A Personal Approach to Philanthropy and Social Change

Reported by Eunice Kua


In the second event of CIE’s 2018 Spring Speaker Series, Kathy LeMay, CEO of Raising Change, shared a deeply personal take on philanthropy and its role in international development.


Kathy is a UMass Amherst alumna and cites her undergraduate experience here as pivotal to her later work. A Women’s Studies and History major, Kathy related how student activism on campus gave her valuable experience in community organizing and mobilization.


Coming from a small Massachusetts mill town, Kathy’s life in global development began while she was working for a HIV/AIDS organization in Seattle, in a grim era when antiretroviral drugs and other treatments were not yet available.


During that time, Kathy came across cover stories in Time and Newsweek about the war in Bosnia. She was horrified at the articles about the rape-genocide camps occurring in Sarajevo, and wanted to do something to help. Although she received no encouragement from those she turned to for advice— “We don’t go in the middle of a war and help, we go after”, one person told her—she made a start by collecting supplies that women there had requested, such as infant formula, prenatal vitamins, and yarns for winter clothing.


She decided to go to Bosnia herself to deliver the items and see what she could do—she was 23 years old at the time. “I didn’t want to be old one day and say I sent my thoughts and prayers”, she says. Her mother was exceptionally supportive, and she bought a plane ticket and left. 


Volunteering with The Women’s Association of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kathy swept floors, helped edit English translations of documents to be sent to the UN and other agencies, and also sat and listened to people tell their stories. “The things I saw were in stark contrast to what US corporate media was telling me,” she says. “These people were not victims… they were exceptional, strong women….”


Kathy contrasts modern philanthropy practices, with its emphasis on measurable results and outcomes, with her experiences in Bosnia. “The most transformational thing I did while I was there was listening to the stories of what people had endured,” she says, “What I could do was witness someone’s life… It actually matters to show up.”


Returning to the US, Kathy found that she had a talent for fundraising. She leveraged this in her passion to put funds into the hands of local people who do not have access to capital. “People have solutions,” she says, “If you give them tools, it’s incredible what they can do.”


Kathy has raised over $175 million for initiatives around the world. She supports community development models like that employed by Tostan, an organization which initiates change from the grassroots level upwards in 6 West African countries. Her experience in fundraising ranges from small, ‘democratized’ giving, to accessing high net-worth individuals.


Questions raised at the end of the talk sparked discussion on the role of humanitarian actors in developed countries in advocating for policies that can help to prevent war in developing countries, and innovative peacebuilding initiatives in volatile border areas.


Kathy is the author of The Generosity Plan. She is currently a global philanthropy advisor and teaches masterclasses in fundraising for transformational change.