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Women and Philanthropy


In honor of Women's History Month, GuideStar looks at women's relationships with philanthropy.

Women approach charitable giving differently from men. Then again, maybe they don't.

Women give to education, women-related groups, and the arts. No, it's men who give more to the arts and humanities. Women give to education, medicine, and science.

Examining the state of women's philanthropy leads one to contradictory conclusions. One thing, however, is clear: women have become an influential force in the nonprofit world.

Women's Approach to Philanthropy

In November 1999, the National Foundation for Women Business Owners released the results of a survey on the charitable practices of almost 400 prominent American businesswomen. More than half of the women surveyed donate $25,000 or more a year to charity, and 19 percent give $100,000 or more a year. More than half also volunteer.

The majority (54 percent) makes philanthropic decisions without consulting someone else. Even more (86 percent) cited a charity's mission and efficiency as key factors in their giving decisions. More than half wish to feel an emotional connection to the charities they support, and most of the participants want the organization to keep them informed about its activities.

Kay Sprinkel Grace, a San Francisco consultant to nonprofit groups, agrees that issues are important to female donors. "Women philanthropists," she told the Santa Fe New Mexican, " … want to see change. They see change in terms of fundamental issues. So they go from institution to institution, searching for one that deals with their issue."

Sprinkel also concurs that women want emotional ties to the charities they support. "Studies out of UCLA about women philanthropists, which have been going on for nearly a decade, show that women philanthropists as a rule get involved (with an organization) before they make a gift. Then they will make a large gift and stay involved."

Time Magazine reached similar conclusions. "Women," it reported in May 1999, "are demanding more attention to their favorite causes and more influence over exactly how their donations are spent. Gone are the days when women's philanthropy referred only to sweet dears who ran the school auction or gussied up for a charity ball."

Trish Jackson, education vice president of the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, goes further in her assessment. "Men like to be involved in the institutions they support," she told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. "Women demand it. … Men and women approach philanthropic decisions differently."

The University of Tennessee Alliance of Women Philanthropists also maintains that male and female philanthropists differ. For one thing, more women than men give to charity. In 1996, the Alliance states, 71 percent of women gave to nonprofit organizations, compared to 65 percent of men. Women also gave a larger portion of their income to philanthropy; although as a group women earned 75 percent of men's total income, women's overall contribution to charity was 93 percent of men's.

"Women and Philanthropy: Sharing the Wealth," a study released in May 1999 by the PBS television series To the Contrary, cites similar figures. In 1993, 76 percent of women said they gave to charity, whereas 70 percent of men reported contributions.

The study reached different conclusions about women's and men's giving habits, however. A poll of 1,000 voters revealed that "both men and women believe that helping to address an issue is the most compelling reason to give money," and that "men are more likely than women to also be concerned about their involvement in the group and the group's financial accountability."

Robert Sweeney, development vice president at the University of Virginia, believes that age, not sex, governs philanthropic behavior. "It's really a generational issue," he said in an interview with the Richmond Times-Dispatch. "As corporate and entrepreneurial women come into prominence they tend to respond much more like men in their giving."

People in the 20- to 40-year-old age bracket, Sweeney explains, "see themselves as much more empowered. They don't look at the artificial segmentation we [fundraisers] try to place on them—law benefactors or business benefactors. They're much more issue-oriented and integrated in their thinking. They tend to be interested in specific things: peace and justice issues, quality of life issues, technology."

What Women Support

Which charities women support is equally open to question.

More than half of the participants surveyed by the National Foundation for Women Business Owners identified education as one of the top three causes they support, followed by women-related groups and the arts. Other beneficiaries were health-related charities, religious organizations, youth-related groups, social and human services, local community service groups, political organizations, and environmental issues.

The University of Tennessee Alliance of Women Philanthropists, however, maintains that women tend to bequeath money to educational, scientific, and medical organizations. Men, the Alliance asserts, are more inclined to leave money to the arts and the humanities. According to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, women want to be part of new initiatives. Andrea Kaminski, executive director of the Women's Philanthropy Institute, agrees. Citing Reinventing Fundraising, by Sondra Shaw and Martha Taylor, Kaminski explains, "Women frequently give money to launch programs and to those they view as bringing about social change." Men, on the other hand, "tend to give more out of organizational loyalty and to support the status quo at their alma maters."

