Path to Empowerment: A Women’s Foundation Zeroes in on Economic Security

Roslyn Dawson Thompson, CEO, Dallas Women's FoundationNearly every week at Inside Philanthropy, I meet another woman leader who shows me a way that women’s funds and foundations are affecting the philanthropy landscape and breaking down barriers to equality for women and girls. 

This week, I talked to Roslyn Dawson Thompson, president and CEO of the Dallas Women’s Foundation and the chair of the board of directors of the Women’s Funding Network. Much of our discussion concerned the role of economic security in empowering women. “If women are not able to achieve economic security, then it has massive implications for workforce development and the economics of every state and the country overall,” said Thompson. 

She referenced a recent report produced by the Texas Women’s Foundation (the research and advocacy arm of the Dallas Women’s Foundation) on the difficult economic states of women in Texas, where they face high unemployment and poverty. “If 53 percent of our households in poverty are headed by women, then all of these issuesviolence against women, transportation, access to education, access to healthcarelive under the umbrella of economic justice and economic security.”

Over the past several years, the Dallas Women’s Foundation has honed its focus to enhance economic security for women, and has been funding grantees who can successfully carry out this charge. The foundation recently partnered with grantee Educational First Steps to create the Child Care Bridge Fund. This temporary, partial funding ensures low-income mothers can go to work or school, plus enroll their children at early learning centers that meet national quality standards. 

“So far, this has produced an amazing result,” said Thompson. “Every dollar we have put in has enabled a woman to bring home $4.39 to her family. It’s a super triple bottom line play because a woman has a job, a teacher in a high-quality day care center has a job, and a child is getting high-quality early childhood education.”

Thompson sees the work of the Dallas Women’s Foundation, and other regionally based U.S. women’s foundations that zero in on local needs, as underscoring the value of place-based philanthropy. 

“If you watch how women see the issues, how they understand the issues from the very intimate reality that most women live and deal withwhether it’s ‘I buried my mother’ or ‘I took care of her’ or ‘I’m a single mom’there are the threads of experience that women have all held together, and that keep us more close to the needs of the community, and more sympathetic and willing to take risks... we’re not afraid."

Another way the Dallas Women’s Foundation is empowering women is by moving its own assets into women-owned and women-run businesses. “Right now, we’re at $33 million in overall assets, and we have committed to get at least 8 to 12 percent of our working capital and assets into gendered investments by 2018, to make the money we have in investments work for women just as our grants and philanthropy work for women.” Now that the foundation is looking for financial products that target funding to women’s businesses, Thompson said, she has observed the financial industry working to create products to meet this demand. 

A third way that the Dallas Women’s Foundation is tackling economic security for women is through a 10-year commitment to financial literacy work with women and girls throughout the state. Thompson described how the program ensures that “women and girls learn about money, know how to earn money, and know how to keep money, and not see money as strictly a tool of transaction.”

Thompson, like many of the other women leaders in philanthropy I have spoken with, sees women’s empowerment as influencing not just philanthropy, but business culture as well, particularly the ideas of corporate responsibility and corporate citizenship. “That’s the power alley of women. They’ve got the right stuff, the vision, the understanding, and the ability to be inclusive in their decision-making that countenances the business and consumer needs.”

Thompson thinks corporate foundations have more influence now, and that corporations are becoming more responsive to gender parity. That realization really hit home for her when she read a recent report from Ernst and Young titled Women. Fast Forward, which promotes corporate advancement of women as a smart business strategy that will enhance the bottom line. Thompson described a particularly eye-opening section in the report quoting Ernst & Young Diversity and Inclusiveness Officer Karyn Twaronite, who said, “We may have women leaning in, but the reality is we also need companies to be there supporting and sponsoring them to do so. It’s not about fixing the women—it’s about fixing the environment.”

Shifting business culture and social policies so that they fit women’s realities—including their current lack of economic security—is an important way that the Dallas Women’s Foundation and women’s funding in general are altering the landscape of philanthropy. With initiatives supporting economic security for women, Thompson and other leaders in the women’s funding movement are giving women support and also benefitting the community as a whole. “It gets back to that the shared responsibility for everyone, which can’t be abrogated,” she said.