The Thomas Sankara Center, founded by Inem Richardson ’20, educates residents of Burkina Faso on the country’s anti-colonial origins and more
Megan Watkins ’97 learned from a young age about the value of making a difference in the world. “I had a very positive role model in my mother, who raised three girls on her own, on a public school teacher’s salary, yet never shied away from an opportunity to give more,” says Watkins. Following her mother’s lead, Watkins has dedicated her career to facilitating meaningful social change. Through her work in community organizations, strategic philanthropy, and grant making, she has brought her expertise to bear on the areas of economic development, human services, and the environment, among others.
Watkins spent the beginning of her career championing vulnerable populations through nonprofit and advocacy work for organizations such as ACCION New York, World Neighbors Nepal, and the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs. Much of her work focused on large populations “who are defined by deficits — the unbanked, the unhoused, and the unemployed,” she says.
“Having seen [in my nonprofit work] how one major gift could transform an organization and with some sense of what factors contributed to effective organizations, I sought a position advising donors,” she says. “I saw the impact that could be gained from helping people to unearth their most closely held values and how marrying those values with their charitable interests could create sustainable and positive social change.” This led to her strategic philanthropy work in financial institutions such as JPMorgan and U.S. Trust (now Bank of America Private Bank) — as senior VP and later managing director within Bank of America’s philanthropic group — where she facilitated the transfer of more than half a billion dollars from individuals and corporations to philanthropic vehicles and institutions.
Barnard was formative in her career path. “I was a recipient of an incredible amount of philanthropic support from Barnard that provided me with access to an unmatched education,” says Watkins. “The more I understood the source of that support, the more I wanted to give and give back.” As a Latin American studies major, Watkins was fascinated by language and culture and interested in learning about community and economic development. She went on to earn a Master of International Affairs degree, with a specialization in economic and political development, from Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs.
After more than 20 years of helping others create change, Watkins began thinking more seriously about how to best align her personal values and interests with an organization that was tackling some of the most salient issues of today. This led her to Farm Sanctuary, the country’s foremost farm animal protection organization, dedicated to changing how society views and treats farm animals through rescue, education, and advocacy. After serving on Farm Sanctuary’s board for eight years, she was named its chief executive officer and executive director in 2018. During her three and a half years at the helm, she and her team increased revenue by 23%, launched the first social justice and equity initiatives within and beyond the organization, and moved the organization’s humane education programs online, increasing participation by 70%.
She left that role this past May and has recently launched her own consultancy, Elephant Crossing, to support more dynamic and equitable partnerships within the philanthropic sector. “I am excited to help amplify the voices and impact of more incredible leaders and organizations,” she says.
For Watkins, Barnard laid the groundwork for a career that has made a positive mark on the world around her. “When I think of Barnard, I think about how it fostered this really intense curiosity and this pursuit of lifelong learning,” she says. “I think about the seeds that were planted about the interconnected nature of social justice issues and the importance of treating everyone with compassion and respect.”