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Creating visibility and encouraging women to step into their power as philanthropists: An interview with Jeannie Infante Sager and Jacqueline Ackerman

July 11, 2022

Sanger_ackerman_WPI_philantopicJeannie Infante Sager is the director of the Women’s Philanthropy Institute (WPI) at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, which works to “conduct, curate, and disseminate research that grows women’s philanthropy.” A member of the executive leadership team and an associate professor at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, she teaches in the Fund Raising School.

Jacqueline Ackerman is associate director of WPI, where she manages all aspects of the institute’s research, which is primarily supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

In a joint interview, Infante Sager and Ackerman discussed their work to increase the visibility of women’s philanthropy, especially that of Black women; research findings about women’s motivations for giving and their implications; trends in giving led by high-profile women philanthropists such as Laurene Powell Jobs, MacKenzie Scott, Melinda French Gates, and Sheryl Sandberg; and prospects for “rage giving” and “feminist philanthropy.”

Philanthropy News Digest: Although women’s philanthropy dates back at least to the 19th century, philanthropy is often viewed as a paternalistic endeavor or one structured around couples. How has WPI worked to increase the visibility of women’s philanthropy as independent ventures, and in what ways has it been transformative for the sector?

Jeannie Infante Sager: Great question. It’s why we exist, right? We’ve known, and history has shown, that women have always been generous, and WPI has an opportunity to create visibility and encourage women to step into their power as philanthropists. We’re the only academic institute dedicated to furthering the understanding of gender in philanthropy—through research, education, and knowledge dissemination. Over the 30 years since WPI’s inception, we’ve put out several annual reports; our signature annual report is the Women Give report. The bulk of our research looks at women as donors, but we’ve recently started to do research around women and girls as recipients of philanthropy. Five years ago we created the Women and Girls Index, which allows us to track giving to women’s and girls’ organizations in the United States.

What’s really nice about being an institute is the opportunity to look closely at, and create opportunities around, “research to practice.” We host regular events and symposia to further share the findings, looking at the data and the research and how it informs women’s philanthropy—either increasing it or allowing women to become more confident about the way they give. We’ve seen a real growing interest beyond just our traditional philanthropic circles—certainly beyond just our researchers in the field—and among the press and others. Our research serves to help foundations, nonprofits, and fundraising professionals better understand and connect with donors on causes that are meaningful to them. The research also helps not only grow women’s philanthropy, but ultimately grow giving by all. So if we can encourage the sector and the industry to meet donors where they are, whether they are men or women, then we really have an opportunity to lift more boats.

PND: You’ve written of MacKenzie Scott, whose philanthropic giving to date totals more than $12 billion, that “[w]ith 60% of her gifts supporting women-led organizations, this is a transformational moment for the visibility of women’s roles in philanthropy and is redefining what it means to give.” A 2016 report from WPI found that women were more likely to support women’s and girls’ causes, so what is fundamentally different about Scott’s giving to women-led organizations?

Jacqueline Ackerman: MacKenzie Scott’s giving is in line with broader research, both by WPI and by others, about high-net-worth women donors. She learned philanthropy young; and holds the belief that wealth comes with responsibility. She is very active in educating herself about causes and ways to give, as well as investing in systems-level change. She uses empathy to guide her giving, and takes risks in her giving by taking a trust-based philanthropy approach with organizations—giving with very few, if any, strings attached. What is transformational there is the scale and the speed of her giving. She’s driving increased attention to herself as a powerful woman donor—but in her writing, explains how she prefers attention be directed to the recipients of her philanthropy. This helps drive attention to the organizations and causes that she supports.

We also know from WPI research that both women and men give more to women’s and girls’ causes when they see other women donors doing the same. So our anticipation is that the awareness MacKenzie Scott is bringing, especially to women’s and girls’ causes, can encourage future philanthropists, both women and men, to adopt a similar approach. Trust-based philanthropy is a huge piece of her giving, and we haven’t seen it at this scale. So our hope and anticipation is that she’s setting an example for her fellow donors....

Read the full interview with Jeannie Infante Sager and Jacqueline Ackerman, director and associate director, respectively, of the Women’s Philanthropy Institute (WPI) at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.

 

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