The following is a conversation between Christen Brandt, Co-Founder of She’s the First, and Co-author of Impact: A Step-by-Step Plan to Create the World You Want to Live In, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.

Christen Brandt, Co-founder and COO of She’s the First and Co-author of Impact

Denver: All over the world, girls are treated as second to boys. Far too often, girls are denied an education, told who and when to marry, and blocked from leadership positions. Educated and respected girls are the exception, not the norm. 

That is why the organization my next guest helps lead puts girls first. She is Christen Brandt, co-founder and COO of She’s the First and co-author of Impact: A Step-by-Step Plan to Create the World You Want to Live In. 

Welcome to The Business of Giving, Christen! 

Christen: Thank you. Excited to be here. 

We often talk about girls almost as the ideal beneficiary. In other words, whenever you talk about girls or girls’ programs, you’re almost always talking about them, and you don’t often hear from them. And that’s something that we’ve been trying to change.

Denver: She’s the First launched back in 2009. How did this organization come into being, and what have been some of the key milestones you’ve had along the way? 

Christen: We launched She’s the First back, if you can believe it, when social media was really just taking off. And so, the initial goal was never to start an organization. It was actually to create a media campaign. It was to connect the dots, connect the pieces between people who really cared about issues facing girls and about girls’ education, and the incredible work that was happening all around the world to ensure that girls were having their full rights and were accessing school and were accessing quality school and programs. 

And so, the initial idea was essentially crowdfunding before crowdfunding existed. It was encouraging, especially young professionals, students to get together with their friends, hold a fundraiser, learn about the issues and help support incredible programs all around the world.

But since then, because we work with an incredible portfolio of local organizations who really helped us at the time to understand the issues deeply and to understand what was needed, She’s the First has grown over the past decade into an organization that looks at training in the areas of girl-centered design and sexual and reproductive health as well as advocacy. So, we provide tools for girls themselves all over the world to advocate for their rights. 

We had our 10-year anniversary two years ago, and so that was one of the first opportunities actually we’ve had to really bring together some of the girls from all around the world who’ve been part of these programs.

And I think what’s really incredible is we often talk about girls almost as the ideal beneficiary. In other words, whenever you talk about girls or girls’ programs, you’re almost always talking about them, and you don’t often hear from them. And that’s something that we’ve been trying to change, is just getting girls to be front and center, having their voices and their opinion be part of the process of designing the programs that they’re in, or the advocacy that they’re working on. And so that’s been our major goal of late. 

Denver: Sounds like it must’ve been a very moving and emotional experience at that 10th year anniversary with all these girls assembling for the first time. And you can kind of see in the flesh the fruits of some of your work. 

Christen: And I think the connections as well. One of the greatest challenges and greatest rewards of having an international organization is that you see the nuances. Girls are different all around the world. Girls are different within the same community, of course. But there are also many, many connecting issues that tie them together. And you can see that start to come out when you have girls from all over the world kind of working toward the same or similar rights and causes.

Denver: Your vision is a world where every girl chooses their own future, and data indicates that frequently is not the case. What are some of the examples of that? 

Christen: So one of the biggest, of course, is with child marriage. And this is something that we saw even prior to the pandemic. It was one girl every seven seconds under the age of 18 was being married off. We know that COVID exacerbated that because a lot of families were forced into really dire poverty. And one of the ways out of that is making sure that your daughter at least has a steady stream of income or has someone supporting her, and you have one less mouth to feed. 

So, we know that their choice in partner and their choice in when to marry is one of the biggest rights that are consistently violated for girls all around the world, including, by the way, in the global north, where a lot of times people don’t think of this as an issue, but it is. So, that’s one of the biggest ones. 

And there’s also just this idea of gender stereotypes that holds all of us back really – this idea of what it means to be a man, what it means to be a woman, what it means to be a girl, and the boxes that that puts us into. 

And so, a lot of the toolkits and things that we designed for girls is about deciding: “Who do I want to be in the world, irrespective of what my culture and what the world is telling me is possible for girls?” In many cases, it’s as simple as graduating from high school instead of starting a family. 

Denver: Speaking of graduating from high school, what does it mean to a girl for every additional year of education she gets?

Christen: We know that for every additional year of education, her eventual income is going to increase, some stats say by as much as 20%.

