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Featured Grantee Partner: Planned Parenthood Arizona

Interview Series: Transformational Grantmaking

What are three interesting things people don’t know about Planned Parenthood of Arizona?

One thing that most people don’t realize about our organization is the extent to which we’re focused on proactive health and prevention. We get perceived as an organization that helps people in crisis, but the vast majority of the patients and young people we work with are coming to us before that. They’re wanting to build a better life and learn about their options for birth control, when to plan, and when to begin a family. So we like to emphasize our focus on prevention and being proactive.

Another is that a lot of our work to promote sexual health education happens behind the scenes, where we’re working with school districts and their leaders to talk about the benefits of sexual health education to things like graduation rates and the success of young people. A lot of that happens out of view and I don’t think people realize how many school districts we’re working in.

And third, an interesting thing about our organization in Arizona is that here we have two patron saints who are our founders. In Tucson we were founded by Margaret Sanger herself, the founder of Planned Parenthood who spent her winters in Tucson, and in Phoenix we were founded by Peggy Goldwater. There were a lot of other extraordinary volunteers in both communities, but it’s special to have these two remarkable women who worked to get us started. Both were interested in women’s empowerment, with Margaret Sanger being a bit more of a rebel to shake things up, and Peggy Goldwater being more in the establishment.

What are you most excited about that’s happening at your organization?

I’m really excited about our work in sex education. In these recent months there’s been a focus on sexual misbehavior and predatory behaviors, and risks to young people on college campuses with the intersection of intimacy and drinking. There are so many things we can do to prevent and protect young people in society if we equip them with knowledge about what a healthy relationship looks like, about how to respect themselves, and destigmatizing sexuality and gender identity. Right now as a society we’re dealing with the aftermath of a lack of knowledge, but we have a real opportunity to be doing so much more to protect young people. And this intersects with everything we’re able to do online that we couldn’t do even ten years ago. We’re able provide real time Q&A about sexual health and relationships via our chat service, and you can text our educators. The platforms are changing and enabling us to reach more people at more hours of the day, and at times when young people have their questions and concerns, not just 9–5.

How has a grant from the Women’s Foundation transformed your organization? Is there something you now do differently?

I think that the WFSA is really a unique funder in terms of how strategic it has been about its giving, the breadth and diversity of the women who are leading the organization, and the grants themselves which make a huge difference. But also, it’s like a seal of approval, but better. When the WFSA thinks an organization will make a difference in the lives of women and girls, I think it says something to other donors in the community. It’s an endorsement to them. People know WFSA is putting so much time into evaluating the grant proposals, so the endorsement from them really makes a difference in terms of our organization’s profile in Southern Arizona.

I also think that the WFSA’s interest in women’s economic empowerment has really helped us think through why we do what we do, it’s helped us fine-tune work that we’re doing as we’re seeking the funding. It’s an iterative process for us. We have our own strategic plan, but we also end up having a dialog with ourselves as we’re going through the process of seeking the funding, and the WFSA’s assessment of the benefits we’re bringing to the community really informs us. It’s a different philanthropic process that has helped make us stronger.

How has your organization grown stronger, increased its impact, or changed, because of your partnership with the Women’s Foundation?

Certainly the programs that the WFSA has funded, and the core commitment from them, enables us to go back out into the community and to augment that support. We’re able to stand by commitments around sexual health education, around advocacy for women and girls, and we’re able to be a little bit more ambitious than we otherwise would because of the foundational support that the WFSA provides. We’re able to be more aggressive about our aspirations because of that foundation of support.

How did you first hear about the Women’s Foundation and their grants?

Planned Parenthood originally consisted of two organizations in Arizona, one in Phoenix and one in Tucson. I was head of the Phoenix branch, and Patti Caldwell the Tucson branch. The WFSA was going through an earlier iteration of strategic planning and they actively sought to bring in organizations supporting women and girls from across the state, and they invited me to be a part of the process about 15 years ago. We’re fortunate that we share a lot of common supporters who are passionate. The WFSA is such an important part of the philanthropic community in Tucson, I’m sure we’re on a lot people’s radar because of their work.

What keeps you up at night when thinking about your organization?

Right now there is the unfinished work of social change. We’ve seen so much progress in some facets of society in terms of respect for women and opportunities for women, but what we’ve seen in the past year is that there’s a segment of society that’s really dragging its heels, and right now we have a government that’s listening to those people. Over the past eight years we were talking about how to achieve more equity, and more fairness, justice, and inclusion. This gave people like me the sense that we’re on the right track, we’re making progress, and that this is a better world that will keep getting better. The transition to the current leadership has exposed that there are people who are not coming along. But these are members of our society and there are women among them, and we have to figure out how to engage more diverse voices because we can only make as much progress as the people who we are serving believe. What’s Planned Parenthood’s role in that? How do we be a fearless advocate and not hedge the strength of our ideas and at the same time be approachable to diverse sections of society?

What do you see ahead for women and girls in Southern Arizona?

Having said everything above, I do think that we’re seeing real opportunity. We’ve seen the strength and networks among women that were always there coming out in the open more and advocating so strongly to protect the safety of women and girls of all backgrounds, including undocumented women, LGBT women and girls, and women of color. We’ve seen a level of energy that I know was always there, but it’s become more focused, more effective, and more vocal, and I like to believe that when that can shift from fighting back to fighting forward it’s going to continue to offer progress.

And finally, is there anything else you would like to add about how the Women’s Foundation helps you in fulfilling the mission of your organization?

One thing I want to say is that I have been impressed for so long about how the WFSA is actively cultivating the next generation of women leaders both in general and philanthropically, between the Unidas program for high school girls, and even the interviews you do in the application process where they’ll send out both a more-seasoned volunteer and a newer volunteer. It’s so consistent in the inclusion of newer leaders and the commitments to growing the next generation, it really is impressive. It’s something that Planned Parenthood works at. At any given time we have six members of our Board of Directors who are 18 or younger. It’s a commitment that we share, but I don’t know I’ve seen it at the same level of commitment at any other organization. There’s nothing like having a fearless 16-year-old sitting in the boardroom asking why we’re doing things the way we are and always asking questions.

Bryan Howard is President & CEO at Planned Parenthood Arizona, the largest sexual health organization in Arizona with a mission to promote and protect every person’s freedom and right to enjoy sexual health and well-being, to make reproduction choices, and build health, strong families. 

Special thanks to Women’s Foundation volunteers Gabriela Cervantes and Liz Levine for interviewing this organization and for serving as guest editors.