60 Seconds With...
Philanthropist Abigail Disney
Crossing the Line
For years, philanthropist Abigail Disney (above), the grandniece of Walt Disney, has made advocacy for women’s rights her chief philanthropic focus. Disney made her debut as a documentary film producer at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival and won the festival's award for Best Documentary Feature for her first film, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, the story of a grassroots movement of Liberian women, Christian and Muslim, who banded together despite their religious differences to force the country’s male leaders and warlords to stop their fighting and make peace. CONTRIBUTE’s Cristina Maldonado interviewed Disney about her film and philanthropy. Here's an edited transcript of that conversation.
In November 2007, you and a number of other women philanthropists launched a new fundraising campaign called Women Moving Millions, which challenges women to up the ante on their financial support for causes that benefit women and girls. The fundraising goal at the time was $150 million. Has that goal been reached?
Yes, pretty much all of it has been raised so far. The intention was to open this up to as many new donors as possible, and that’s exactly what has happened. The organizers figured that if some women saw others contributing at least $1 million each, then they, too, would be more likely to give that amount, as well. It’s working. Money is now coming into women’s funds in the millions and I think this campaign will have no problem surpassing the $150 million goal.
Did you do some of the recruiting to bring new donors to the table?
I haven’t been going out and pitching. I guess I’m seen as more of a role model for the group because I’ve been giving in million dollar chunks to women’s organizations for a while now. I believe strongly that if what you really want is social change, then you need to fund the organizations that are at the leading edge of it. Not only have women been radically under-funded over the years, they’ve also been powerful change agents. If you think about what the women’s movement has been able to accomplish over the years without a lot of money, it’s very impressive. Women won the vote, they brought birth control and contraception into the national debate, they put the issues of domestic violence and sexual harassment into the national consciousness, and they brought micro-credit to the forefront as a way to reach out to impoverished communities. So the question is this: given what women have accomplished without a lot of resources, what more could they accomplish with more?
You’re a proponent of giving with no strings attached. At a time when this sector is highly criticized for its lack of accountability and transparency, how do you develop the trust that many new donors need to be so generous with their money?
The sector is not a monolith. There are different practices at different places in the sector and the places with the least accountability and transparency tend to be at the high end, and that’s not where I’ve been giving my money. I am for giving general operating support but I’m not for buying file cabinets for people who already have file cabinets or buying a really nice office when a regular office will do. I’ve never really given in a large way at the very high end of the sector where that transparency and accountability issue is a problem. How I get past that is by knowing the people to whom I give my money. At the end of the day, no matter what strings you attach to your grant, it’s a vote of confidence in the people to whom you are writing the check. You’re saying, I trust that you can do what you’ve said you can do. If you don’t have trust in that person, there is something essentially wrong with the transaction.
Look, there has never been much of an emphasis on accountability in terms of what donors do with their money, but the fact is, donors drive a lot of change and a lot of policy—and they can also drive in a lot of ineffectiveness, too, if they’re not careful.
If I consistently give you $70 when I know you need $100— and then every five years I yank it out from under you and go on to the next thing, how can I then ask you why you’re not effective with the $70 I gave you? If all donors in the sector are doing that, this leads to … a perpetual scarcity of dollars and insecurity over available funds, and then ineffectiveness becomes chronic. I think we need to turn the lamplight around onto ourselves, the donors, and ask ourselves, What are we driving as grant-makers?
So what are the possible solutions?
I think donors need to start giving more money to help worthy organizations simply pay for their operating expenses. I think donors also need to start giving larger grants to fewer organizations. We need to find more local organizations to provide funds instead of mostly counting on huge national organizations for funding. We need to become more willing and able to go into a neighborhood to find the smaller and more effective organizations to support with our donor dollars because I think that often, the work in those smaller places gets done in more cost-effective ways.
How do you measure effectiveness?
I’m such an unfashionable cynic. I don’t know that it’s possible to really and truly measure much of anything we do. I think we can measure the mouths we have fed on a food program, but at the end of the day, how are we going to measure the trajectory of the person’s life as a result of that food program? Isn’t that the kind of result that we’re really after? The mania for measurement is a good one. It comes from a desire for us to be accountable for our work to our donors and that’s a good thing, But the only way to make trust work is to know the people you work with and to be a little more humble about your abilities to improve on the work that they do as advocates. I don’t want to be overly critical of donors or others who do a lot of measurement because they have brought a lot to the sector that has been truly needed. But I think there’s now an overemphasis on measurement.
But the reality is that for many donors, the numbers are very important.
Yes, absolutely. But I think that if I only have $10 to give, I’m going to listen to my heart. I’m not like other people, I suppose, who are more driven by their brains than I am. I think this is a more heart-driven sector than people realize, and we can’t stamp the heart out of it with metrics.
Indeed, storytelling—especially in the form of documentary film—is a powerful way to appeal to one’s heart. Your documentary represents your first foray into film?
Yes, but of course, I grew up in a film family. My brother and father make films and I certainly spent some time on my father’s sets as a little girl so it’s not a completely foreign place for me. Still, though, I never actually thought I’d do it.
I came out to New York [from North Hollywood as a child] and had no interest in show business but I traveled a lot and met a lot of women who do amazing advocacy work. I spent a lot of years in New York visiting women who do community organizing, women who work to eradicate gender-based violence, women who work with AIDS patients in these community-based organizations. You start to understand that there is a certain kind of person who does this work and those are the people to whom I’m really drawn. When I started doing site visits with the Global Fund for Women, I found myself in Morocco, Liberia, and Botswana meeting the same types of women. They were often using a similar vocabulary about their work and had a similar ethos about bringing democracy to their work. It is stunning to see how there are women all around the world who’ve arrived at a very similar place without having the luxury of communicating with each other.