But we used to focus so much on graduation as the goal, because, of course, a diploma is a huge benefit in life, and each additional year of education – it is meaningful for her. But what we’ve realized is that if a girl graduates from high school or from high school equivalent, and she’s not able to stand up for herself or to define what she wants for her life, then is that really a success? If she graduates from high school, but she still ends up married to someone she doesn’t want to marry and with no control over her reproductive future, can we count that as success?

And so, we’ve been looking a lot more at: How can we measure? Can we measure, is really the question— agency? Can we understand how these programs that work with girls on mentorship, on their leadership, on their self-awareness…  Can we measure how that impacts her eventual life trajectory and her eventual life path?

And we don’t have a full answer for that yet. We’re working on it. But our suspicion, our thesis is that more than having your butt in a seat in a classroom, what’s going to create an even bigger ripple effect in your life is having the support around you to really develop your own goals and to be able to go after them, and to have the community support to do that.

Denver: And one of the ways you do that, and you kind of alluded to this before, you believe in a rights-based approach. Correct? Tell us a little bit about that. 

Christen: Correct. So, this is just the idea that I don’t get to say, and you don’t get to say what the correct path is for a girl. She gets to decide that for herself. But more than that,  there are rights that girls everywhere all around the world have. 

And the way that we approach this is: a few years ago, we took a human rights-based approach. But what we found was that many girls themselves either didn’t fully understand what those rights were or had other ideas based on their own experiences of what they thought their rights should be.

So, we actually launched two years ago, the Global Girls’ Bill of Rights with a few local partners around the world. And we collected submissions for more than a thousand girls in 36 countries, five different languages. Some written on paper and passed in, some texted in, some filled in on websites. And we compiled all of this data and worked with a panel of girls to whittle this down to the 10 rights that girls around the world decided were necessary to their lives. 

And it’s this incredible, incredible document, created by girls and for girls, regardless of where they live. And it takes in opinions from girls who live on the Maasai Mara, and it takes in opinions from girls who live in New York City. And it’s this, to me, just incredible piece of evidence of what happens when girls get together and say for themselves what they are entitled to, what they deserve, simply because they are girls, because they are people.

Denver: Share with us one of those 10. 

Christen: Some of them are fairly obvious. So, the right to equality is on there. And it’s probably the biggest, most governing one. The others – a right to a quality education, a right to sexual and reproductive health education and access. Girls actually named and listed abortion, which was really interesting given the difference in kind of cultures and religions all around the world.

Another really interesting one was the right to identification. And this is something that came up for girls who were born into poverty and maybe didn’t have a birth certificate, and that really limited their ability to even access education. And for others who were refugees or migrants and who were really struggling with the inability to access systems because they just don’t have the documentation that they need to belong to that system. So, it was interesting in that– 

Denver: That’s really incredible when you stop and think about that. I guess we have what – 7.5 billion or 8 billion people in the world right now? Two billion of those have no identification. And I know they’re trying to use blockchain to create these digital identifications at this stage of the game. But it’s just, as you said so well, you can’t access anything. You can’t access social services or education or any of the government things that you should be entitled to because you do not have an identity.

Christen: Exactly! And then, of course, when that girl is 22 or she’s 24, and she tells you that she didn’t graduate or she didn’t go to university, we don’t blame the system. We don’t look and say, “Oh, well, you didn’t have identification, so how could you have done these things?” We say, “Oh wow! You really just didn’t do the thing, did you?”

And I just think that’s such a failing. We really kind of lose the nuance of why these things happen. 

What we make it our mission to do is make sure that these local organizations have the resources they need – that’s the funding, the tools, the curricula, the connections – so that we can make sure that local organizations are really equipped with everything they need to be successful in that journey because they are in the best position to do it. 

Denver: Even listening to you, I think about vaccinations. How do you know whether a child has been vaccinated at all… or vaccinated three times when they don’t have any kind of identity? So you could just go on in terms of the dominoes that can fall in the absence of having any kind of legal identification. Much less you can’t get any banking, so you’re unbanked. It just goes tumbling. 

You mentioned a moment ago that you need to really build these support systems around these girls and give her agency. And I think we’ve learned how interconnected everything is as part of this pandemic. And then going after initial, like girls’ education, sometimes isn’t enough. You really have to nurture the ecosystem around that in order to be successful. Tell us about some of the work and the programs you do to strengthen that ecosystem.

Christen: We’re the biggest proponents of grassroots organizations for this reason. Because it is grassroots organizations who are not only from the community, but they are part of the community. 

