The CEO of the Incoming Ladies Donors Community would be the first Palestinian American to guide a US nonprofit
(BCN) – Leena Barakat was just a young child when she began learning about life’s injustices.
One of her earliest memories is of sitting on her father’s shoulders while waving signs at protests against human rights abuses, and Barakat grew up hearing stories of the discrimination that prompted both sides of her family to emigrate from Palestine to the United States .
The oral tradition made Barakat aware of the sufferings of others and motivated her to pursue a career in the non-profit sector.
“(It’s) in my DNA,” Barakat said of her determination to right the wrongs she saw. “I am driven so deeply by justice.”
Barakat’s focused energy has paid off, and on September 6, the 33-year-old will mark a career milestone by becoming President and Chief Executive Officer of the Women Donors Network.
The success makes her the first Palestinian-American — and also the youngest person — to take the helm of a philanthropic organization of this size in the country.
The board of directors of the San Francisco-based nonprofit elected Barakat last month to oversee the day-to-day operations of his philanthropic organization, which has pursued its vision of a just society for all since its inception in 2003.
Barakat, who has been on the board since 2017 and currently serves as vice chair, will replace the organization’s longtime leader, Donna Hall.
She will also oversee WDN’s sister organization, WDN Action, which works to fund political initiatives and organizations.
July 4th protest at the SF Ferry Building
Barakat has campaigned for the rights of the downtrodden since her undergraduate days at UC San Diego and works with other minority student groups to work on social justice issues. The students demanded that the University of California include Fairtrade coffee and other products in merchandise sold on campus and persuaded the university system to divest its investments in US companies that benefited from human rights abuses.
When Barakat got a job in nonprofit management after graduating from college, he noticed that foundations routinely donated the lion’s share of the money to the same white-run organizations.
Additionally, these grants came with many strings attached: recipients were restricted in how they could spend the short-term gifts, had to achieve specific outcomes, and had deadlines for reporting those outcomes.
The assumption is that the benefactor would know better what was needed than those on the front lines doing the work, Barakat said.
The situation got them thinking: who decides how the grants should be spent? And how could she become one of those decision makers?
“I wanted to change the landscape,” she says. “The point for me is to be able to … where I could build enough influence to help change the direction of funding to better reflect the needs of the communities that are often left out of those conversations.”
That includes minority groups — black, brown and transgender — who will be disproportionately affected by the US Supreme Court’s decision to reverse its nearly 50-year-old decision protecting abortion rights, Barakat said.
However, she noted that WDN is already working to maintain women’s access to abortion as part of its commitment to protecting their reproductive health rights, so repealing the Roe v. Wade Act will not change the organization’s priorities.
“For us, the work continues and amplifies, if anything,” Barakat said, explaining that Supreme Court justices are debating other 14th Amendment rights, such as people’s right to marry whoever they want, and what could cause these laws to be reversed as well. “Our strategy is not changing. If anything, we double down.”
And that’s what Barakat will do when she takes over leadership of WDN, which includes an all-female, multiracial membership that she says goes against tradition by awarding money — and not just for a year at a time — that the recipient can spend at will fit.
The idea for the Women Donors Network came from a group of women who wanted to use their inherited wealth for the common good.
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When WDN officially became a non-profit organization in 2003, it began providing grassroots organizations with the financial assistance they needed to defend the labor rights of farm workers, domestic workers and women.
It also supports efforts to ensure that historically excluded groups have equal access to the ballot box and that all can live in a healthy environment.
WDN currently has 261 members in 32 states who give between $4,000 and $25,000 or more per year – with a select few giving more than $1 million per year in multi-year grants.
This donation enabled the organization to donate $19.1 million in 2021 to 170 groups from Washington to New Hampshire and Puerto Rico.
WDN grantees are working to ensure election laws — 47 states introduced hundreds of such bills in the past year alone — don’t make it difficult for some groups to cast their ballots by requiring them to provide multiple forms of identification, increasing the number of voters Elections will be limited to places or the waiver of postal ballot papers altogether.
They also fight for workers like GPs, housekeepers and farmhands, who often lack the same government protections as white-collar workers.
In addition, WDN funds environmental protection efforts that can affect low-income communities more than others. That’s why the nonprofit made a donation to a law firm that provides free help to Gulf Coast residents when they’re struggling to get government aid after natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, which climate change has made more destructive.
However, when Barakat isn’t thinking about important things, like making the Women Donors Network a model for philanthropic foundations nationwide, she makes time for fun.
She manages to schedule hikes and tennis on the weekends, and her 4 and 8 year olds (“They’re my hobby,” she said, laughing) keep her busy along with the family’s 6-month-old, the Bernedoodle.
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