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The Chronicle of Philanthropy: "Staging an End to Abuse"


04/19/2001

Playwright uses art, philanthropy to fight violence
against women

By Nicole Lewis

When Eve Ensler wrote The Vagina Monologues, a play that focuses on female sexuality, she never guessed that five years later it would have helped to raise more than $5-million for charities and invigorate the fight to end violence against women.

In the play, which features stories gleaned from
interviews with 200 women, Ms. Ensler sits barefoot on stage wearing a clingy black dress and scarlet lipstick. She recites a list of names for female genitalia that makes audiences laugh, fills them with wonder as she describes the birth of her grandchild, and brings them to tears by telling of a gang rape in Bosnia.

Ms. Ensler's combination of humor and grief, and her way
of talking directly to her audiences as if she were a best friend confiding intimate secrets, turned the play into an off-Broadway hit that has been translated into 25 languages and continues to be performed in New York by revolving three-women casts as well as around the country.

Her approach also has prompted women to linger after her performances to tell Ms. Ensler about their own tales of struggle and abuse. The mounting number of stories inspired Ms. Ensler, a longtime feminist and activist on a wide range of causes, to start V-Day, a charity that fights rape, battery, incest, and female-genital mutilation.

The charity has grown along with the show's popularity. V-Day -- the "V" stands for victory, valentine, and vagina -- receives money through benefit performances and a $10 allotment from every ticket that is sold for commercial performances. V-Day has given the money to scores of charities, mostly grass-roots groups, in the United States and abroad.

"My goal, and V-Day's, is to make violence against women the foremost thing on people's minds," says Ms. Ensler, 47, who contributes 5 percent of the play's royalties to charity, about $40,000 so far. "It was very clear there was a way to use the play to not only raise consciousness but raise a lot of money."

'Power of an Artist'

Charity officials say Ms. Ensler's art and activism have helped them breathe new life into their efforts to end violence against women.

"The power of an artist is to bring people together, and part of that is reaching people in a way that people like us can't," says Jessica Neuwirth, president of the board of Equality Now, a New York-based charity that receives money from V-Day to discourage violence against women worldwide by documenting and publicizing incidents of domestic abuse, infanticide, rape, and other acts that harm women. Many people who come to see The Vagina Monologues would never attend a conference organized by a nonprofit organization, Ms. Neuwirth says. The play, she says, "has a much broader reach."

Ms. Ensler extends the play's influence by encouraging colleges and community theaters to produce The Vagina Monologues around Valentine's Day, a time when V-Day works especially hard to raise awareness and bring in revenue.

V-Day has attracted the attention of such celebrities as Oprah Winfrey, Glenn Close, Brooke Shields, and Jane Fonda, who were among 75 women who performed The Vagina Monologues in February at a sold-out gala benefit at New York City's Madison Square Garden. The event helped to raise $2.3-million for V-Day.

Ms. Fonda, who donated $1-million of that amount, says
she hopes her gift will inspire other big donations to Ms. Ensler's charity.

"Eve thinks big," Ms. Fonda said in a written statement.
"She inspires others to do likewise. She is building an international movement without an organization in the traditional sense. No bureaucracy, no hierarchy, but a lot of love and humor."

A Victim of Abuse

Ms. Ensler says she never dreamed during her youth that
she would draw such accolades. Growing up in Scarsdale, N.Y., she says she was sexually abused by her father until age 10 and beaten by him after that. In her 20's, she battled problems of alcohol and drugs, as well as depression. She credits her survival to the help of friends, and to her desire to help others.

"My life was really terrible," she says, adding: "You either shut down and say, 'I'm going to pack it in,' or you say, 'I'm going to do something about it.' I had a fantasy I would change things for other people so it wouldn't be like that for them."

Ms. Ensler says she is mystified as to why The Vagina Monologues and not her other plays, on such themes as nuclear disarmament and homelessness, has moved so many people. Whatever the reason, though, she says she wants to use the play to raise as much money and awareness as possible while it is so popular.

"There's a window open right now," she says, "and one feels this huge desire to seize it."

