July 19th, 2012
When I was twenty-five, I inherited a lot of money. I’m not sure exactly how much, but I know it would be worth millions today. I wasn’t given any direction in how to use it. I was literally handed an envelope filled with stock certificates.
My family came from wealth but lived a mostly middle class lifestyle in St. Paul, Minnesota. Though my father had been groomed to be a corporate leader like his father, he rejected that path and the trappings of wealth. My mother came from a family that was focused on civic and community engagement. So politics, social service, and volunteerism were big parts of our childhood. But we never talked about money.
By the time I was given my inheritance, I was very involved in progressive politics. It was the mid 1970’s. The women’s movement led me to the emerging gay rights and environmental movements. I would see actions that were needed but blocked by a lack of money. So I would literally open up my envelope of stock certificates and cash them in to make those actions possible. I also gave money to friends to pay for college and their rent. If someone was working for change I believed in and they needed money, I would give it to them.
In 1976 I was elected to the School Board of St. Paul, becoming the youngest person elected to office in Minnesota thanks to critical support from the women’s movement. When conservative politicians in Minnesota raised concerns about gay teachers, I couldn’t understand why that was an issue and said so. As a result, the National Gay Rights Lobby asked me to testify on their behalf. I became a committed straight ally and the first straight person on the NGRL Board.
My passion for politics then took me to Washington, D.C. I was the Delegate Coordinator for the first White House Conference on Women, during the Carter administration. After a stint of working for a group of progressive congressmen, I became the Executive Director of the first pro-choice PAC: Voters for Choice.
The skills I developed as a political fundraiser led me to found a consulting company focused on raising funds for the issues I care about: women, the environment, and gay rights. I continued to use the money I had inherited to make all of this possible. I didn’t take a paycheck, and I started to run into debt because I paid my employees well and was often willing to work for free for causes I cared about.
By 33, I had given away all of my inheritance. I didn’t intend to give it all away on that timeline. I was simply living by my commitment to do all I can to meet the needs I see in the movements I support. I don’t regret it at all. I love the impact I was able to have on those important movements.
At 40, I moved back to Minnesota. I didn’t return with the same financial resources I had been raised with, but was able to draw on my networks to continue working for causes I believe in. I am still an avid supporter of women’s rights, gay rights and the environment. My husband and I live on our salaries and we will rely on social security and retirement funds in our old age. We give away 10-20% of our income each year.
I believe that giving is an essential part of being in community, of belonging to the human race. We can each give of our time and our money. I’ve come to see that money expands and contracts in each person’s life. I watch it flow in and out of people’s lives every day – it certainly has in my life. It’s surprising to me that though time is finite and can’t expand or contract, we are much more willing to ask each other for time than for money.
I want to break through the taboo of talking about money. I wish that when I was a young person with inherited wealth, I had connected with others in my position. It would have been wonderful to be less isolated, and to think together not only about movement strategy, but also about money strategy.
At this stage in my life, my greatest passion is talking with my peers and their children about money. I want to encourage them to give to their full capacity. I also want them to talk with each other about money. Money can take on dysfunctional roles in our lives when we don’t talk about it. In order to give as boldly as we can, we need to share our stories and support each other.
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Bold Conversation with Cathie Hartnett Thursday July 19th at NOON, ET