inspired over 290 members to pledge over $600 million to organizations and initiatives that commit to advancing women and girls around the world.”
A champion in leadership training and coaching for women and girls, Harnisch Foundation launched the program, Funny Girls, founded in 2015, (read more in Take The Lead on Funny Girls) as an effective way to reach girls and teach self-reliance.
“We gave a Funny Girls workshop at TED Women,” Harnisch says, as she is cofounder with Renee Freedman of SupporTED, a pro bono coaching initiative. SupporTED Collaboratorium is a free, four-day intensive where teams of coaches and other professionals offer their knowledge, talents, and ideas to TED Fellows.
“Whenever we talk about leadership skills for girls, adults say I wish I had that as a kid,” Harnisch says.
The value of leadership coaching is an important tenet to Harnisch, who is on the board of governors of International Association of Coaching. She also is co-founder of The Foundation of Coaching and The Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School. She is IAC Master Certified professional coach.
Coaching girls and women, Harnisch says, “is the best investment for the biggest results in terms of dollars.”
A longtime patron, Harnisch also funds grants to the Sundance Women Filmmakers Initiative and recently established a program of professional coaching for each of the female filmmakers selected for the SWFI program.
“You have to integrate leadership of self,” says Harnisch. “It’s hard to lead anyone else if you can’t control your own self, having standards and expectations for yourself so you can learn to count on yourself.”
Harnisch’s philanthropy qualified her for membership in Women Moving Millions, an organization of women (and a few good men) who have given one million dollars or more to the advancement of girls and women. She recently co-chaired WMM Film Circlealongside Jacki Zehner.
Supporting organizations such as Pro Mujer, connecting women in South America with small microloans, and helping to launch The Power of the Purse®, Harnisch understand the power of investing in women and girls.
“I don’t think in terms of #MeToo,” says Harnisch, “it’s such a small subset of what we have to do for gender equity. Certainly it is part of the water we swim in and we need to clean it up.”
But with all of her projects thriving for women and girls around the world, she is hopeful.
“I hope to live to see when gender equality work is no longer something anyone needs to do because it is irrelevant,” she says.
“What drives me is running the relay race of human progress and it’s my turn with the baton. We can never accomplish in our lifetimes all we wish to do, we get handed the batons.”