Starting From Scratch

For Ms. Ensler, seizing the opportunity to help women meant starting a charity from scratch. After a few brainstorming sessions with friends in her New York City apartment, she started V-Day as part of the Tides Center, a nonprofit organization in San Francisco.

Soon, Ms. Ensler began to study how other philanthropists gave away money. Among her role models was the actress Joanne Woodward, one of her early artistic mentors.

Ms. Woodward and her husband, the actor Paul Newman, have given charities $115-million in proceeds from Mr. Newman's natural-foods company. Ms. Ensler was particularly impressed with the lack of bureaucracy at the company: Mr. Newman personally reviews grant proposals and selects recipients.

"They didn't make people beg," she says of Ms. Woodward and Mr. Newman, who have donated money to V-Day. "They investigated, they checked things out, and then they
trusted people."

Searching for Causes

Ms. Ensler's unorthodox views on philanthropy extend to the way she describes V-Day. She shuns the word charity, saying it connotes weakness instead of strength. She prefers to call V-Day a "movement," with her play a catalyst to raise money and awareness. And she never refers to grants to describe the funds her organization dispenses; she prefers to talk about awards, which she says has more of a tone of celebration -- and less of dependency.

Charities can't apply to receive money from V-Day. To find charities to support, Ms. Ensler relies largely on her instincts, her connections with nonprofit groups forged over years of activism and volunteer work, and the advice of V-Day staff members.

Often she is able to combine her playwriting with her search for worthy beneficiaries. Before traveling to Afghanistan to conduct interviews for a new play she is writing about how women force themselves to conform to their culture's images of female beauty and behavior, the charity's executive director, Willa Shalit, conducted research online and discovered The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan.

Ms. Ensler visited the group's orphanages, as well as classrooms where it taught women to read. The literacy program is very risky for the charity to operate because the Taliban, the Islamic fundamentalist group that controls Afghanistan, does not permit women to learn how to read. Ms. Ensler, hardly one to be deterred by controversy, arranged for V-Day to give $240,000 to the charity.

V-Day puts few strings on the money it awards, but it won't allow its money to be used to conduct research. Instead the fund prefers financing services or advocacy, especially creative new ideas to deter violence against women.

The charity recently helped to sponsor a Stop-Rape Contest, in which 11 international coordinators found individuals and organizations with ideas about how best to prevent rape in their communities, and three winners were chosen from Brazil, Kenya, and Germany. V-Day pledged to support the projects, which included starting antirape clubs in schools, printing antirape slogans on bread and pastry wrappings, and using street-theater performances to get people talking about violence against women.

Equality Now ran the contest, which was part of the Gathering to End Violence Against Women, a meeting of international activists in February. Several foundations helped sponsor the contest and the meeting: The Ford Foundation gave $200,000, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation contributed $35,000, and the Ms. Foundation for Women gave $5,000.

Extending Its Reach

Beyond her international visits, Ms. Ensler is pursuing other efforts to make V-Day more visible. The charity started a Web site in January, where visitors can donate electronically, sign up for an e-mail newsletter, find information about charities that help women in violent situations, and share stories of abuse.

The group's growing reach is beginning to make fund
raising somewhat easier. Four companies that cater largely to women contributed about $500,000 total to the February Madison Square Garden fund-raising benefit. In 1998, the first year V-Day held a gala performance, no company was willing to support it. Participating in the February event were Hearst Magazines, the Liz Claiborne clothing company, the Web site Women.com, and Lifetime Television. Several other companies also made smaller donations.

V-Day has accomplished this growth without a central office or a telephone, expenses the group does not want to incur as it wants to keep administrative costs low. It operates largely via e-mail from the homes of Ms. Ensler and five staff members. But the charity hopes to trim its overhead cost further by spinning off from the Tides Center, which takes 6 percent of V-Day's revenue in exchange for providing basic administrative needs.

Still, the charity realizes that to expand its financing of good works it must expand its pool of donors. Ms. Fondais by far the largest single donor to the charity, having provided nearly one-fifth of the amount the group has raised in its lifetime.

