Philanthropy’s Kindly Origins: A Conversation with Ruth Ann Harnisch


Eight months ago we announced Wordnik’s not-for-profit status, and shortly after we launched our Adopt A Word program. To date more than 300 words have been taken into loving homes.

Each time a word is adopted we’re delighted and grateful — every cent helps to keep Wordnik ad-free — so you can imagine our surprise and delight when philanthropist and “recovering journalist” Ruth Ann Harnisch adopted not one, not two, but six words, and then going even farther by offering to sponsor a whole letter.

We had a chance to catch up with the founder of the The Harnisch Foundation (and 2014 honoree, along with Wordnik founder Erin McKean, of Forty over 40) and found out more about why she selected the words she adopted, how she arrived at sponsoring the letter S, and how anyone can be a philanthropist.

First of all, thank you so much for your sponsorship and adoptions! You adopted six words: feminism, feminist, philanthropy and philanthropist, and filmanthropy and filmanthropist. Why these words? How do they reflect your beliefs and what’s important to you?

I’m a feminist. I believe that women (and all genders) should be treated fairly and equitably, in equal rights under the law, and equal dignity in society. I’m grateful to everyone in history whose courage and cultural disruption are part of the change that will be a new way of life in the future.

I’m also a philanthropist. I know the joy and satisfaction of actively working to disrupt unfair institutions and helping to create a world that works better for everyone.

People are intimidated by the word or concept of “philanthropy,” but I’d love for everyone to look at the origin of the word and see that it’s not very intimidating at all. [Editor’s note: philanthropy comes from a Greek word meaning “kindliness, love to mankind”.] Philanthropy doesn’t equal money. Money is only one way to express one’s value of caring for others.

In addition to being a philanthropist, I’m a filmanthropist — I make philanthropic investments in film and other media. While others engage in filmanthropy to advance the environment, stop war, etc., my specific intention is putting more women’s stories on the screen, and hiring more women and other underrepresented people to direct, produce, write, edit, shoot, star, and fill the crowd of extras.

How about the letter S? What’s so special about it?

I picked the letter “S” because as is my custom in making philanthropic investments, I did research to see what would produce the biggest bang for the buck. When Erin told me about sponsoring entire letters, I asked if the “popularity” of the adopted letter affected the size of the donation required to sponsor it. When I was told that all letters were going for the same price at this time, I asked which letters would be the best bargains. Well, I’m always learning something new, and if you click the link you will too. Word to the wise: “C” what the next best bargain is!

What advice do you have for those who want to give more but may feel like they don’t have the time (or resources)?

Anyone can be a philanthropist. If you can give nothing else, giving your attention to a cause, an organization, or a leader you care about can be a welcome gift indeed. You’d be surprised how many opportunities there are for you to have impact by making the tiniest of contributions of time, skill, grunt work, or actual currency. Share their story on social media, retweet them, talk them up to others, and when an opportunity presents itself, be aware and be bold.