Wealthy Women, Big Giving: The Powerful Donor Network Taking on Gender Equality

One of the exciting things about philanthropy these days is that it takes many forms. The world of foundations is bigger and more varied than ever. New crowdfunding platforms are engaging small donors in unprecedented ways. And intermediaries, such as NEO Philanthropy, are playing a larger role in channeling funds.

Then there’s an outfit called Women Moving Millions, which exemplifies two other notable trends: The growing power of donor networks, and the rising clout of women philanthropists, many of whom gravitate to collaborative approaches to both raising money and giving it away.

Women Moving Millions, or WMM, is a network of 240 donors who have all given at least $1 million to support work that promotes gender equality around the world. It doesn’t engage in direct grantmaking or steer where grants go, and donors pay no membership fee to belong to the group. So, in that sense, WMM is different than, say, the Democracy Alliance, another funding network that pulls together wealthy donors around a specific agenda—but which charges a membership fee and actively directs where donors make grants. WMM is also different than the better known Women’s Donor Network, which addresses a range of issues and works with donors at various levels.

The niche Women Moving Millions occupies is highly specific: “We exist to promote women for women philanthropy,” Jacki Zehner told me in a recent conversation. Zehner is WMM’s chief engagement officer, and also a donor, who joined the network as a member in 2009. Even more specifically, Zehner said, WMM aims to galvanize gendered giving by high-net-worth women who have the capacity to donate at a major level.

How many potential donors like this are out there? A lot, Zehner thinks. She noted that many thousands of U.S. households now have a net worth of tens of millions of dollars. There are also more independently wealthy women today than in the past, while research shows that women often take the lead in family philanthropy. WMM estimates that women control $13.2 trillion of wealth in North America alone. Zehner herself is an example of new women’s wealth, as a former partner at Goldman Sachs.

Still, though, total annual giving by women to charitable work aimed at empowering girls and women has historically been very low. In fact, until Helen LaKelly Hunt and her sister Swanee Hunt started WMM in 2007, few gifts of a million dollars or more had ever been given to women-led organizations.

The Hunt sisters, daughters of the silver tycoon H.L. Hunt, got rich through inheritance and, unlike their father—a well-known conservative Republican—they gravitated to progressive causes, establishing the Hunt Alternatives Fund in 1981. The sisters were drawn to mobilizing new money for women’s issues in 2005, when they came to understand the gap between the number of women who, like them, had access to significant resources, and how little money went to support work for gender equity.

With large initial pledges of their own, Swanee and Helen set out to “raise the bar on women’s giving.” Their initial efforts—which came at a moment of rising awareness of the dividends that come from empowering girls and women—yielded a flurry of new donations and, since 2012, WMM has built a full-fledged organization to advance its mission of catalyzing “unprecedented resources for the advancement of women and girls.” Zehner said that WMM now has eight full-time staff, and that its members have made a minimum of $500 million in gifts.

A half-billion dollars is serious money, and this figure stands as impressive confirmation of the Hunt sisters’ initial hypothesis: that there are huge latent resources waiting in the wings for women’s issues—if you can just find a way to activate donors.

Of course, in a world that’s awash in new wealth, this same idea is tantalizing for the leaders of any cause. Every nonprofit fundraiser dreams that their next sugar daddy—or momma, as the case may be—is out there somewhere, among the legions of zillionaires spawned by the second Gilded Age. So often, though, those dreams come to naught, since identifying and cultivating such folks is famously hard.

Which is why donor networks matter so much in 21st-century philanthropy. They provide a way to find and mobilize donors who might otherwise never swing behind a cause, tapping into ever larger mountains of money that are now sitting on the sidelines. This sure beats hustling for a bigger piece of the static pie of grantmaking dollars given out by known funders, all of whom have long lines outside their doors. If you want to get your cause or organization to the next level in an uber-competitive fundraising environment, networking your way to new donors is key.

Women Moving Millions is a great case study of the potential of networks because it is tapping into one of the biggest reservoirs of latent giving capacity, wealthy women, and generating new dollars for the neglected area of gender issues.

But make no mistake: Building networks of wealthy donors is hard work. Finding members requires getting buy-in from super-busy people who may be quite guarded when it comes to giving away their money—or are new to philanthropy altogether. The next step, marshaling them into a unified force that works together, isn’t much easier.

Historically, though, women have been much better at working collaboratively to pool their money as donors. Women have long connected through giving circles to combine their money and knowledge to make a difference in the world. This phenomenon has been documented by a number of writers, most notably Sondra Shaw-Hardy and Martha Taylor, who offer an in-depth look at collaborative women’s philanthropy in their 2010 book, Women and Philanthropy.

Why are women drawn to this model? Zehner offered a simple explanation: “Women like to do things together.” And that is especially true when it comes to philanthropy, where new donors are easily intimidated by the range of choices for giving away their money. Where Women Moving Millions adds value, said Zehner, is by offering a way to “accelerate the process of getting up to speed… It’s a fast-forward.” WMM brings together women who’ve long been giving away money with those who are new to the game. “We have the students and the teachers, and we’re putting them all together.”

Beyond onboarding new donors, WMM is working to pull more women into its network. It aims to find 150 new members between now and December 2016.

Zehner said that much of the cultivation work is peer to peer, with existing members identifying and engaging new prospects. But WMM also works with financial experts to hook up with wealthy women regarding their giving, as philanthropy advisors. WMM’s ideal prospect, said Zehner, are “people who want a community and are ready for it,” and who are also open to putting a gender lens on philanthropy.

One way WMM strengthens its community and grows its membership is through annual summits, the latest of which is taking placing this week in New York City. A kick-off event last night featured a number of impressive speakers—including the supermodel Christy Turlington Burns talking about her own journey to social activism; and Meryl Streep, discussing the challenges of creating gender parity in the entertainment industry.

Will this year’s summit yield a new crop of women who give at least $1 million to advance gender equity? Stayed tuned.

Zehner acknowledges that such a sum is serious money for anyone to give. But she knows enough about the vast ranks of today’s far upper class to know that WMM’s goal of 150 new members is realistic. “There’s huge potential.”