Women and Philanthropy

Although women have traditionally been volunteers, they have not been widely recognized as philanthropic donors, until recently. Increased wealth among women has resulted in a recent surge of committed women philanthropists who are fulfilling their desire for involvement and change.


Robert Payton describes philanthropy as "voluntary action for the public good." Philanthropy includes a wide range of activities related to volunteering and the giving of money. Women have traditionally been volunteers. However, not until recently have women been widely recognized as philanthropic donors. There has been a recent surge of women philanthropists because of the increase in wealth among women and their need and desire for involvement and change.

Historic Roots

The relationship between women and philanthropy has evolved over the past 250 years. An early cause that women donated their time to was aiding soldiers and their families during times of war and disaster. In addition, assistance provided to widows and children, especially the poor, grew popular. Often, wealthy women were devoted volunteers and donors of these efforts in the 19th century. An early example of one such organization was the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children. Established in 1797, it was staffed solely by women, and by 1816, it supported 200 women and 500 children. In the early 1800s, the Female Moral Reform Society was established to aid the poor and care for the needy.

Then, during the late 1800s, organizations that provided services specifically to women began to emerge. These organizations, such as the YWCA and National Association for Colored Women, came into existence with the intention of improving education, offering support, and providing training for women.

In these early times, being a philanthropist was an acceptable role for a woman. Women's giving was often tied to their husbands' or family's wealth. Through philanthropy, women engaged themselves in public interest issues and built civic and social connections. They helped to shape family and society by offering their time, commitment and support.


During the 1970s, a large number of organizations developed for and by women emerged. As women moved into the workforce and sought higher education as a means to better their economic and intellectual standing, their power to gather together to promote women's issues and interests increased. By the 1990s, over 100 women's funds appeared. Most of these addressed issues that interested and affected women such as breast cancer, education, and welfare.

This growth in women's organizations corresponds with a growth in women's wealth. Today, women own 43% of stock portfolios with values over $50,000, and 45% of investments in other markets. They own one-third of America's private businesses and control more than 51% of the wealth in the United States. This wealth is expected to rise. "Whether they inherit, earn, or marry money, women are becoming a powerful financial force, and they are increasingly looking at money as a way to change society for the better" (Shaw and Taylor, 1992).

The personal wealth of women is rising, and their volunteer efforts are significant as they increasingly participate on boards and direct fund raising activities. Women put their wealth to work for the common good. They bring issues to the attention of the public to help provide awareness, and they actively seek support to improve issues related to their interests. They provide services through monetary donations. In addition, women make a major impact on the field of philanthropy as nonprofit managers and employees in the nonprofit sector. They play a major role in shaping the future direction of the economic, social, and political arenas, as well as philanthropy.

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

The private sector is helping to make women's philanthropy a capital-driven manifestation of the women's movement. Women entrepreneurs are becoming women philanthropists. These women are giving to organizations and causes in which they have personal interests. For example, Vera Bradley, textile company owner, sets aside 1% of her revenue to support breast cancer research.

Corporate philanthropy initiatives increasingly take up women's causes. For example, Dress for Success' annual drive provides underprivileged women with the proper attire for job interviews and training. Women often affiliate themselves with corporations and foundations that provide services to female-related issues.

Women's volunteer efforts also provide a strong tie to the philanthropic sector. Besides the giving of money through corporate and personal gifts, women still give of their time.

Women provide volunteer efforts through education, support, and training. Their efforts enable other women and young girls to prosper, and to provide insight to the world of philanthropy and the nonprofit sector.

Of course, a very important contribution women make to the growing nonprofit sector is their dedicated employment in it. According to the Council on Foundations, half of the foundation CEO positions were held by women in 1997. Women also held 68% of program officer positions and 93% of support staff positions in foundations. At the same time, the nonprofit sector is becoming increasingly important in the U.S. economy as the sector rapidly grows and the need for qualified employees continues to increase.

