The Study of Women and Philanthropy Just Got a Major Boost. Here's Why That Matters

Awareness about the synergy between women and philanthropy has been developing for years, but there are a lot of unanswered questions that are becoming more important as women wield greater economic power in their own right, while also playing an increasingly active role in shaping family philanthropy. 

At Inside Philanthropy, we've been keenly focused on the role of women in philanthropy since we first started publishing two years ago. One of our first major features looked at the 15 Most Powerful Women in U.S. Philanthropy, many of whom are spouses of business leaders, but we've since written about a number of independently wealthy women who have turned to philanthropy in a big way, like Lyda Hill. And we've reported on the rising power of women philanthropy networks, such as Women Moving Millions

Along the way, we've found invaluable insights in the research of the Women's Philanthropy Institute (WPI), which is part of the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. For instance, WPI's work sheds much light on how couples make decisions in philanthropy—showing how collaborative these choices tend to be and how, in many cases, it's actually women who take the lead, even as their better-known husbands tend to get the lion's share of credit for major gifts. Such knowledge is crucial at a moment when a number of new philanthropic power couples are emerging, like Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg. 

Now, WPI is poised to drill even deeper with its research, thanks to a recently announced $2.1 million gift from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

"This new grant acknowledges that while knowledge about gender and philanthropy has come a long way in a relatively short period, we have barely scratched the surface and many key research questions remain to be answered," said Debra Mesch, who heads WPI, in a press release.

The idea for WPI has been around since 1991, when Sondra Shaw-Hardy and Martha Taylor created the National Network of Women as Philanthropists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which became WPI in 1997, and moved to the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy in 2004. Since then, WPI has expanded its unique niche as the only center located at a research university with a dedicated mission of understanding the connections between gender and philanthropy. 

WPI's research is exploring a number of areas. Last year, it published a comprehensive literature review on the state of knowledge about women, gender, and philanthropy, "How and Why Women Give: Current and Future Directions for Research on Women's Philanthropy," which provides key findings regarding gender's impact on giving. Among the many interesting points is that marriage has a positive impact on charitable giving. "Marriage has a particular influence on men’s giving," the study notes. "When men marry, they are more likely to give to charity and give higher amounts." Another WPI study last year investigated "whether the sex of a first-born child affects parents’ charitable giving." The interplay between religiousity, gender, and giving has also received attention from WPI researchers, as have the different motivations for giving between women and men. At IP, we've reported on efforts to get more women to give in ways that directly advance women and girls, and that's another subject that WPI has been researching. 

As Mesch said, there's a lot more digging to do in this rich area. Given all that's happening around women and philanthropy right now, that big Gates grant has come a great moment. 

The Gates Foundation has taken a stronger interest in large-scale funding for women's rights, advocacy and education in the U.S. in recent years. A few examples of big Gates grants for women in 2015: 

  • $1,099,999 to MIT in November 2015 "to research the influence of media narratives on informing and addressing discriminatory social norms against girls and women." 
  • $580,000 in October 2015 to National Women's Law Center to research and analyze the barriers hindering marginalized girls’ educational success at the secondary level and the best means to address them." 
  • $180,000 in September 2015 to Women Moving Millions "to convene a network of women to share their philanthropic experiences in giving to issues around women and girls with a goal of inspiring and activating others to engage more deeply for impact." 

The Gates Foundation also has a major focus on global funding for women. In 2014, Gates gave the International Center for Research on Women a grant for over $2.7 million, for the purpose of undertaking "economic modeling study that would determine the economic costs of child marriage." This work has a global focus on "Africa, Asia, Developing Countries, Europe, and South America."

Also in 2014, Gates gave $694,892 to the Global Fund for Women for the purpose of strengthening community-based women's networks in Africa. Gates also makes substantial grants for global family health, financial inclusion, agriculture, and nutrition that are largely focused on women.