A Conversation with Abigail E. Disney on Wealth, Philanthropy, Legacy & Success.

Abigail E. Disney advocates for real changes to the way capitalism operates in today’s world. She has worked for thirty years with programs for low-income families, women’s rights, and global poverty. She is an Emmy- Winning Documentary Filmmaker and co-founder of Fork Films, a nonfiction media production company, which produces the weekly podcast “All Ears,” where host Abigail Disney interviews bold, solutions-oriented thinkers from the front lines of America’s urgent inequality and race crises. She is also the Chair and Co-Founder of Level Forward, a new breed storytelling company focused on systemic change through creative excellence, balancing financial and social returns. She also created the non-profit Peace is Loud, which uses storytelling to advance social movements and the Daphne Foundation, which supports organizations working for a more equitable, fair and peaceful New York City.

I this exclusive interview I speak to Abigail E. Disney on her incredible career in the arts alongside her relationship with wealth, philanthropy, legacy, and success.

Q:  What does success mean to you?

[Abigail Disney]: I grew up immersed in success, it was everywhere around me and – as a family – it wasn’t something we talked about that much as a result. When you hear the word success in American life, very often it refers to people who are making a lot of money and becoming powerful. I wasn’t very interested in that – I already had power and money around me, so what was the point? I wanted my life to have meaning.

I realized that I couldn’t do any better than my great uncle financially or in terms of fame – why would I even try? I started on third base with the platform I was born into, so for me it was about finding meaning in life and making the world a little better.

Q:  How did you find a career in the arts, and film?

[Abigail Disney]: I tripped and fell over the arts. I’d been quite cynical- to a point- about what the arts could do, or be, in terms of pushing the world forward. I didn’t really ‘get it’ until I made my first documentary. When I saw the power of documentary film, it changed everything – I thought ‘oh my gosh, this shifted people further in 72 minutes than I could have taken them with hours of conversation.’ I realized I had a bit of a ‘blind spot’ and doubled down on that work. I surrounded myself with incredible, upcoming, established, and talented people and began the work to figure out how best to create documentaries. I’m committed to change through the arts now.

Q: What does it take to become an effective campaigner?

[Abigail Disney]: You create change in other people when you’re totally honest, transparent, and authentic. I started doing public speaking around women’s issues, and especially women’s capacity as philanthropists, a long time ago – in the early 1990s. I would go in and tell my story. People would come up to me crying and thanking me for telling the truth. What else was I going to tell them? When you show people who you really are, with all your flaws, with all your vulnerabilities…it moves them. I’ve held on to that – and it’s worked for me.

When I talk about economic issues, business, and corporations. I’m just honestly telling my story; that’s the water I grew-up in, I understand it. Today, I think we’ve lost our way – especially in the business world – and when people lose their way, there’s a hunger to be brought back.

Q:  What is your relationship with wealth?

[Abigail Disney]: You must tell yourself the truth about money if you’re going to give it away well. Jeff Bezos, in his entire lifetime, even if he flies to Mars 3-4 times, still won’t be able to spend the nearly $200 billion he has. That’s a great, egregious, example of having too much money – in reality, it starts way before the 10th digit in your wealth. If you can’t live well with $999 million, there’s something clearly wrong with you.

Who knows where the line is or when you cross it? I think it’s in your heart, and it’s important to talk about the way money and your heart relate to each other. To pretend that money is some external, hyper-rational thing that can just be counted is silly. It gets inside us; it creates our perceptions and changes the way we operate. It changes the people among whom we are, and who we are. We can’t pretend it doesn’t. When we’re not in touch with that reality, it can change us in heinous ways.

Q: Why has society developed a toxic relationship with wealth?

[Abigail Disney]: There’s been half a century of campaigning in the United States which has changed the way we understand wealth. We’ve merged wealth with our near-fetishization of individualism, not through factual history, but through a faux-sentimentality. The cocktail of the United States is unique, but at some point, we started exporting it. In Great Britain you then began to see the very American business practices of having lunch at your desk. In France you saw the advent of supermarkets and multiplexes, destroying the usual practices of stopping at local stores on your way home. There was a change in attitude which meant that people felt they should work all the time, get as much money as they can, and if they didn’t? They were chumps.

We left a lot of important parts of life at the side-lines to work.

Margaret Thatcher once said, ‘there’s no such thing as society’ – today, we’re destroying society and reducing ourselves to individuals, it’s poison.

Q:  How did you become an effective philanthropist?

