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At Spark, Philanthropy is a Lifestyle Choice

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Spark, a young nonprofit, is changing the notion of philanthropy. For its members, philanthropy is a lifestyle choice—one that engages them on many levels. According to Executive Director Shannon Farley, Spark helps you change the world—and network, find a tennis partner, and a new apartment all at the same time!

Spark—whose mission is to build a community of young global citizens invested in changing patterns of inequality that impact women globally—is a network bent on making philanthropy different. According to Shannon, “We are primarily a global network. We want to change the way we engage in philanthropy and our role in the world.”

One way they do this is by appealing to busy professionals. Spark events are fun, accessible, and convenient, says Shannon. The energy in the room is exciting and down-to-earth, and events are inexpensive and held on nights and weekends, with the knowledge that young professionals work long hours. Although women make up the majority, 40 percent of Spark’s membership is men, and the group consists mostly of twenty-five to forty-five year olds. Spark’s events also tend to relate to the issues men and women face in their daily lives—and it’s a fun and easy way to connect and network with others. Here’s a sampling of recent events in and around San Francisco:

  • Spark welcomed members to a brunch to discuss Bill Clinton’s book Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World
  • Spark hosted an event with YourOnRamp to discuss the issues women face leaving and re-entering the workplace, featuring Dr. Sylvia Ann Hewlett, renowned author of On-Ramps and Off-Ramps

Spark is also different because they have a flexibility and openness not always seen in nonprofits. According to Shannon, Spark has an open process, which engages members on several levels. Organizations and community partners approach them with ideas or vice versa. In some cases, members present an idea they care about and Spark finds a way for them to get their mission off the ground, whether it’s working with girls and women in San Francisco—or halfway around the world in Africa or Vietnam. It’s like taking that conversation about poverty you had with a friend over coffee to the next level. In fact, Shannon even mentions how she loves talking to members about issues over coffee.

Spark’s members care about a diversity of issues and bond over similar interests. Members can participate in whatever suits them best: members-only events, delegation trips, volunteer opportunities, or grant making. Those who join become part of a network of more than two thousand young professionals. Members reach out to Spark because they care and perhaps because they know they’re going to have fun participating, too.

Spark grew out of the idea that change is something we can all do. “If you get young professionals excited about global issues, you can spark change in the world,” says Shannon. That means more than just simply mailing off a check to an organization and hoping it’s used wisely. It’s about being an active participant in the community.

And no matter what issues members care about, Spark believes that when you empower women in particular, you empower entire communities. This is because when it comes to providing for themselves and others economically, women—whether they live in the developing or Western world—have a vision of family that is quite big, according to Shannon. In most areas of the world, women who feed their families are also more likely to feed their neighbors’ families.

When members help women across the world, it’s a mutually beneficial experience, too. Kathleen Kelly, who led a delegation trip to Rwanda, writes about the nature of connecting to other women around the world and what it means for her. “Meeting the women of Abuhujumatima—with whom I felt we had made such a spiritual connection through our Spark event to celebrate their plight—was a truly humbling and inspiring experience. I know that they too were humbled by hearing about what we had done for them, raising $5000, which was a complete surprise until I arrived there. My connection with them made me realize the power of building bridges in the global community, a mutually empowering and inspiring experience for all those involved.”

Spark continues to be involved with projects that inspire everyone involved. While in Jordan, Spark provided a small grant to support a group that provides training for women to run for office. The results were extremely positive. Men in the local community were excited to see women running for office. According to Shannon, there was a realization (by the men) that not only should women get more involved, but when elected, women actually do what they say they’ll do, unlike their male counterparts. “The men were very impressed. It just clicked!” In a country like Jordan, which remains a monarchy and has been scrutinized for its human rights record, yet encourages women to be educated, it’s these types of programs which elevate women’s status and empower them.

The attention that Spark provides often results in groups getting increased funding from other sources (such as governments or private grants), above and beyond what Spark can provide. One could say that the spark gets re-ignited as a result of their efforts. And if the ongoing work of Spark is any indicator, the future looks bright.

Related Story: The Founding of Spark


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