And so, that means that in addition to working with girls, and usually this is a combination of mentorship, of ongoing leadership, and sexual and reproductive health classes and that kind of thing, they’re providing those services. But because they are such an integral part of the community, it means that as their own ideas and opinions start shifting, they’re able to have those conversations. They’re respected leaders within the community. And that’s really key because there are a lot of great international organizations. 

But if I show up in rural Kenya as a white woman from New York, and I start talking about LGBTQ rights, they’ll look at me like I have three heads because why am I here and talking about this issue that…how could I have any understanding? Whereas one of the local community members stands up and they talk about it from the background and the context, with the nuance of local understanding, people listen. And they engage, and they argue, and you kind of start to get somewhere. And I think that’s really important. 

What we make it our mission to do is make sure that these local organizations have the resources they need – that’s the funding, the tools, the curricula, the connections – so that we can make sure that local organizations are really equipped with everything they need to be successful in that journey because they are in the best position to do it. 

Denver: She’s the First set up a COVID response fund to help address the pandemic. And there’s so many things to do, needless to say.  Where have you focused those resources and efforts? 

Christen: So we have three main pillars that we worked with partners on, and this came directly from the organizations and the girls that we work with, the first being adapting education.

So a lot of girls didn’t have access to tech. So you can imagine if, even here in our own community, students who didn’t have access to ongoing Wi-Fi or to a good computer, you’re already set back in your education because of COVID and being out of school. So, one piece was just adapting to make sure that there were printed worksheets, printed books, and that they were out and distributed to students, that students were getting ongoing communications from mentors, from teachers… all of that.

Another was technology access. And this is, I think, something really interesting to come from COVID, which is that prior to the pandemic, a lot of nonprofits, I would argue, looked at technology as a nice to have, not something critical. And what we’ve learned was: No, this is really something that is absolutely holding kids back if they don’t have access to technology, if they’re not fluent in technology. And so, providing whether that was internet-enabled phones or tablets to be able to access ongoing education was another component. 

And then the last piece was care kits. And this is something we don’t normally do, which is providing food, providing menstrual hygiene kits, providing actual physical items to families. And what we’ve found with our partners is that that was one of the most critical components to the entire system. 

Because what happens when a family is in dire poverty, is that you’re looking at a higher likelihood that girls are going to engage in transactional sex either voluntarily, or made to do so. They’re more likely to be sent out into the workforce and pulled out of school. They’re more likely to be married off and to end up as a child bride… because you have this pressure where no one in the family can eat. And so, every other kind of danger, obstacle, or goal, of course, takes a back seat to the fact that everyone is starving.

And so, ensuring that families had the basics that they needed meant that girls were actually less likely to face many of those outcomes and that families were more likely to stay in place rather than needing to travel and go visit distant relatives where they’re more likely to have access to resources. And then you kind of lose track of all the girls in the program, which we’ve seen happen in past epidemics… in West Africa, for example.

It was really fascinating. We expected kind of the technology and the education – we thought that those would be the more impactful pieces. But at the end of the day, it was the 20-pound bag of rice and making sure that the people had what they needed to keep supporting their girls. 

Denver: We get so critical sometimes with people who do these horrific things to their daughters. And I’ve always tried to take a step back from that and say, “If I were starving…” Sometimes my decision-making isn’t what I can say what they should decide from 5,000 miles away. It’s a whole different animal. And you have to sort of appreciate that.

And I think you made a great point about technology, too. And to the point of what this pandemic has done, I talked to somebody the other day, Christen, who said that for many nonprofits, technology has become a cost center and overhead, and now it becomes program. And they just completely changed the way they look at it. And I think that is a really important point that you make. 

Talk about your impact. I know you guys do some pretty good data there. You have a big section on your website. Tell us a little bit about the impact that your efforts have had on moving the needle here. 

Christen: So our direct portfolio works with about 35,000 girls each and every year. And so that’s ensuring that’s a group of girls all around the world who have ongoing access to mentorship, sexual and reproductive health, to education. And that’s the work we do with our portfolio of local organizations. 

But we also have just over 100,000 girls who every year are accessing our advocacy toolkits and using those within their communities to advocate for their rights, to start a chapter where they’re exploring and learning about girls’ issues locally and globally, and really just understanding what it means to create a vision of the world that you want to see and then work for it. And so, that’s something you can find on our website, really, no matter who you are, is access to those advocacy materials. 

I think the other thing the book says or tries to do is to relieve some of that guilt we all feel about not doing enough… so many people want to create individual change and want to be part of the solution. And I think it’s important for us to honor that while not putting the weight of the world on an individual’s shoulders.

