According to a new study commissioned by Women Moving Millions (WMM), today North American women have the capacity to give an estimated $230 billion annually. This figure is approximately equal to all charitable giving from individuals in the United States in 2013, and roughly equal to 3.3 times the overall charitable giving by foundations and corporations in the United States last year. This expansion of giving potential is due to a growth in women’s wealth, both earned and inherited. It is a trend that is forecasted to continue at ever-increasing rates, and presents a tremendous opportunity to transform the lives of women and girls around the world.
Many women philanthropists find themselves overshadowed by their male counterparts, but even this is evolving as more women donors are “leaning in” to their own power. Research shows that women comprise 15 percent of the Million Dollar Gift list, compared to 33 percent for men. This figure understates the role of women in couples’ decision making, which makes up 41 percent of the list (anonymous comprise 11 percent). According to additional research by the Lilly School of Philanthropy at Indiana University, in 90 percent of wealthy households, women are either the sole decision-maker or at least an equal partner in charitable decision-making. Another study concluded that women-headed households are more generous overall at all income levels.
The power and influence of women donors is clear, but will we use this power to significantly accelerate positive change for women and girls globally?
The rise of women donors should represent a profound opportunity for organizations that operate with gender-based strategies. Yet, according to The Foundation Center, less than 10 percent of total charitable giving is specifically designated to serve women and girls. There is little indication that this percentage is increasing, despite the plethora of research and rhetoric that supports a more targeted approach. What will it take for women’s giving capacity to meet these needs?
Here we offer an invitation, supported by compelling data, stories of impact, and a how-to-guide:
1. Give big. Women donors need to define their capacity to give, consider their limits, and then stretch beyond it; they must give to the scale of change they want to see in the world. Many women philanthropists I’ve worked with are deeply committed to making large, unrestricted gifts, because they understand that such funding frees their grantees to do the type of strategic and creative thinking needed to achieve lasting change—change that transforms norms and revolutionizes systems. WMM member Barbara Dobkin says about her experiences with unrestricted giving: “For me, donor leadership isn’t about recognition; it’s about partnership, respect, and commitment. ... When donors, including foundations, fund only specific projects, the organizations pad their requests or are left to hustle to keep the lights on, pay the staff, cover insurance, etc.”
2. Be bold. “Being bold” is the willingness to fully activate all of the donor’s resources behind the causes she cares about. Giving of one’s skills, time, and access to networks can leverage and significantly increase the impact of their financial gifts. In addition, women donors must consider putting their name where their money is. Many women philanthropists give anonymously or quietly, because they are uneasy with the spotlight (i.e. “This isn’t about me, it’s about the cause”). However, when they put their names on their contributions, they often inspire other donors to step up to the plate. They also generate great exposure for the organizations they support. Mona Sinha, a New York entrepreneur and philanthropist, says about being bold: “I tap my connections, call attention to issues, and actively fundraise, because I believe that the more we support women through education and leadership training, the better chance we have of leaving behind a restored world. It’s not about recognition; it’s about impact. You can’t inspire others by being quiet.”
3. Apply a gender lens. To apply a gender lens is to deeply examine how culturally entrenched gender norms affect women and men differently, and then take these distinctions into account when identifying both the problems and the solutions. Applying a gender lens is about more effective philanthropy. WMM donor Mary Tidlund’s work with DESEA Peru, an Andean organization providing health care to impoverished communities shows the importance of thinking about gender in development work. Previously only men were trained as health workers, limiting DESEA Peru’s impact significantly. Sandra McGirr, the organization’s vice president explains, “The problem is, men don’t participate in family or community health. It is the women who run the families. They know the details of life in their village. They know who is sick, who is pregnant, who is a victim of abuse.” By training women as health workers, DESEA Peru reached its patients much more efficiently.
4. Collaborate. Collaboration is a superpower among women donors, many of whom want to be a part of a cause-driven community and reflexively see the value of working together. Research shows that when donors collaborate and give together, they tend to give at higher levels, are more strategic with their giving, become more engaged with their communities, and acquire more knowledge about the causes in which they believe. As partners in collective impact initiatives, donors can be pivotal in creating and sustaining the collective process among cross-sector coalition members. WMM takes advantage of these dynamics to further the cause of women and girls. It’s a growing community of more than 200 members whose gifts exceed more than $500 million.
Beyond philanthropy there is also a rise in “Gender Capitalism” to create financial and social impact. This is driven by donors who are investing with a gender lens to increase women’s access to capital, promote workplace equity, and create products and services that improve the lives of women and girls. The rise in women’s wealth has the potential to drive tremendous change in the private sector as well.
Gloria Steinem once said, “Like art, revolutions come from combining what exists into what has never existed before.” Right now, what exists are innovators, many of them women, who are on the ground using gender-based strategies to disrupt the cycles of poverty and violence. What exists are interventions that are delivering results because they empower as change agents. Finally, what exists is compelling evidence that gender-based investing and philanthropy is important to global economic growth and sustainability.
What has never existed before is the incredible capacity of women donors to fund the vision of a more just, equitable, and gender-balanced world. When these powerful forces are finally brought together, I have no doubt that positive, long-lasting change is just on the horizon.