3 Questions With: Brandee Butler, Head of Gender Justice & Human Rights, C&A Foundation

Name: Brandee Butler

Company/Organization: C&A Foundation

Role/Function: Head of Gender Justice & Human Rights 

What She’s Currently Working On: I work for C&A Foundation, which has a goal of transforming the apparel industry for the better. Last week, we published an Action Statement on Equity and Inclusion, reflecting our ongoing learning journey and commitment to identify and dismantle various systems of inequality — including gender — that are relevant in our work and to us as colleagues.

We are exploring how we can have a greater impact in our grantmaking by making sure that diverse voices and perspectives, especially those from groups traditionally excluded in decision-making, have a say in our work. For example, that could include looking at systems of oppression around race, caste, class and sexual orientation. While the fashion industry is diverse in many ways, in that it touches so many different countries and communities, are those communities represented at the decision-making level? While the conversation has started and is gaining momentum around issues of gender equality and discrimination, there’s still very little conversation around racial equity, for example.

So we launched an internal committee with representation from all our teams and geographies to explore how the impacts of discrimination and exclusion impact not only our partners and constituents, but also us as colleagues. We have hired Gender at Work, an international network of consultants that promotes cultures of equality, to accompany us on this journey. They are providing support and expertise, and our goal is to have an action plan to present to our leadership early next year.

Credit: C&A Foundation

Credit: C&A Foundation

1. What was the “aha” moment that sparked your interest in social impact?

Travel is often the spark. In college, I did a semester abroad in Ghana. I was a psychology major at the time and if you studied abroad, you had to do a one-month independent project and write a thesis on it. I did mine at the mental institution in Accra. I spent a lot of time interviewing people who worked there and learning about the situation and conditions for patients. The abuse and the indignities that the mentally disabled suffered at that time in Ghana were horrific. Before they ended up at the mental institution, they had been through all sorts of exorcisms, beatings, different forms of torture. Some had been chained to trees because people believed that it was evil spirits occupying them, and that you needed to get the spirits out by any means necessary.

When they got to the hospital, it was severely under resourced and conditions were abhorrent. They were sleeping on floors, they were short of medicine, there were overflowing sewage systems, sometimes they ran out of food. It was really and truly awful.

I had been planning to be a psychologist but at that moment I realised I wanted to play a role in advocating for truly oppressed, marginalized groups of people.

I feel that it’s my job to advocate that resources are invested in the places where they are most needed, and to support the courageous activists who put themselves at such great risk each and every day fighting for causes like anti-slavery and women’s rights.
— Brandee Butler

2. How did you break into the social impact space?

At the time, some of my most powerful examples of advocates were lawyers. So I applied to law school. I knew that I wanted that skill set and that degree as a platform for launching a career in social justice and social impact.

While I was in law school at Yale, I took courses in international human rights, worked summer internships, and did a semester abroad in South Africa researching the HIV crisis. But I still found it difficult once I graduated to get a good job in social justice. Non-profit jobs were very competitive and really low-paying, and I had a lot of student debt. I wondered if it was a viable option for me.

My big break came when I got a fellowship for recent Yale Law School graduates who wanted to break into international human rights. If you had your own funding and could carry it to an organization, who could refuse you? So that opened all the doors. I had already moved to Gabon to deepen my international experience and develop French language skills. I was meant to work with an Italian NGO working with victims of child trafficking, but it ended up folding so I worked at UNICEF for a year on their efforts to prevent sexual exploitation, child trafficking and all forms of exploitation against children.

After the fellowship year, I moved back to the United States and got a job as an attorney working for a non-profit called the Alliance for Children's Rights. I was an advocate for children in the foster care system in Los Angeles who had learning and other disabilities. Then I saw a job posting for a position in philanthropy at the MacArthur Foundation, to help build the international criminal justice system and strengthen human rights institutions in Africa. While I enjoyed the work as an advocate and attorney for children's rights, I was only helping one child at a time and I realized that I wanted to have a more systemic impact. This was an opportunity to learn about the global human rights framework and it was an amazing experience. That launched me into the field of philanthropy, where I’ve been ever since.

It was a very circuitous journey to figure out where I fit, where I could apply my talents, what resonated with me on a personal level, what I found fulfilling and what I was good at. I feel extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to work in philanthropy so early in my career and I feel really proud of the role that I play as a grantmaker. I’m not on the front lines and sometimes that's challenging — I do sometimes feel very removed from the context. That’s the downside, and the risk, in philanthropy. But the upside is that you’re able to view systems and dynamics and issues from a bird's eye view. You're able to make connections between movements, between organizations. I feel that it's my job to advocate that resources are invested in the places where they are most needed, and to support the courageous activists who put themselves at such great risk each and every day fighting for causes like anti-slavery and women’s rights.

3. What most excites you about social impact these days?

The social impact field is more diverse than when I was coming up. There are all sorts of pathways for this generation — interesting hybrid business models, programs for social entrepreneurship and startups that are doing amazing work. Even traditional fields are finding ways to move into social impact. In finance, impact investing is now a popular field. People who would have gone into traditional investing now have a different option.

That’s driven by a demand and a hunger in younger generations. I talk to younger friends and family members and they say that first and foremost, they want to have some kind of positive impact. They’re less concerned with prestige and money and more concerned with the kind of world they live in and the impact they want to have.

Philanthropy has also expanded. It used to be that big industrialists would make their fortune and create foundations — and those institutions still exist and are among the bedrocks of philanthropy, especially in the United States. But now you also have more giving circles, participatory grantmaking platforms, community foundations and direct online giving, in addition to the many private and family foundations that have proliferated. Also promising is the fact that more companies are working social impact into their mission and way of operating, which is a way more effective model. I hope that one day, there won't be a need for philanthropy at all.