Denver: That’s right. And that is just a perfect segue into the book that you and your co-founder wrote called Impact: A Step-by-Step Plan to Create the World You Want to Live In. Who was that book written for, Christen, and what is its central message?

Christen: That is such a great question. Because the reason we wrote this book was, as nonprofit founders, we’ve had so many people come up to us and say, “I want to create a change, too. What do I do? Where do I start?” And honestly, we just ran out of time to hold all of these coffee meetings. We’re over-caffeinated as it is. We couldn’t do it all.

But what we recognized was that a lot of the frameworks we use in the nonprofit world, your theory of change, for example, you can kind of replicate and use as an individual. And so, we use that as the basis of the framework for this book which really delivers a template for how to create positive change and how to think about that. And so, this book is really for anyone who wants to create that but isn’t really sure how to go about doing it. 

I think the other thing the book does, or tries to do, is to relieve some of that guilt we all feel about not doing enough. I philosophically believe that many of the world’s problems are systems problems. Like we need to figure out our corporations. We need to get them in line. We need to figure it out on a bigger level. 

But so many people want to create individual change and want to be part of the solution. And I think it’s important for us to honor that while not putting the weight of the world on an individual’s shoulders. Because I think it’s great if you stop using straws, and I would highly encourage it, but you stopping your straw use is actually not going to save the planet.

Denver: Oh, no! Don’t tell me that. I stopped! 

Christen: So how do we find the balance? How do you as an individual create a plan for impact in your life that you can feel good about and that you know is creating positive change and creating a difference without feeling like, if you forgot your reusable cup today, like you are a failure of an activist? 

How do we create that balance for people so that they can really sustain themselves over the long term? And we have an educated base of people working to create impact on their own, but also putting real pressure on the big guys on where it matters. 

It’s really important to me that people who are working to create change remember that the goal is not that you do as much as possible in as short amount of time as possible…what we need really are people who are committed for the long haul. 

Denver: I think that that is a good insight that you almost need to have self-compassion, which sometimes we do not have, and we’re very hard on ourselves. And I have found that people who do not have self-compassion tend to not have that much compassion for other people.  Like anything else, you start with yourself, and you can do it.  But if you’re always beating yourself up, that just becomes who you become. And you tend, not intentionally, but it just becomes sort of the vibe that comes off.

Part of self-compassion is self-care – and you and I talked a little bit about this before we started – and that has to do with how self-care can help support resilience. Talk a little bit about that because you do stress it in the book. 

Christen: We talk about self-care a lot because of this tendency for activists to just burn out. And I think it’s related to that idea that you can never do enough to make the world a better place… and that kind of treadmill that we all get on feeling like we have to do it all. We have to take it all on.

But it’s really important to me that people who are working to create change remember that the goal is not that you do as much as possible in as short amount of time as possible. If you decide tomorrow to take on the cause of girls’ rights or saving the planet from climate change, and you go at it so hard for the next year that you burn out and that’s it. That’s all you got and you’re done. You’re out of the race, which happens. 

Denver: You’re actually bitter and cynical if you do go that hard sometimes when it’s over because of the emptiness in you. 

Christen: And that doesn’t help actually. So, what we need really are people who are committed for the long haul. And if that means doing a little bit less year over year, just to make sure that you’re still here and you’re still in it 10 years from now, that’s OK with me. 

And I want to give people the permission to do that and to make sure that their impact work fits into their life in a sustainable way. Because it’s not going away. We’re not fixing the world in the next five years. So, I want you here and by my side 10 years from now, 15 years from now, working to make sure that we are still on top of these issues. 

Denver: It is a marathon. That’s for sure. Fundraising in this environment hasn’t been easy for a lot of organizations – a little bit easier for some who had that kind of a mission; but for many, it’s been very difficult. Talk a little bit about it, but also… cryptocurrency. Because if I recall correctly your second-largest gift last year was in cryptocurrency. Tell us about that. 

Christen: It was. So we work with a company called The Giving Block, which sets up to make it so that nonprofits can accept cryptocurrency fairly easily. 

And this is something I’ve seen a lot of chatter on. Is it ethical to accept cryptocurrency? It’s used for so many bad things. And I find that conversation so interesting because what do you think cash has been used for so, so long?  It’s anonymous, it’s untraceable. And yet, if someone were to hand you $500 in cash at your gala, you’d accept that in a heartbeat. 

