Rebecca Balter’s story began long before she was born. Balter comes from a long line of entrepreneurs; her family built a successful bank in Dresden, Germany at the turn of the 20th century. In fact, the family believed so much in building a legacy for their employees, that it was the first institution in Germany to have a pension plan, and it ended up being the model for the country’s governmental pension plans. But in the 1930s, Germany was changing, and things took a turn for the family and the business. Their bank was one of the first Jewish-owned businesses to be seized.
“My family had personal and business assets, so they were able to maintain a level of comfort, but the bulk of the wealth and their lives as they knew them were taken at that time,” Balter said. “According to family lore, my great-grandfather died of a broken heart shortly after the seizure because of his ruined reputation – but the rest of the family was able to flee Nazi Germany through Switzerland to eventually meet up with relatives working at the branch of the bank that had already been established in New York.”
In the 1990s the government began offering restitution payments, and if you could prove that your assets had been seized during that time, you could get the value back. Balter credits her Great Uncle, who she says dedicated large amounts of time and effort into making sure they could access those funds to make things right for her family. It was during that time period when she says her class status shifted almost overnight.
“My parents had already instilled in me the value of knowledge and education, always stressing the importance of becoming a citizen of the world. I was taught to look up to people who were doing good, not making money,” she said. “But now there was this very real change in our family wealth that happened at the same time that I was being personally politicized and radicalized. My upbringing and the timing of my own life challenges really made it easier for me to take on the shift in a responsible way,” she said.
Balter came out as queer in her late teens, and when she began college at Columbia University in New York, she became very involved in the Columbia Queer Alliance, which generally led to her exposure to other social justice organizations. It was there that she credits the framework she internalized around power, equity, and privilege. But her journey to becoming an advocate was not a usual one.
After obtaining her bachelor’s degree in biology, she received her PhD in neurobiology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She was trained as a scientist, but left the lab when she felt she had a different calling.
“I realized that I didn’t want to spend 90 percent of my time writing grants and papers. It just wasn’t for me,” she said. “So I decided to step away from this linear academic path, and because I could, I took time to see what I wanted to do next. In that time, LGBTQI advocacy had moved on from extracurricular activity to the forefront of my life, and I thought – if I’m going to do it, why not do it well, and full-time?”
And so she does. Balter works with Resource Generation, a group she was connected with in college that organizes young people with wealth and class privilege in the United States to become transformative leaders working towards the equitable distribution of wealth, land, and power. She says that when she was younger, she always thought about equity in terms of race, sex, and gender, but never class, it wasn’t until she was connected to Resource Generation that she learned how to use her wealth privilege for social change.
“I’ve received a lot of political education through Resource Generation, which has fed my love for social justice work. And it’s a continuing thing,” she said. “It’s a never-ending process, but only because I choose to make it one. That choice requires staying in a place of discomfort and partial knowledge, and that’s challenging unless you make it important.”
Balter and her mother make grants through a fund at the Foundation to build their legacy. “I share political views with her, and she’s been amazing in letting me guide, lead, and educate her. She refers to me as her philanthropy consultant, and I appreciate that she values my opinion and the learning I have done.” Balter’s mother focuses her grantmaking on environmental organizations who work together toward a healthy planet for everyone. The two find harmony where social justice and the environment meet.
Balter believes that legacy is a component of philanthropy, and that each generation can redefine how they live that legacy, because in every generation the issues shift and change. Her philosophy? That we should all embrace community organizing around a theory of change, dig into root causes, and look at communities most impacted to inform solutions, rather than the other way around.
As a donor, Balter recognizes that her lived experience is so different from the communities she wants to impact, and to her that means it’s time to listen.
“Unless you hear from people with intersectional identities, you won’t be able to do the work well, or make the right impact. As much as I deeply value community organizing, with the populations I choose to support, sometimes that involves paying bus fare for people to show up and that’s not something I would normally have thought about,” she said. “Sometimes what we think we should give isn’t what’s really needed. What would it look like if we asked organizations to inform solutions? I truly believe that donors should push back against this invisible church of metrics and let organizations self-define what success looks like. Because real change takes a really long time, and so looking to the organizations to inform how they define success for their work will make a bigger impact in the long run.”
Balter says the thing that gets her excited as a donor is actually funding underfunded areas, specifically underfunded areas that can have transformative impact. She chooses to fund new and risky organizations, leadership development, general operating support, and capacity building for that reason.
“People get so stressed out about giving general operating support, there’s this myth that organizations won’t use our money wisely, but the way I think about it is that if I’m funding a small community organizing entity that is by and for the constituency, and the board and staff are of that same constituency, then what’s the worst-case scenario?,” she asks. “That misuse of my funds looks like a low-income Black woman giving her brother who just got out of the prison system money for his car payment? I’m ok with that. If my funds are going into the communities I care about, and I’m making the right impact, then I don’t need to micromanage how they spend that money.”
Balter said that a particular Martin Luther King Jr. quote has recently struck her, and is shaping the way she looks at giving back:
“Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.”
-Written by Meg Buckingham