Suzanne Ehlers is a non-profit executive working in the international humanitarian and development sector. She is a member of our GEM (Giving Every Month) circle.
Can you tell me a little about yourself and your background?
I am a white American woman born and raised in south Texas, currently living in Washington, D.C. with my husband and two daughters (and dog, Frijole!). Professionally, I’ve always been in the international development and humanitarian nonprofit space. My parents were and are devout but social justice-oriented Catholics, so I grew up doing charitable work and always had an interest in—and a sense of responsibility to—giving back.
I got my bachelor’s degree from Cornell, and then served in the Peace Corps in the Central African Republic (C.A.R.), which was my introduction to the real work of human-centered service and gender equality. I had a wanderlust for experiencing other people, language, and culture, and the humbling and immersive model of Peace Corps satisfied both my career ambitions and my heart yearnings.
When I moved to D.C. in 1996, I started off working in philanthropy at a family foundation, which was incredibly consequential. I was hired as their first junior program officer and had a bird’s eye view of the nonprofit space. I left with a sense of what I wanted to do and at what sort of organization: policy-oriented work at a smaller organization focused on reproductive health, rights, or justice. I’ve been the CEO and/or Executive Director of the last three organizations I’ve worked for since 2010. I’ve transitioned from the more technical, advocacy-focused expertise on reproductive rights to a broader focus on leadership across several sectors and several types of organizations.
What called to you about supporting reproductive rights, health, and justice?
Reproductive rights are the cornerstone of any person’s agency and ability to exercise their autonomy and dignity. I’ve grown in my understanding of the issues in more complex and nuanced terms as they relate to justice and equity. It can be, along with education, the deciding factor whether a woman does what she wants to do with her life. It’s just so fundamental.
I have watched the politicking around abortion, and it mystifies me that the government continues to make decisions about things they have no intimate knowledge of. I want my health care, reproductive or otherwise, directed by data and informed by science, not influenced by a pharmacist’s comfort or discomfort with a medication or device. It’s been alarming for a long time, although victories at the state level (Ohio!) keep my faith strong.
What would you say about reproductive health in the U.S. in the context of your international expertise?
I care a lot about the international space, and my experience is that donors who are looking to support international issues are coming at reproductive rights and abortion a little bit differently. I have found that international donors want to invest and support women as changemakers in their communities. One way to do that is to give communities access to contraception and safe abortion care. Domestically, I find it to be a more straightforward human rights, privacy, and bodily autonomy argument.
Why do you support Provide?
I love Provide! [Former Executive Director] Melanie Zurek and I were both first-time CEOs in the reproductive health space, and we helped one another organize ourselves through a still-standing leadership group called Walk The Floor. I also know [current Executive Director] Fatimah Gifford from serving together on the Ibis board of directors. I admire Fatimah’s leadership and sense of conviction; she was the right leader at the right time for Provide, and I want her to have my support. Plus, we are both from Texas and our families have sat around a shared dinner table together, talking sports and kids and all the things.
As I got to know Provide, it became important to me to walk the talk in terms of giving, especially giving monthly. I can be more generous with a monthly gift. Like many of us, it is hard for me to imagine writing a $1,200 check at the end of the year, but I am willing and comfortable timing it out with a $100 monthly gift. As a long-time CEO and, therefore, Fundraiser in Chief myself, I understand that monthly donors are an organization’s sustainers. Because I value those donors so much at my organization, I want to be that person for the global affairs and social justice organizations I deeply care about.
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