Key Related Ideas

Those in the nonprofit field are concerned with several issues related to women's philanthropy. These include:

  • Focusing funds on issues related to women and girls

  • Exposing donors to issues relating to women

  • Coming up with ways to build relationships with women donors

  • Effective methods for raising money for female-related issues and causes

  • Using philanthropic endeavors to provide social change

These issues are vital in the role that the fundraiser plays. Because women now own over 51% of the investment wealth in the United States, efforts need to be made to solicit and cultivate female prospects. Shaw and Taylor make predictions for women and philanthropy for the next five years.

  • Women will take on more top philanthropic leadership positions

  • Women will direct more corporate giving programs addressing their issues

  • Women's funds, political groups, and organizations will continue to grow

  • Women will take greater control of their own resources

  • Women will make increasingly larger philanthropic gifts

  • Nonprofit boards will become more balanced with more women serving

  • Women will insist on increased involvement and greater effectiveness

Important People Related to the Topic

Many women have played significant roles in the history and importance of women in philanthropy. Following are only a few examples of these trailblazers:

Isabella Martha Graham, along with fifteen other women, organized the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children. The organization helped inspire many similar organizations in cities across the country.

In 1875, Sophie Smith opened Smith College and endowed a school for the deaf in Northampton, Massachusetts.

Around the same time, Mary Elizabeth Garrett made a large donation to the John Hopkins Medical School under the condition to open up medical education for women.

In 1902, Clara Driscoll gave a gift that saved the Alamo from destruction in San Antonio and, after her death, she left her entire fortune to establish a children's hospital in Corpus Christi.

Jane Addams was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1931, for her work at Hull House in Chicago, which provided educational and domestic training for women and immigrants.

More recently, five women helped establish a $15 million fund at Harvard to encourage other women to give. Women who contribute $25,000 or more will have their gifts matched from that fund.

Important Related Nonprofit Organizations

In addition to the catalytic women behind causes, the organizations they create have served an important role. A few of the nonprofit organizations established by and for women follow.

The Women of Color Fundraising Institute offers a training program for women in nonprofit organizations. This program teaches them how to write grants, solicit funds, plan special events, and organize a budget. The Sister Fund seeks to increase public awareness in issues involving women and girls.

The Women's Philanthropy Institute mission is to help women gain confidence as donors. They provide statistics and trends on women and philanthropy, as well as motivate women to become leaders and philanthropists.

The Women of Inherited Wealth program teaches about responsible investing, developing charitable interests, and supports women with inherent wealth on making personal philanthropic decisions.

Today, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation promotes philanthropy by implementing strategies to link the pursuits and issues of women's funds with mainstream philanthropic activities. The Foundation also ensures the field supports an even more vital group of women's funds (Richardson, 11).

Related Web Sites

Center for the Study of Philanthropy, The Graduate Center, City University of New York: www.philanthropy.org

The Foundation Center: www.fdncenter.org

Women's Philanthropy Institute: www.women-philanthropy.org

Philanthropy News Network Online: www.pnnonline.org


Carson, Emmett. "The American Assembly." In Philanthropy and the Nonprofit Sector in a Changing America, edited by Charles T. Clotfelter and Thomas Ehrlich, 265-269. Bloomington, Indiana: IU Press, 1999.

Grace, Kay Sprinkel. "The Impact of Women on Philanthropy, 10 Things You Should Know." Contributions Magazine, November/December 2000. http://www.contributionsmagazine.com/novdec00.html  

Richardson, William C. Women's Philanthropy. Battle Creek, Michigan: W.K. Kellogg Foundation, 2000.

Von Schlegell, Abbie J. and Joan M. Fisher (eds.). Women as Donors, Women as Philanthropists. New Directions for Philanthropy Fund Raising 2. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993.

Shaw, Sondra C and Martha A. Taylor. Reinventing Fundraising: Realizing the Potential of Women's Philanthropy. Jossey-Bass, 1995.

Taylor, Martha and Sondra Shaw. Reinventing Fundraising [online]. Available: http://charityvillage.com. (1 April 2001).

This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.