Stories of Succession: Involvement is Mandatory

Stephanie Danforth Chafee’s ancestors trace their roots in Rhode Island back to the Mayflower. Her philanthropic heritage in the area is almost as deep and conservative.

Her mother was a leading supporter of the Parent Teachers Association, the Zoological Society and the Roger Williams Zoo. Her father, like his father before him, supported a hospital and large, established fine art and educational philanthropies.

At age 36, Chafee is carrying on the family tradition--her own way. “I was raised in a family where we were taught to give back,” she says. “But the organizations I give to are distinctly different from my father’s. I follow Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, so shelter, food and health care are my priorities.”

Chafee devotes her time, energy and financial resources to issues involving AIDS and HIV patients at a community hospital much smaller than the hospital her father supported. She started her career in the world of AIDS in 1990 when she became an AIDS clinical nurse coordinator at Sunrise House, a South Providence, Rhode Island, home for people with AIDS. She also supports a cause of her brother, Murray Danforth. He is chairman of the board of Community Prep, a Providence boarding school that gives scholarships to inner-city children who show an aptitude and ability to excel in school.

That may seem an oddly liberal-leaning list for someone whose background is admittedly conservative and Republican. “My husband claims I’m liberal,” she jokes. But then Chafee’s husband is the 40-year-old Republican “I remember sitting in my accountant’s grungy office in New York telling him I was considering giving my inheritance away,” says Hamilton, who is a consultant for nonprofits on strategy issues and research. “He asked who could do a better job in deciding how the money should be shared than I could. And I decided he was right.” Consequently, he set up his family foundation and mayor of Warwick, Rhode Island, and the son of Rhode Island’s Republican U.S. Senator John H. Chafee, a former Secretary of the Navy under President Nixon.

Chafee supports smaller, less-established groups because she believes they meet needs not filled by larger institutions. Big fund drives raise money for AIDS research, she says, but not for small groups like Sunrise House. “It’s harder for some to give to groups like Sunrise House that give prostitutes, drug addicts and convicts with AIDS places to live in their final days,” she says.

She does have one traditional outlet for her philanthropy: The Rhode Island Foundation. But the tie came in a nontraditional way. She learned of the community foundation’s work after it provided the seed money for her position as AIDS clinical nurse coordinator.

“The Rhode Island Foundation’s money gave me my start in the field of AIDS,” she says. Because the foundation funds causes she believes in, Chafee now supports it. “It’s doing an extraordinarily good job of allocating money to little groups that fill interesting niches of need,” she says.

Like many other baby boomers, Chafee and her husband are buying their first home, starting a family and juggling many demands for their time and money. The Chafees have one child and are expecting their second.

“When people ask me to sit on their boards, I tell them I have no more time to give,” she says. “Then they just want my money. But I’m sorry. That’s not the way it works. I have to be involved.”