Sasha Rabsey woke up unusually early on a Tuesday morning when her dog barked out of the blue. Still bleary-eyed, she logged onto email to check in with her grant partners in Nepal on their recovery progress. It was then she saw the news: Another earthquake had hit.
The second in a week. She read the lines of her email over and over: “The earth started shaking again. Two women in labor were rushed to the hospital. Many lives have been lost, thousands are injured.”
“I’m sorry I’m not on top of my game this morning,” she says, clearly shaken by the news. It’s no wonder this hits her personally. Sasha has deep relationships with her grant partners in Nepal as well as other parts of the world. “My philanthropy is about women and about depths of relationship.”
As founder and director of The HOW Fund, a donor advised fund she established 8 years ago, Sasha has supported mentorship programs for women and girls worldwide, and she has been on the ground with partners in many of these countries. She also co-founded the Present Purpose Network, a group of highly engaged women funders in the United States and Europe making grassroots grants through a collective action fund. Her passion for philanthropy was born in the bush of Africa.
“My philanthropy is about women and about depths of relationship.”
“I was going through a real crisis in my life. My kids were growing up, and it was a big period of growth and change. My daughter was a senior in high school and involved in a leadership group, and, at one point, she said to me, ‘Mom, let’s go to Africa together.’ I said okay, but I knew nothing about Africa.” Sasha found an organization online where they could volunteer, filled out their applications, and she and her daughter got on a plane to Ghana for 5 weeks.
It was nothing like they expected. Their post was an orphanage that never had outside volunteers before. “The staff of the orphanage took one look at me and my 17-year-old daughter and thought we looked competent enough. They literally left us there, alone for a week, with 15 kids—six of them had HIV. We had no experience; there were no protocols. It was an insane experience.”
After the first week, the staff came back, on and off. It was physically and emotionally taxing. “We did what we could, and we took it seriously. The best thing I knew how to do was be a mother, so that’s what I did. We cleaned up the house, cleaned the yard, got everyone to school, and administered medical care.”
“We had no business being there. To our credit, we could have looked at the situation and said ‘We’re out of here.’ But we didn’t. We stayed. We saw the humor and the craziness in everything. It was pivotal in showing me what bad development and bad philanthropy look like.”
Sasha came back from that experience and thought: What am I doing with my life? It spurred her interest in wanting to become a funder—and not a disconnected checkbook funder, sitting by the wayside. “I wanted to be more than just money to the people I partnered with. I wanted to know: What can I do that will best serve you?”
It was then that Sasha started The HOW Fund. Since that time, she has worked hard to empower women and girls worldwide and to mitigate the power dynamics between funders and grantees.
One of the ways she does this is through the HOW Fellowship, a program that supports grassroots leaders working with young women around the world. Each year, the fellowship awards five women social entrepreneurs a professional development grant and tuition to attend Opportunity Collaboration, a conference on poverty alleviation held in Mexico.
“I want to inspire people to be more than they believe they can be. After all, philanthropy should be transformational, not a transaction.”
“As funders, we go to conferences and talk about our grantees, but our grantees are rarely in the room. I felt the conversations were going nowhere. I realized I could bring a group of incredibly dynamic grassroots women leaders into this space, where they can spend five days engaging and talking with people from all over the globe about poverty alleviation, collaboration, professional development, capacity building, and so much more. Some of these women have never heard of professional development because they tend to be selfless and don’t choose their work; it chooses them.”
Some of the fellows have walked away with tangible assets—grant money, for example—but it’s about more than that, says Sasha. “I tell the fellows, ‘This is about being authentic, owning your power, and taking care of yourself.’”
“I want to inspire people to be more than they believe they can be,” she says. “After all, philanthropy should be transformational, not a transaction.”