Denver: I know what you’re saying. I think cryptocurrency is neutral. It’s the way cryptocurrency is used. Just the way money is used. Just the way power is used. None of these things have a negative or positive disposition. It’s the way that they’re leveraged and used, which gives it that. So cryptocurrency sometimes, because of the press I think, gets this idea, it’s ransomware or something like that. But no. 

Christen: It’s just money.

Denver: Just money.

Christen: So I actually am a really big proponent of nonprofits kind of looking into this and figuring out how to get onto these platforms just because I think it has been a really difficult time to fundraise, particularly if you’re not doing direct relief. And it’s important to diversify who can give you funds and what that looks like.

For us, we definitely saw a hit in donations last year, but in kind of an interesting twist of fate. I think what was happening was that a lot of people, particularly those of means, I think we saw a real stratification where people over a certain income level actually ended up with a lot more money after the pandemic… because they were saving, and they were being conservative, and they weren’t going out and all of these reasons. And obviously, we know that a lot of people in the lower-income side have really, really struggled in a way that we just haven’t seen in a long time.

But what happened with that higher income bracket is that once they started to feel more confident about the economy and about the pandemic, we actually saw this year, in 2021, a huge uptick in the rate of donations. So I think it’s a lot of the kind of balancing act of people you’re just trying to understand and get their footing. And you just need to be able to talk with your donors and understand where they’re at and kind of meet them where they’re at as they’re figuring out their own finances because we’re all a little apprehensive.

Denver: Are you continuing to get cryptocurrency donations? 

Christen: We are. Yes. 

Denver: That’s fantastic. So, Christen, how do you believe philanthropy could be more effective in helping organizations like She’s the First, deliver against its mission?

Christen: We can have a whole episode, I think, on this question. 

Denver: I knew I hit a sweet spot. 

Christen: One of my greatest wishes in life is that funders kind of think about the end goal of their money.

So, I think every year, we get these– we follow foundations like the Gates Foundation or Ford Foundations, really kind of big and credible organizations, and we see:  How are they giving money?  And then we see that kind of trickle down, and you see every other funder decide to do the same thing.

And so, we know that, for example, data is really important and scaling is really important. And so, you get funders who look at a small nonprofit and say, “I’m happy to give you this $10,000, let’s say. But I need in exchange piles of data; and also, I need to see your plan for scaling.” But a lot of times these small nonprofits, scaling is not what they should be doing, and it’s not what their goal is. Their goal is to go deep within a community. And I think it’s just really important to match your goal to what you’re asking of organizations. 

And so, that would be my number one piece of advice or wish or ask for the world, is that: When you’re giving to a nonprofit, have the conversation about what is our shared goal, and how do the parameters of this gift, what I’m asking from you, how does this match that? Or does it? Do we need to adjust it? 

Because nonprofits are really eager to share the impact of your gift. Really, really want to be able to do that. But we want to be able to do it in a way that actually adds to the work and doesn’t take away from the work. So I think having that conversation, particularly for larger donors, is really important.

Denver: They have a prescription of what you should be, and necessarily, it isn’t who you are and it isn’t going to advance it just because they’ve read a few articles about scaling and doing all this stuff. That’s not necessarily the right road. Everybody has their own journey, and everybody’s trying to achieve something different. That’s one of the great things about the philanthropic sector. 

Let me close with this, Christen. What is next for She’s the First, and what are you particularly excited about at this moment? 

Christen: So we, last year during the pandemic, hired our first international team member, who is our program director and she’s based in Nairobi. And we’re now in the process of opening our first international full office and registering in Nairobi.

Denver: Congratulations!

Christen: So we’re really looking at how do we make sure that our own team is reflective of the communities that we work in, and that includes leadership. So I’m really, really excited for her to build out the team there and for us to continue that mission.

Denver: Tell us about the She’s the First website, some of the information visitors will find there, and maybe how they can help support this work if they should be so inclined.

Christen: So you can find us at And if you are a girl or you’re someone who works with girls, you’ll be able to find all kinds of toolkits to work with them or to bring to your local school or your local college campus. So, I’d highly recommend if you’re in those demographics, for you to check it out. 

You can also follow us on social media @shesthefirst. And if you should decide to join our— we call it The Front Row. It’s our monthly giving program. This is our community of donors that we work really closely with and keep really up to date on all of our ongoing work. So, we’d love to see you there. 

Denver: I like The Front Row. I love that name. Well, thanks, Christen for being here today. It was such a pleasure to have you on the show. 

Christen: Thank you so much.

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