Heft or Hype: How Much Do Women Leaders in Philanthropy Really Matter?

Judging from the popularity of our recent feature, "Meet the 50 Most Powerful Women in U.S. Philanthropy," it seems the world of philanthropy is more receptive than ever to amplifying the growth of women’s leadership.

But what's really going on here? What's the impact of women's leadership in philanthropy in terms of (a) where resources are actually going; and (b) how things are done in the philanthrosphere?

These questions are important to the sector, but they also link up with the larger perennial debate over just how much change occurs when women start calling the shots. Philanthropy offers an intriguing case study in this regard. 

Our own impression from IP's ongoing reporting in this area is that there are good reasons for all the excitement about women's leadership in philanthropy. In fact, this leadership has mobilized new resources to advance gender equity and does seem to be affecting how philanthropy writ large operates.

Let's start with the new money to advance women and girls. After years of growth, women donor networks are now exploding, bringing more philanthropists to issues of gender equity and growing the ranks of women donors who are explicitly focused in this area. The rise of Women Moving Millions in recent years is a case in point; it's now raised over $500 million for gender-related causes, with even bigger hopes for the future. At a local level, women's giving circles and funds are soaring, addressing women's unmet needs, such as economic security and domestic violence. 


Meanwhile, there are more foundations on the scene with a strong gender focus. The biggest of these, by far, is the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation, which is chaired by Warren Buffett's daughter, and has massively ramped up in the past decade, with annual giving now on par with the Ford Foundation. Nearly all of that money funds sexual and reproductive health and rights. Buffett money also fuels the fast rise of the NoVo Foundation, which is is putting tens of millions of dollars toward gender work, with a big focus on women and girls of colora historic flow of new money to an area long neglected by philanthropy.

Other major players, like the Clinton Foundation, are putting gender equity near the center of their work, while smaller funders like the Harnisch Foundation are tackling women's empowerment in creative new ways. And, as we've reported, a number of fundersmost notably the Ms. Foundationhave lately worked with the White House to bring more government resources to the table for young women of color. 


At the same time, more mainstream foundations led by women are embracing the cause of gender equity. Corporate funders like the Walmart and the Caterpillar foundationsboth with dynamic women leadersare channeling new money into this field. We've also written about various efforts by tech and manufacturing firms to address gender equity in the STEM area. Maybe most significantly, as we reported, the Gates Foundation has focused more attention on women's empowerment globally, a move likely catalyzed by Melinda Gates, who has lately emerged as a more vocal leader in this area.

Related: Pay Attention: The Most Powerful Woman in Philanthropy Is Zeroing in on Gender Equality

The bottom line is that women leaders really are channeling big new money to gender equity. It's not a mirage, and all the hype on this score is fully warranted. 

What's less clear is how much women leaders are changing how philanthropy institutions operate. Does having a Julia Stasch or a Judith Rodin at the top of a big foundation like MacArthur or Rockefeller make any difference in terms of how those places operate, or how much impact they have?

Little research has addressed this question. But what we do know is that plenty of research from other sectors suggests that women leaders do matter. For example, an article by researchers Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman in the Harvard Business Review suggests that women leaders across sectors "both public and private, government and commercial, domestic and international" are perceived as more effective. Other studies suggest that promoting women to leadership in the private sector has a number of business benefits. A landmark 2004 study, The Bottom Line: Connecting Corporate Performance and Gender Diversity, found that companies with women in higher leadership were more connected to their consumer base and experience better total financial performance. Since then, research has investigated the many critical differences resulting from women's representation in leadership; businesses as mainstream as Ernst and Young are speeding their initiatives for gender equity.

A key finding of the research on gender and leadership is that women are often more collaborative and better at listening and engaging all stakeholders in ways that produce the best outcomes. That finding certainly tracks with what we see in the philanthrosphere, where many women leaders operate in more inclusive and community-oriented ways. It's no surprise that women have built the most powerful donor networks in the sector, which requires a collaborative mindsetone at odds with a more insular, top-down (and, yes, male) approach to philanthropy that has resulted in some major missteps by funders. 

There is much more to say on the topic of women's leadership and philanthropy, and lots of research still to be done on its impact. One key institution deepening the conversation is the Women's Philanthropy Institute at the University of Indiana, which has produced groundbreaking studies on gender and philanthropy and has become a major node of conversation in this area. If you want to dig further into these issues, WPI's trove of studies is a great place to start. 

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

Meanwhile, we'll keep doing what we can to explore one of the most exciting trends in philanthropy. In the months ahead, we will give particular attention to emerging women leaders who may be less well-known but who are making impact in different ways. Stayed tuned.