The bulk of its money is now raised from the ticket
surcharge-- so far $1.8-million has been raised in $10 increments -- and the annual gala.

To encourage more donations from individuals, Ms. Shalit, the group's executive director, set up two special funds that pledge to channel contributions directly to charities that help women; V-Day pays all the handling charges so that 100 percent of a donor's gift will finance good works.

The Zeba Fund supports humanitarian aid for women in Afghanistan, and the Agnes Fund supports Tasaru Ntomonok (Safe Motherhood), a group in Kenya that works to stop female genital mutilation. Those funds have been popular because they give donors the chance to say exactly how their money
will be used, says Ms. Shalit, who adds that 60 percent of the money that individuals contribute to V-Day are tagged by donors for these two funds. "People like to know their money is not buying paper clips," she says.

Campus Groups

Beyond raising its own money, V-Day helps numerous nonprofit organizations attract revenue.

V-Day encourages student groups to produce The Vagina Monologues as benefit performances in February. The money raised from those productions stays in cities and towns where the institutions are located and does not pass through V-Day. The productions give students, who decide where the money will be donated, the opportunity to learn about philanthropy, art, and activism. Last year 229 colleges performed the play and donated more than $580,000.

Ms. Ensler says the students' participation is her favorite part of V-Day. "It's a completely hands-on experience," says Ms. Ensler. "They are raising money through it, and consciousness, and they are spreading the V-Day message
on college campuses everywhere."

Charities around the country also have the opportunity to use the opening-night performance of the show in their city as a benefit for donors and to attract new members, as long as V-Day approves the request.

The Greater Boston National Organization for Women chapter recently netted $30,000 after a performance of The Vagina Monologues, which V-Day matched. As a result, the group secured nearly all of its annual budget in one night.

In Boston, as she does in many cities where the play is produced, Ms. Ensler made herself available to encourage charities that help women to collaborate more closely. On her one day off during the two-week Boston engagement, Ms.Ensler, wearing black leather pants and a black turtleneck, appeared as the main attraction at a lunch the chapter held for top donors, local academics, community activists, and officials from other local antiviolence charities to get acquainted.

"Our mission is to unify groups and remind people that they are in collaboration and cooperation as opposed to competition," she says. "I want to know in every community who is doing the work, so eventually we'll have a worldwide network."

Pursuing New Projects

While Ms. Ensler continues to promote The Vagina Monologues, she plans to start work on a new play this fall, to be called The Good Body. She also plans to write a series of monologues for middle- and high-school students, about eating disorders, sex trafficking, dating, cliques, and other issues.

Home Box Office, the cable-television network, filmed a documentary of Ms. Ensler interviewing women for and performing The Vagina Monologues. When it airs next year Ms. Ensler hopes to organize discussions called the Vagina Dialogues, where women will watch the film together and then talk about it.

Ms. Ensler, who says her favorite thing is meeting new people, shows no sign of slowing down. Although she visited 32 countries last year to perform The Vagina Monologues, speak about V-Day, and interview women for her new work, Ms. Ensler says she feels exhilarated, not exhausted.

"Things overwhelm you when you don't want to be doing them," she says. "For me, my desire to see women growing up not recovering and surviving, but thriving and creating, is at the core of everything that I do." V-DAY

HISTORY: The playwright and activist Eve Ensler started V-Day, a nonprofit organization, in 1998 following the success of The Vagina Monologues, her play about female sexuality.

PURPOSE AND AREAS OF SUPPORT: V-Day mainly supports grass-roots national and international charities working to prevent rape, other physical violence against women, incest, and female genital mutilation.

ASSETS: $894,000. Ms. Ensler donates 5 percent of her royalties from the play to the charity, about $40,000 so far. In addition, $10 of the cost of every ticket sold to a commercial production of The Vagina Monologues goes to V-Day.

KEY OFFICIALS: Eve Ensler, creative director; Willa
Shalit, executive director.

ADDRESS: 20 Owl Creek, Santa Fe, N.M. 87505.