[Abigail Disney]: I moved to New York City in the 1980s. It was the first time in my life that I saw people sleeping on the sidewalk. I was like, ‘how can they not have houses? How is this happening?’ I blundered into a series of decisions – some impulsive, and most ineffective. Little by little, I began teaming-up with other people and felt my way through. There was a point at which I understood that there was a deep problem in philanthropy – with ego. We’ve created a reflex for paternalism whereby a donor looks upon the recipients of large assets with an attitude akin to saying ‘well, you need me don’t you… here I am… take what I have regardless of what you want and need.’ There’s also a kind of overambition about what money alone can achieve.

Even if I had all the money in the world, no problem worth fixing can be solved in my lifetime. The best I can do is to be part of the process, and to help the world figure it out.

A lot of what I did at the beginning was serendipity. When I got involved with the New York Women’s Foundation for example, it was a group of women who were not just wealthy, but who cut across the lines of race and culture, and who made decisions together. It wasn’t the old model of a foundation chair making decisions, and everyone else acting on them. I’ve always made my decisions in cooperation with people who are different for me, and my experience with philanthropy has shaped so much of what I do today and brought me so many meaningful relationships. If you’re me? You don’t get a lot of chances to make friends with the African woman who ended a war in Liberia… you don’t get to meet those people and become friends otherwise…

You don’t necessarily know when you’re succeeding in philanthropy. Success is too simple a concept, and life is complex. Often, the people around you are a good measure of whether you’re in the right lane and you must keep going forward the best you can – keeping the faith – and whilst trying to avoid hurting anyone in the process.

Q: What are your views on impact measurement as a key decision tool in philanthropy?

[Abigail Disney]: I think a lot of the neoliberal ideologies from the 1980s and 90s seeped into philanthropy. I often hear people say that everything that matters must be measured, and if it can’t be measured, it doesn’t matter. I believe the absolute reverse. Nothing that matters can be measured.

Imagine Martin Luther King walked into your foundation. Would he pass muster? Would he pass all your tests for measurement, evaluation, and strategy? He would not get a dime out of most contemporary foundations because he would say, ‘honestly? This work will take years, people are going to die, I’m not sure how it will turn out… even if I achieve everything I want to, down the road we will see unintended consequences and racism will come to the fore in different ways…

We need to have more faith in the people we work with. We need to stop insisting on measurement, evaluation, and counting numbers. We must pay more attention to the qualitative nature of change and how movements happen. I don’t think there’s anything on this earth worth lifting a finger for that you can measure.

Q: How did you learn to tell engaging stories?

[Abigail Disney]: The real storyteller of my family didn’t come from the Disney side. The real storytellers were my mother and grandmother. They were riveting. I would always find them with people around them, whilst they recounted stories. I also remember the times my father was working on films and kept saying nothing matters but story

When I was 18, I ran off to college and said, ‘I want nothing to do with those people, they’re not like me!’ However… I’d clearly brought a lot of that background with me – because I ended up paying attention to stories at college, and then studying literature at graduate school and examining how societies change through stories. The impact for example, that a war novel has on a man’s sense of masculinity and how he therefore operates in the world, is profound.

Even though I spent a lot of my life running away from the name that I had, I was running towards that heritage through storytelling. When I started making films, it honestly felt so natural that it was frightening. I felt grumpy to be honest, that I hadn’t found that world sooner.

The enemy of storytelling is wanting to tell people something. I really have that struggle. You really do want to sometimes take people by the lapels and shake them and say, ‘there’s no such thing as peacebuilding! There is such a thing as doing the work with people in communities!

I have an inner lecturer (probably nurtured in graduate school) that I must keep in check. At the same time, there are stories that have so much to tell us.

I recently started reading the biography of John Maynard Keynes. I find him so intriguing. He was queer and was kind of the first person to break through with that notion. I think we’re all queer in some way, but for those of us who don’t identify as such, there’s a notion of what is normal, natural, and average – and that notion means that so much of life passes us by. His is an interesting story, and one I’d love to tell. It teaches us to listen better, teaches us that there are beautiful alternatives in life, and that we can expand our moral imaginations.

Q:  What do you hope your legacy will be?

[Abigail Disney]: I turned 60 last year and have really been thinking about legacy. Life doesn’t feel as infinite as it used to. Legacy is something I’m thinking about very seriously now – and I genuinely believe that if you can take your ego out of what you’re trying to accomplish, that you can accomplish so much more.

I don’t think about legacy in terms of people remembering me – though I do hope my loved ones and family do. Anyone outside that circle won’t know me well enough to really remember me. It’s silly to want to make that kind of mark.

I want to make sure that I am pushing things forward. That I have left the room tidier.

Whether it’s civil rights, race, LGBTQ+ issues, whatever it is, whatever you think needs to be better, you need to push forward. If you can achieve that in your lifetime, you’ve done more than most. If you can do that, you’ll never have to close your eyes at the end of life and wonder if it was all worth it, you’ll know it was.

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.