Evidence also indicates that women are creating their own version of philanthropy. Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service identified "a growing number of successful, corporate women who are rebelling against the conventional notions of philanthropy in America."

The article continues, "These pragmatic women have no interest in supporting ideology, in giving to ivy-covered institutions or funding causes favored by men. Their goal is to energize women to be big winners in America's corporate and political cultures."


Although opinions diverge on how and to whom women give, there is nearly universal agreement on one point: women play a key role in philanthropy.

That role has increased dramatically. Whereas in 1979 there were only 5 charitable funds that had been established by and were run entirely by women, today there are nearly 100. Women are also giving larger gifts to charity than they have in the past.

It appears that women's importance as donors will continue. Last year, women controlled more than half of the personal wealth in the United States, and the evidence indicates that they will make and inherit additional wealth in the near future. Organizations such as the Women's Philanthropy Institute are working to teach women about philanthropy and to help nonprofit organizations reach female donors.

Women have also assumed a more prominent place within the nonprofit sector itself. The Council on Foundations reports that women headed slightly more than one-quarter of the foundations in the country in 1982. By 1999, that figure had risen to 52 percent. The number of women who held program officer positions at foundations also increased during this period, from 51 percent in 1982 to 70 percent in 1999.

Last year, women headed up to three-quarters of the corporate giving programs in Massachusetts. And according to the Times-Picayune,women make up an increasing majority of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP).

There is every reason to believe that women's influence in philanthropy will continue to grow as the twenty-first century unfolds.

Sources Cited

  • Baker, Sandra. "Consultant Teaching Nonprofits How to Cultivate Female Philanthropy." Fort Worth Star-Telegram, October 11, 1999.
  • Council on Foundations. Summary of Foundation Management Report and Salary Report, various years.
  • Edwards, Tamala M. "The Power of the Purse: More and More, It's Women Who Control the Charity." Time, May  10, 1999.
  • "Foundation Salaries Rose 5 Percent in 1997." Philanthropy News Network Online, December  29, 1998.
  • Hartman, Trinity. "New Female Philanthropists Starting Their Own Targeted Charities." Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, February  19, 1999.
  • Intress, Ruth S. "A Philanthropic Force: Women Gaining Recognition as Donors." Richmond Times Dispatch, October 25, 1999.
  • Kaminski, Andrea, executive director, Women's Philanthropy Institute. Telephone interview with Suzanne E. Coffman, March 28, 2000.
  • Mullener, Elizabeth. "The Art of the Ask: Fundraising a Profession as Well as an Art." Times-Picayune (New Orleans), June  14, 1999.
  • National Foundation for Women Business Owners. "Business Women of Achievement Are Independent Philanthropists: Members of Women's Business Group Are Substantial Givers." Press Release, November  12, 1999.
  • Shaw, Sondra, and Martha Taylor. Reinventing Fundraising: Realizing the Potential of Women's Philanthropy. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1995.
  • Smith, Craig. "Donors Mix Money, Values." Santa Fe New Mexican, December 24, 1999.
  • Steindorf, Sara. "Clout of Women Donors Climbs." Christian Science Monitor, December  6, 1999.
  • "UT Alliance of Women Philanthropists." Knoxville News-Sentinel, April 23, 1999.
  • Wilmsen, Steven. "Power of the Purse: In the Increasingly Key Role of Corporate Giving, Women Donate." Boston Globe,April 25, 1999.
  • "Women and Philanthropy: Sharing the Wealth." To the Contrary. Public Broadcasting Service, 1999.


suzanne-coffman-150x150.jpgThe preceding post is by Suzanne Coffman, GuideStar’s editorial director. See more of Suzanne’s sector findings and musings on philanthropy here on our blog. 

Topics: Nonprofits Women's History Month