Mariposa Foundation's Claire Bernard – A Conversation

Claire Bernard is a philanthropist and writer. As Vice President of the Mariposa Foundation, a private family foundation, Claire devotes much of her time to furthering the Foundation's mission. The Foundation gives anonymously, concentrating on humanitarian, environmental, and New York City organizations with a focus on social services in NYC. After Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, the Foundation has taken a special interest in the rebuilding efforts in New Orleans. This commitment was further intensified by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Claire's dedication to philanthropy and better serving her grantees has lead her to conduct site visits around the world including such places as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Kenya, and Bangladesh. She serves on the International Rescue Committee's Children's Committee, the Natural Resources Defense Council's Global Leadership Council, the Global Fund for Women's Philanthropy Committee, and has spent many years fundraising for the American Museum of Natural History. Claire received her MFA in fiction writing from Columbia University, writes on philanthropic issues, and is a contributor to Vanity Fair. She holds BAs in Art History, Art-Semiotics, and Modern Culture and Media from Brown University. She and her husband live in New York and Malibu.

SJ: How long have you served as Vice President of the Mariposa Foundation? What was your level of involvement with your family foundation prior to it becoming your full-time occupation?

CB: I’ve served as Vice President for eight years. Before that I was a trustee and I still serve in that capacity.

SJ: You also serve as “Resident Philanthropist” for Vanity Fair magazine. How long have you been in this role, and how has it helped you achieve some of your career goals?

CB: I’ve had the pleasure and honor of working with Vanity Fair for over a year now. Collaborating with them has provided me with a powerful platform to help raise awareness and build support for many of the issues that we in the philanthropic community fight to bring attention to.

SJ: What specific areas of need does the Mariposa Foundation fund?

CB: We work in four program areas: environmental, with a focus on national policy; humanitarian, focusing on disaster relief and water and sanitation; New York City, with a focus on social services and education; and New Orleans, where we’ve continued to support the recovery from Hurricane Katrina and now the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

SJ: How long has the Mariposa Foundation been funding international initiatives? What countries do you work in?

CB: We’ve been working internationally since the foundation’s conception in 1975, but there has been an increased emphasis on the work in the last ten years. We work in a wide variety of countries. We’re a big proponent of general support so by supporting organizations like UNICEF, Oxfam, Doctors Without Borders and IRC, we’re working in countless countries around the world. In our direct programs, we’ve worked in countries such as the Congo, Sudan, Kenya, Uganda, Morocco, Burma, and Bangladesh.

SJ: What stands out to you as the most significant difference or challenge you face when working in philanthropy abroad as opposed to here in the United States?

CB: I find the real challenge of working internationally is fully understanding what’s happening on the ground as a report doesn’t always capture the situation in country.

I found this out when I was at a cholera center in the Congo by Lake Kivu. The center was closing because cholera had been eradicated in the area. We assumed the local population would be afraid of cholera returning with the center closing, but that wasn’t the case. They were concerned that children would start drowning again. Children were being paid barely a penny to swim out and fetch water from the middle of the lake where the water was cleanest. The filled jerry cans were often heavier than the children who were under-weight from malnutrition, thus causing these devastating drownings. These are the realities you only learn by being there.

SJ: What do you find the most rewarding aspect of working in philanthropy on a global level?

CB: I get the same satisfaction with helping international organizations as I do helping an organization around the block. It’s the hope that at the end of the day, in some way, we have been able to support organizations in accomplishing their goals and helping those in need.

SJ: Do you have a specific memory or place that stands out to you when you think of your travels and site visits around the world?

CB: All of them! Spending time in the field is truly life changing. People would probably be surprised to know I spend a lot of time looking at toilets, sanitation solutions, and all that this work brings, and it’s amazing how simple, easy, doable and achievable solutions can have such an enormous impact on the health and socioeconomic wellbeing of a community. The simplest solutions are usually the ones that have the greatest benefits and outcomes. In the flood regions of Bangladesh, just raising a latrine two feet above the flood line is the difference between a household having a toilet or not having one. It’s that incredible.

SJ: What percentage of your time, talent, and treasure is spent domestically as opposed to internationally?

CB: Approximately a quarter of our efforts.

SJ: What would be the single most important piece of advice you would give to someone aspiring for a career in international grantmaking or fundraising?

CB: To fundraise, which I believe also means to educate, I think it’s necessary to see the work. It’s astounding what even a few days in the field can do to open yourself up and then be able to inspire that passion in others. Plus you meet incredible people in the field, and to me, people are what this work is all about.


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