Giving by Women’s Funds Has Soared. And They’re Getting More Savvy and Strategic

David Zydd/shutterstock

David Zydd/shutterstock

A new study by the Women’s Philanthropy Institute, “Women’s Foundations and Funds: A Landscape Study,” reveals the grantmaking practices and range of giving philosophies and principles among 209 American women’s foundations and funds that focus on giving to nonprofits that benefit women and girls.  It is the first study of its kind since 2009, when the Women’s Funding Network and Foundation Center issued the report “Accelerating Change for Women: The Role of Women’s Funds,” which studied 145 women’s funds in the Women’s Funding Network

The 209 U.S. women’s foundations and funds were from five regions nationwide (31 from the West, 14 Southwest, 67 from the Midwest, 59 from the Northeast, 39 from the South). The researchers also conducted 26 interviews with a diverse sample of individual leaders of the grantmaking organizations. 

Inclusion in the study was based on the following criteria:

  • The name of the organization identifies it as a women’s grant-making foundation or fund

  • Women and girls are the main funding priority

  • The organization’s primary function is grantmaking to other nonprofits or programs rather than directly to individuals

  • The organization is based in the U.S. but is not limited to domestic grantmaking

Most of the women’s grantmaking organizations, 71 percent, emerged between 1990 and 2010. 

More than two-thirds of the foundations and funds focus on supporting nonprofits in their local communities, connecting women’s success and well-being to the success and health of their communities. More than 60 percent also engage in activities apart from grantmaking that support their mission, such as conducting research on the local status of women and girls, holding workshops or educational events, and awarding scholarships.

The report found substantial giving from the women’s foundations and funds. Some $410 million was granted to women and girls in 2015 from the over 100 members in the Women’s Funding Network alone, not counting the dozens more women’s foundations and funds in the study that are not members. And grantmaking has become more sophisticated, with a focus on collaboration between stakeholders in the community and a greater push toward multi-year grants. One Northeast foundation developed “swift grants”—amounts in the $500 to $1,500 range—allowing it to address immediate social justice needs and to gather feedback from grantees. 

The study also found significant growth in grant making, with one Midwest fund increasing its annual grants by more than $10 million, from $130,000 to $10.5 million.

The women’s foundations and funds studied employ a diverse range of philosophies and principles to guide their grantmaking activities such as gender lens philanthropy (the most prevalent grantmaking philosophy among women’ s foundations and funds), social change philanthropy, social justice philanthropy, Jewish lens grantmaking, values-based philanthropy, inclusive philanthropy and strategic grantmaking.

The study shows that women’s foundations and funds are important forces for change. Report author Elizabeth Gillespie said that women’s foundations and funds “do a lot more than you’d expect” from a grantmaking organization. More of them rely on research, the number of philosophies and guiding principles have grown, and there’s more diversity and willingness to adapt to change. There also has been a major increase in money going to grants. From publicly available data, the 2009 report found that $60 million was awarded in grants. While the latest study is not a comparison of the same organizations, the data show that more than $184 million went to grants in 2016. She attributes the increase to the push over the last decade to view women as a good investment, because they spend money in their communities and pass on their improved circumstances to their children.

Gillespie also cites an increased focus of women’s foundations and funds on economic self-sufficiency and empowerment. “Ten years ago, the focus was more on equal rights, but now, more than 60 percent focus on funding economic empowerment,” she noted. 

Gillespie also described a growing willingness by women’s foundations and funds to embrace intersectionality, expanding their approaches to empowering women. Research by these grantmakers has explored the challenges of different racial and socioeconomic groups of women, and funds have become correspondingly more inclusive and responsive to the needs of rural women, incarcerated women, and refugee women, among others.

Research by women’s grantmaking organizations has also turned up some surprising results. For example, research conducted by one of these organizations in the South found that men outpaced women in business ownership—except for the Delta region—where  60 percent of African-American businesses were owned by women.

“No one knew that before,” Gillespie said, “so they decided to help them do what they were doing. It’s this increased research and education that has inspired women’s foundations and funds to find ways to be more inclusive in their funding of differences in diverse populations of women.”

Gillespie went on to say that nonprofits seeking grants should work with women’s foundations and funds to learn how to craft a program with a gender lens. 

“They will educate you and they will trust you if things are going in the right direction,” she said. “Nonprofits interested in these women’s foundations and funds should understand they are great at identifying the needs of diverse groups of women and girls and bringing community leaders together. They are creative, willing to adapt to what the nonprofit hopes to get out of a program, and open to new ideas.”

Here are the executive summary and a full report about the study.