I have the best job I will ever have right now. I have literally woken up every day for nearly a decade and felt passionate about working at the General Service Foundation (GSF).
One reason for my passion is that I spent nearly ten years working with Lani Shaw, a truly remarkable person and leader. Lani passed away suddenly this spring at age 46, after 23 years of leadership at GSF. In the midst of our grief at the loss of such a dear friend, my colleagues and I have reflected on what made Lani so special. Lani, more than anyone I know, embodied justice. She showed me that a justice funder doesn’t simply talk about the world they hope to create. Lani lived her life and led by example, showering the people around her with love, attention, and kindness. She taught me that being a justice funder isn’t about a set of rules, precepts or how-to’s. It is about who you are, and how you show up.
Some of the lessons we take from her life provide powerful examples for all funders:
Being a justice funder means working from a place of abundance. Lani encouraged us to approach our work from a place of possibility, supporting leaders to dream big and shift their mindset away from competition and scarcity. She taught us to set aside resources for future opportunities that we didn’t yet know about.
Being a justice funder means listening. Lani had real conversations with people, even those she had just met, and was an intensely present listener. She brought authenticity and integrity to everything, even small interactions. She saw strength in understanding how different people saw the world, and would simply call up leaders to get their take on things. These conversations had such a special quality that in the last several months many people have told us how deeply these conversations with Lani affected them. Lani had an uncanny ability to see around the corner, and a key ingredient in GSF’s strategic vision was her masterful skill at simply listening.
Being a justice funder means believing in leaders. Lani believed there was room at the table for everyone. One of few women of color Executive Directors in philanthropy, she sought out and enthusiastically embraced new voices. She mentored more people than I can count, always making time to talk to those who needed her guidance. She was often the first one to fund a promising leader or an incipient idea. Several young leaders and leaders of color have come forward to share their sense that Lani was the first funder to truly see them and believe in them.
Lani invested in and believed in her staff and board as leaders. She taught us that our voice was a resource to be deployed with the same intention as our grants. In teaching me the craft of philanthropy, Lani would rarely tell me what to fund – she would ask me to listen to and trust what my gut told me to do. In philanthropy, data is often prized above all else, but Lani encouraged us to take risks and support leaders and ideas before others were ready. When we had a strong instinct she encouraged us to leap into the unknown and bet on the seeds of leadership and the promise of potential. She nurtured the leadership of the younger generation on our board with love and enthusiasm, worked to build a truly intergenerational board, and in so doing helped our foundation avoid one of the pitfalls that can paralyze family foundations.
Being a justice funder means building community. Too often I have seen relationships damaged or destroyed in the quest to win short term policy victories at all costs. Shouldn’t our process reflect the world we seek to create? Lani always put people first, and after her passing I now understand on a new level her special gift of building deep, meaningful relationships. Hundreds came to memorials for Lani in Aspen, San Francisco and New York. Our foundation has received countless messages testifying to her powerful presence, huge heart, and profound impact. I am still thunderstruck by her ability to hold so many close, trusted relationships, and amazed at the power that one person can have in the world. This is made all the more remarkable because Lani operated quietly and behind the scenes, without ever asking for recognition or reward.
Lani had a unique combination of qualities – gentle and fierce, radical and patient, curious and full of wonder, caring and humble – that made working with her a joyful experience. In philanthropy, we spend much of our time strategizing about the issues we seek to impact and the policies we want to change. We spend far less time talking about who we are, and how we work. Lani brought her whole self to her work, and I am convinced that this was key her to power as a funder. She has been a North Star for many of us, and a moral compass in the field of philanthropy. Her legacy – one of love, connection and impact – is a model for all of us.
Holly Bartling is a Program Officer at the General Service Foundation where she manages the foundation's labor and economic rights grantmaking in Mexico, and the reproductive justice grantmaking in the United States. The General Service Foundation is a family foundation that dedicates all of its resources to bringing about a more just and sustainable world.