In 1986, there was no umbrella organization in Canada designed for people who were interested in advancing women’s equality.
But in March of that year, two grade school chums – Nancy Ruth Jackman and Susan Woods – would have a conversation that not only changed that fact, but also start a chain of events that, decades later, has improved the lives of thousands of women and girls across Canada.
Several years earlier, Nancy Ruth and Rosemary Brown, a feminist politician from British Columbia, had discussed the lack of a mechanism for women to target their charitable giving towards helping other women and changing the systems that created inequality. They agreed that such an instrument had to be created. They knew social change could be advanced by giving grants to grassroots community organizations that were in the position to grab opportunities and move upward and onward.
Nancy Ruth knew from a survey conducted by LEAF (Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund) that only 2% of charitable donations from corporations and foundations were going to services for women and girls. This fact prompted her to become a ‘feminist’ philanthropist.
So on that sunny March day, as Nancy Ruth and Susan dragged some dusty lawn chairs from the garage and sat in the driveway eating lunch and chatting about the possibilities, it was no surprise their conversation soon focused on women, power, equality and money.
They wondered: What would it take to bring about substantive equality for women and girls in Canada? What would it take to stop family violence and violence against women? What would it take to move women out of poverty? What would it take for women and girls to fully embrace their power?
Nancy Ruth and Susan were feminists who understood systemic change. Together, they were a potent combination of management skills and money. By the time the meal was over, Susan had accepted a contract with The NaRuth Foundation to create an instrument especially designed to advance women’s philanthropy.
A few weeks later, after brainstorming with colleagues, Nancy Ruth and Susan issued an infamous invitation: “Come to a meeting to talk about stamping out sexism in Canada, forever.”
Intrigued, women from the LEAF and YWCA networks came to a boardroom at the Tory law firm. The group began to meet regularly, and gradually developed a concept for a new charitable foundation in Canada focused on women and girls. They organized discussions with women across the country, inviting them to help shape the goals, values and grants of the proposed foundation.
After a lot of brainstorming and hard work, the Canadian Women’s Foundation was created. The Founding Mothers chose that name because it sounded old and established, even though the organization was brand new!
In 1991, the Canadian Women’s Foundation was officially launched. The NaRuth Foundation donated $50,000 to help get the fledgling organization off the ground and conduct fundraising. That first year, the Foundation awarded $40,000 in grants to women’s organizations. Julie White, who had participated in that first meeting and who was in charge of Levi Strauss’ corporate giving in Canada, became the Foundation’s first Board president and was instrumental in advancing its agenda.
A few years later, the Foundation received an additional $500,000 from Nancy Ruth. This generous gift was designed to match all donations made during the first five years of operation. Nancy’s mother, Mary, also gave $500,000.
Since 1991, the Canadian Women’s Foundation has invested over $40 million in charitable support to over 1,200 community programs and to every woman’s shelter across Canada.