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Women Are Bright Spot Amid Economic Gloom

June 23, 2009

(Christine Gumm is president and CEO of the Women’s Funding Network, a global movement of 145 women’s foundations on six continents with a shared commitment to creating lasting social change by unleashing the power and potential of women and girls. In her previous post for PhilanTopic, she wrote about some of the women who are changing the face of philanthropy.)

WFN_conference2009_logo It came as no surprise to learn via the latest report from Giving USA that philanthropic giving in 2008 fell by the largest percentage in five decades. All around, news of philanthropy's retreat after one of the worst market declines in living memory weighs on us. But already there are signs of a re-emergent philanthropy, a "New Philanthropy" that is more democratic, more robust, and right-sized for the new millennium.

And women are leading the way. A growing number of philanthropic institutions are realizing that investing in women and girls serves to lift up entire communities -- something that women's funds have known and practiced for thirty years.

A new report produced by the Foundation Center in partnership with the Women's Funding Network validates this trend. The report, Accelerating Change for Women and Girls: The Role of Women's Funds, found that giving by and for women is growing more rapidly than overall giving. Funders -- including innovators like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Jennifer and Peter Buffett's NoVo Foundation -- are increasingly tuning into the potential for accelerating social change by using a gender lens in making funding decisions. They realize that social investments placed in the hands of women mean that the children of those women will be educated, their families will be more stable, and their communities will be strengthened. We're not talking about making a difference for half the world's population; we're talking about all of it.

The report holds up this new, more democratic model of philanthropy as a beacon for all, re-imagining philanthropy as a horizontal collaboration of trusted equals. Too often over the years, philanthropy was dispensed top-down and vertically, and was not informed by the wisdom of solutions cultivated at the grassroots. Women's funds, like no other area of philanthropy, have for three decades pioneered and developed a democratic model of giving, with donors and grantees sharing grantmaking decisions. Most of those grants, the Foundation Center report finds, are focused on economic justice and sustainability.

But grantmaking is not all this new model entails. As the report makes clear, women's funds assert their leadership beyond funding by promoting the wisdom of collaboration in larger contexts -- whether at the community, national, or international level. They also recognize that their work is further strengthened by advocacy and by thought leadership that inspires ever greater scale in advancing solutions to create social change.

Part of what is energizing funding for women is the growing phenomenon of women's financial independence and financial power. And women's funds are leading the way in fostering and directing that power by developing and imparting deep expertise on the subject of women and money. Donors to women's funds and leaders of those funds realized decades ago the connection between money and solving the critical challenges facing women.

Despite much progress made by women's funds, however, many critical challenges still remain. For example:

  • Women comprise 70 percent of the 1.5 billion people living on less than $1 a day.
  • Women grow half the world's food, but own just one percent of the world's farm land.
  • The gender-wage ratio in the United States has not improved significantly for nearly two decades. Women are still paid only 77.8 cents for every dollar a man makes for full-time work. The disparity is even greater for women of color: African-American women make 63 cents and Latinas make only 52 cents for every dollar that a white male earns.

Women's funds spotlight glaring inequalities like these by funneling money and other resources -- knowledge, best practices, and connections to peers, allies and advocates -- to women-led organizations on the ground that have the ideas and solutions to improve their communities. As women's funds have grown, they have gained reputations as financially savvy innovators that know how to utilize money for the greater social good.

We have only begun to see what is possible as women at all levels of giving come to see themselves as philanthropists in partnership with women's funds. The most dynamic recent example of this is Women Moving Millions, a campaign led by the Women's Funding Network in partnership with Helen LaKelly Hunt and her sister Swanee Hunt that focused on raising gifts of $1 million and more from high-net-worth women for women's funds around the world.

Even amid the current economic crisis, the campaign exceeded its $150 million goal earlier this year, raising a total of $180 million from individual women donors. In Dallas alone, the Dallas Women's Foundation grew its number of million-dollar-and-up gifts from one to an astonishing eighteen. Such an achievement suggests enormous dynamism among high-net-worth women. And yet it is but part of a larger picture in which women at all levels of society and means recognize and embrace the importance and power of funding positive social change.

Women's funds have a rich history of redefining philanthropy and expanding the ranks of those participating in it as well as benefiting from it. Today, they and the larger philanthropic community are poised to translate this leadership into real impact through greater investments in women and girls. In a troubled time for philanthropy, it is women's leadership that is shining a bright light on creative solutions to inequity and a path to justice.

-- Christine Gumm

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Posted by Italian Dude  |   June 23, 2009 at 11:58 PM

It's great that there are people picking up the slack when it comes to charity, who are feeling the GFC more acutely than most.

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  • "[L]et me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is...fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance...."

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