There’s this sleeping giant of a [women’s] movement out there and when I got to Liberia and found this story about the Liberian peace women, I became convinced that this was a story that had to be told because it embodied everything that I, as a grant maker and an activist, have seen and learned and valued.
The film centers around a group of women, The Women’s Christian Peace Initiative, which formed in 2003 to try ending the violence brought on by the civil conflict in Liberia between Muslim rebels and then-president Charles Taylor’s Christian government forces. When did you first visit Liberia and how did you find the story?
I first went to Liberia in 2006, about three months after Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf had been inaugurated as Liberia’s president. I went there with a group of women that [philanthropist] Swanee Hunt had organized and we were there to see how we could help. It sounds insane, but Liberia is so broken, that anybody can offer something—anything at all, really—and it’s needed. While I was there, I heard this story about the Liberian women peacemakers; it was in the air—in little pieces like shards of a broken thing you want to put back together, only this story was missing some pieces. What I recognized was that this particular story was in the process of being forgotten. I know from women’s history and women’s literature through the centuries that women do things and then we forget them—and then the next time a group of women attempts to do something similar, everybody thinks that women are doing it for the very first time. It seemed to me that here I was a witness to the erasure of a historical moment and I had the capacity to prevent that from happening in this one case. I was reintroduced to an old friend, the documentary director Gini Reticker, and I said to her, The time is right. Here I am. Here you are—so let’s do it. After that, this film just fell into place.
What was your role as producer?
I brought the story to the process. Gini had the skills, she knew how to put a crew and budget together and I knew how to raise the money for it all. We then went to Liberia together. We used my connections in Liberia and we dug and dug until we found the archival footage we needed and the people we needed to interview and the leaders of this group of women. It felt in places like investigative journalism. Interestingly, one of the original moments that made me want to make the film was when I had heard the story about how the women in the film had decided to simply take over the peace talks because the warlords and government officials were unable, by themselves, to bring.
On my very first night in Liberia, I was in Monrovia [the capital] and struck up a conversation with a British man to ask him about his recollection of the women’s peace movement there. I thought if anyone was going to tell me the story wasn’t true, it would be him. So I asked him about it. His answer surprised me. Not only did he say we wouldn’t be sitting here today in peace without these women, but said he remembered there was some CNN footage of him climbing out a window with some of the other men involved in the peace talks, apparently fleeing from the women peacemakers who had literally shooed them away when they hijacked the talks. [laughter]. What was interesting, though, is that later—when Gini and I tried to find that official news footage of the men climbing out of the windows, we couldn’t track it down. CNN couldn’t find it. In fact, the BBC was there and couldn’t find the footage, either. Sky News also was there but couldn’t find the footage, and Ghana Television was there but they’re so broke, they tape over their tape stock so their coverage of that incident and the women hijacking the peace talks was gone, too. There was no visual news record of what had occurred. Finally, though, we came across this guy who had been the chief videographer for the presidential office back in 1979 and he was able to produce the historical footage, the visual record, that we needed. If we hadn’t gone to Liberia and treated our research like a detective story, I don’t think we would’ve ever found that footage.
How long did it take to make the film?
About a year and a half. Liberia is one of those places where you scratch the surface a little bit and things become complicated. There was a lot of politics and bureaucracy and there was a lot of fact-checking that was required, and it was hard. I lived in fear that we might be overstating what the women had accomplished or, worse, that we might be idealizing them. I very much wanted to avoid that, so all I did for a year was ask incredibly hard, obnoxious questions to be sure we really had our facts right.
You captured a moment in history that was missing in mainstream media coverage of Liberia. How did the major news outlets miss it?
There’s a reason we forget some stories and not others. The stories we forget tend to have no witnesses. That’s what Gandhi said: first those who would oppress you ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they try to hurt you, and then they deal with you. And that exactly describes what these Liberian women went through. And it’s more than just a small thing that CNN couldn’t find the footage. CNN was there but the cameraman didn’t note this story in his logs. He didn’t see this as historic or important at the time.
How has the film been received by Liberian women? Have you showed it to them?
When I showed the film to a group of Liberian women, they wept. I was upset thinking I had re-traumatized them, but they said they were crying out of happiness. They never felt that what they had done was so important. Showing the film, I feel, will help other women to believe that some people really can make a difference—and it will help to encourage others to try.
One of the things that makes this film so powerful is that it can create a wellspring of energy for what I know to be a global movement of women who are working for transparency in government, for peace, for better education. I believe that women are naturally inclined towards activism and many feel dismissed by those in power, and ridiculous. This film helps to show women that when they do speak out, it can really make a difference. It’s empowering.
Film is a very powerful mechanism. It can have an impact on you that words on their own can’t possibly have, that books can’t possibly have, that even a human being showing up and talking can’t possibly have. With this film, I wanted to build a movement, and I think it’s going to happen.
Can we expect to see you produce more social issue films?
I’ve created Fork Films, my own production company, and Wide Angle [PBS] has asked us to do four hours for them on women and conflict worldwide. It was like someone coming and asking me, Would you like to have your fantasy job? We’re in development with that right now, and it will probably air sometime in the summer of 2009.