University of Minnesota Alumni Association

Alumni Stories

Serious Money for Women's Rights

As executive director of Women Moving Millions, Sarah Haacke Byrd bridges the gap between funders and organizers in the ongoing fight for women’s rights.

Photo credit: Denise Chastain

With rising domestic violence, 750 million girls out of school worldwide, and large numbers of adult women forced out of the workforce, the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has been particularly hard on women and girls. To make matters worse, there remains a persistent lack of capital flowing to support organizations and leaders fighting these challenges, with only 1.6 percent of philanthropic dollars going to organizations that support women and girls, and only 0.5 percent of foundation dollars going to women and girls of color, according to the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.

Sarah Haacke Byrd (B.A. ’00) has been working to rectify that as the executive director of Women Moving Millions, a global membership community based in New York City. More than 340 philanthropists worldwide, primarily women, have committed nearly $800 million to organizations benefiting women and girls. Individuals who belong to the organization commit to donate a total of $1 million or more within 10 years to such nonprofit organizations or initiatives.

Executive director since 2018, Haacke Byrd was raised to work for the greater good. Both of her parents were teachers; her father was president of the school board, city councilor, head of the teachers’ union; and both parents regularly volunteered on political campaigns.

But more than that, it was Haacke Byrd’s educational experience at the University of Minnesota and beyond that cultivated her dedication to working to strengthen civil society. “Political science was always my passion,” Haacke Byrd says, “and fortunately, the U of M has one of the top political science programs in the country.

“The professors enriched my understanding of global political theory and human rights issues,” she says, “and the University has an ecosystem where I was able to explore various ways to think about how I would actualize a career with a degree in political science.”

One of those ways was volunteering 10 hours a week in the fundraising office of the Center for Victims of Torture during her junior year. Another was a year later, when the executive director of that organization needed help with a study of tactical innovations that were happening globally around human rights practices.

“I worked directly with him on that, which was really rewarding,” Haacke Byrd says. “He also introduced me to a fellowship opportunity through the Human Rights Center at the Law School for aspiring human rights practitioners to work in nonWestern contexts.”

Through that fellowship, Haacke Byrd was able to spend the summer working with the Helsinki Citizens Assembly in Istanbul, Turkey.

After college, Haacke Byrd continued her human rights work at the Anti-Defamation League in leadership development until 2010, and in 2012, began work as the director of operations for the Bellevue/ NYU Program for Survivors of Torture. “That experience was transformative,” Haacke Byrd says. “To find a leadership position in a nonprofit organization after having that volunteer experience in Minneapolis, and bringing that commitment to helping survivors of political violence thrive in a complicated city like New York, felt like coming full circle for me.”

It was also during that time that the World Health Organization released a groundbreaking study on women and violence globally. “The study said 1 in 3 women are victims of intimate partner violence globally, and I didn’t know that,” Haacke Byrd says. “Anti-violence work had been threaded throughout my entire career, but that’s where I realized my passion is women’s rights.”

Haacke Byrd discovered that, at a time when the women’s rights movement was gathering strength, it wasn’t seeing a significant uptick in funding. That was also when she was recruited to work for Women Moving Millions. “I thought that if I could help strengthen the connection between the funders and leaders on the front lines of the gender equality movement, then that could be my contribution to the movement.”

This year, in response to the gendered impact of Covid-19 on women, particularly women of color, Haacke Byrd and Women Moving Millions made the decision to launch a new $100 million campaign called Give Bold, Get Equal. Since the campaign’s launch in September 2020, it has secured $95 million in commitments.

But Haacke Byrd’s ultimate goal is to move beyond the group’s member community and put pressure on other individuals, companies, and foundations to examine their funding so they can give organizations like Women Moving Millions a bigger slice of the philanthropic pie.

“Parity isn’t going to be achieved with one board member on one corporate board,” Haacke Byrd says. “To change the structural and systemic inequities that exist for women, you’ve got to have more funding going to support those leaders who know exactly what to do.”

Steve Neumann is a freelance writer based in Pennsylvania.

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