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Women and the Future of Philanthropy

April 04, 2008

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Fern Portnoy advises families and individual philanthropists on foundation formation, grantmaking programs and strategic initiatives, and preparing the next generation to be effective philanthropists. This is her first post for PhilanTopic.

Sometime in the recent past, a tipping point was ever so quietly reached: half of this nation’s private wealth passed into the hands of women. It's estimated that this percentage will rise to 60 percent by 2010 and possibly rise as high as 70 percent in the not too distant future.

What that means is that women are poised to change the face of philanthropy. That change is likely to constitute a revolution of sorts -- from a vertical model to one that is far more horizontal, a model more democratic than aristocratic.

The old model achieved much that is great and alive today -- think how woven into American society is the legacy of the Carnegie libraries -- but because it was most often led by men, it did not necessarily involve personal relationships to organizations, was less likely to support organizations devoted to women and girls, and was often tied to business or corporate interests.

The new women's model of philanthropy has been about changing all that.

Take, for example, Goldman Sachs' recently announced initiative, 10,000 Women. The endeavor is posited on a radical social notion that is taking hold in philanthropic and public policy circles and is being strongly advocated by the World Bank: Empowering women is a key lever for alleviating poverty and achieving a socially just world. That's why Goldman Sachs is partnering with business schools and women's nonprofits around the world to educate ten thousand women in business and entrepreneurship. Imagine the ripple effect throughout these ten thousand women's communities, especially in Africa, where much of the money will be concentrated. Women, better educated and able to take care of themselves, will also take care of their children, moving their families from poverty to economic self-sufficiency. They will have fewer children and their children are more likely to be educated.

Similarly, a new initiative is challenging women of wealth to increase their investment in women and girls by making gifts of $1 million or more and to support one or more of the hundred and twenty members of the Women's Funding Network, an initiative sparked by an initial grant from a group of visionary donors. Over the past twenty years, the network has garnered a reputation for smart grantmaking, with an emphasis on women's economic empowerment. As an advisor to the initiative, I've observed the following phenomena, which bode well for the future of philanthropy:

  • Women donors are strategic. They understand, deeply, the wisdom of funding women and girls.
  • They care about impact and know that women's funds -- which vet their grassroots grantees for effectiveness -- are an effective way to be sure their dollars truly make a difference.
  • They are relational. They want to give in community, to give together.
  • They are egalitarian and recognize that their dollars are far less effective without "grantee partners," the women on the front lines who know how to use the funding they provide. In the world of women's funds, you will see donors and grantees working side by side, a Disney heiress collaborating with the director of a shelter in Harlem.
  • Women are charging ahead even as the economy falters. Women Moving Millions has quickly surpassed $90 million toward its $150 million goal.

The upshot? Women are positioned to lead the way in shaping philanthropy’s future.

What do you think? Will philanthropy increasingly be shaped by women in the decades to come? And, apart from a focus on empowering women and girls, what might that philanthropy look like? We'd love to hear your thoughts.

-- Fern Portnoy

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Really interesting posting - we're talking about the same topic this side of the Atlantic, check out a newly published report about women and philanthropy in the UK at http://www.philanthropyuk.org/Newsletter/SPECIALREPORTWomenPhilanthropy

Thanks for the head's up, Beth. I wasn't that familiar with your site, but now that I've seen it I'll be sure to check it out on a regular basis.

I would love to see a source for that statement about wealth. Especially since it seems that most wealthy men now put their money into charitable trusts, rather than having family members inherit it outright.

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