Some big trends are happening in America for women, and these trends will likely be snowballing in the near future. The first trend: the growing financial muscle of women. The second: women's growing leadership. Add to this mix the upward trajectory of women's role in philanthropy, and you may have the makings of a paradigm shift.
In conversing with Debra Mesch, director of the Women's Philanthropy Institute, and Andrea Pactor, its associate director, I came away with a sense of how forces are aligning, now more than ever, for women to take the lead in philanthropy and beyond, and shape public policy for the common good.
Let's review the case for women's growing financial muscle. "Women are becoming the recipients of a massive transfer of wealth," said Mesch. A quick review of the numbers: $10-million-plus, women-owned firms increased by 57 percent in 2013. Forty-five percent of American millionaires are now women, and 48 percent of estates worth more than $5 million are controlled by women. In 2013, an estimated 60 percent of high-net-worth women made their own fortunes, and by some estimates, as much as two-thirds of all wealth in the U.S. will be controlled by women by the year 2030.
And the case for women's growing leadership? We are seeing more and more breakthroughs for women's leadership across the board, from religion to politics, from business to nonprofit, from the household to the White House. Hillary Clinton is the most obvious example of the perfect nexus of women's leadership and philanthropy, with her dual role as both a political and a philanthropic leader. This presidential race may yield the first female president, and it's no accident that she has a strong history in philanthropy, a field that has been ahead of the curve in pushing for promising social policy changes for women for several decades.
Add to this the women in communities forming giving circles. Scholars in the field are calling this process "the democratization of philanthropy," and the results of this massive cultural shift have yet to be fully realized.
But wait a minute. Let's back up. Where did all this momentum for women and philanthropy come from? Andrea Pactor traces the study of gender and philanthropy back to the very practical pursuits of two leading women fundraisers. Sondra Shaw-Hardy and Martha Taylor, who started the National Network for Women as Philanthropists in 1991, perceived a critical difference in the way women approached giving. They also recognized a huge deficit in the field of fundraising that needed to be addressed—cultivating women donors.
"The two women (Shaw-Hardy and Taylor) who created this work did it not only to help women come into their own in philanthropy, but also to change the way fundraisers perceive donors," said Pactor. "So this particular strand of women's philanthropy study emanated from a very pragmatic approach to fundraising."
In 1997, the National Network for Women as Philanthropists became the Women's Philanthropy Institute, and then became part of the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy in 2004. The program functioned mainly as a home base for the lectures and presentations that Shaw-Hardy and Taylor made about gender and philanthropy across the country, and why it was such an important factor in fundraising. In its early years, the program functioned primarily to provide donor education to women donors about their power and influence in philanthropy, and at the same time to guide fundraisers to engage women as donors.
Debra Mesch came on as director of the Women's Philanthropy Institute in 2008, and helped the Institute gain traction by establishing a volunteer leadership council. In 2010, WPI began its signature research series Women Give, and each year, this research has built out the picture a little more on how gender is influencing philanthropy, and what we can do to maximize the return on women's positive influence. As we recently reported, that research just got a major boost from the Gates Foundation.
Mesch and Pactor both see a lot of transformation happening on the ground for women in philanthropy. "Pockets of very powerful women at the community and grassroots level are forming their own giving circles, their own collective giving models, their own modes of engaging in philanthropy, to make powerful changes in their own communities and across the globe," said Mesch.
Pactor agrees that giving circles are not just a trend, but a cultural phenomenon that is growing steadily—and an important way in which people are participating in society, as people organize their own giving campaigns and groups for giving. "There are giving circles for everybody out there." Pactor pointed to the Women's Collective Giving Network, an association of 47 giving circles, with more than 10,000 women philanthropists in the mix.
Pactor also sees an important new development in the Prosperity Together Initiative, which launched in November 2015 and brings together 28 women's funds and foundations to provide $118 million in funding for women and girls of color. "This represents a new direction for the women's funds. What Prosperity Together did is, it reframed the conversation, and it took existing dollars and pooled them to get more traction and bandwidth." Pactor sees this move significantly increasing the visibility of women's funds, which work to address inequality for women and girls.
Pactor also sees great potential for the new generation of women leaders in philanthropy coming up through these women's funds. "They are bringing a lot of new momentum and ideas, leaders like Jennifer Lockwood- Shabat at the Washington Area Women's Foundation, Liz Vivian out of the Women's Funding Alliance. These women have the potential to take the state women's funds in new and important directions." Pactor also talked about the strength of Lee Roper-Batker from the Women's Foundation of Minnesota and Roslyn Dawson-Thompson of the Dallas Women's Foundation, more longstanding leaders of the women's funds who have laid the groundwork for the younger generation.
Mesch sees big things happening in the near future with our understanding of women's role in giving at the micro-level—how individual households are influenced by their female members. "We know women are much more interested in the idea of legacy, and leaving a legacy to their children and grandchildren. That's another area of potential new findings that will influence practice."
Pactor and Mesch talked about the example of Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan's giving, and how it has evolved since the couple's marriage in 2012. "The recent giving that they have made, particularly in the Bay Area, to us, clearly reflects the research in the sense that she is a full partner in helping to craft their giving plan," said Pactor. "We think that kind of high visibility of women's role is another way that people like that will influence other people in their giving."
Mesch also cited the giving of Bill and Melinda Gates as an example of a couple negotiating its philanthropic giving. She referenced Nicholas Kristof's recent article on the 15th anniversary of the creation of the Gates Foundation, which describes how Melinda Gates has taken a stronger role recently in advocating for women to be central to the Gates's giving.
"She [Melinda Gates] has a strong belief that giving to women and girls really makes an impact in the community, and changes the status of women and girls. She is a full partner with Bill, but she has also started her own track, now, on funding for women and philanthropy."
And where do Mesch and Pactor see things going in the future for women and philanthropy? "Technology," said Mesch. "Women seem to connect better with a lot of the technology around philanthropy, so we want to see where that can go in terms of further developing and amplifying giving."
Pactor sees two other big trends: public policy and impact investing, both areas where women are becoming more strategic in terms of spending their money. "As more women come into philanthropy, they are realizing that they need to work on the legislative level and focus more on public policy."
She also sees women as having an edge when it comes to reinventing philanthropy with financial tools like impact investing. "The concept of impact investing appeals to a lot of women," she said. "So I think we're going to hear a lot more from women about that."
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