Women and Philanthropy

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Definition of Philanthropy
Women play a key role in philanthropy, ranging from volunteering to financial giving to participation in the nonprofit workforce. Their contributions are essential in ways both similar and distinct from men. The attention to women in philanthropy is fairly new, due to the recent growth of organizations dedicated to women and girls.


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. Patterns of giving, volunteering, and philanthropy have been shown to vary by gender, with women giving and contributing to philanthropy in different ways and for different reasons than men. There is also a recent growth of philanthropy organizations and causes directly focused on supporting women and girls.

Historic Roots

The relationship between women and philanthropy has evolved over the past 250 years. An early cause largely supported by women involved aiding soldiers and their families during times of war and disaster. Women of the 19th century were devoted volunteers and donors who provided assistance to widows and children, especially the poor. 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, their work 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 when women were expected to maintain family while men worked, being a philanthropist was a socially 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.

Between 1883 and 1929, when Andrew Carnegie was famously donating funds to communities across the U.S. and the English-speaking world to build libraries, his grant required that the community match his gift with dollars and a commitment to maintain the library. Women were typically the ones applying to bring in the library, organizing the matching funds, and volunteering to maintain it. It was both Carnegie and the women of the community who brought the Carnegie Free Library to their town.  

During the 1970s, a large number of organizations developed by and for 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.

Women’s foundations and funds are organizations with a primary focus on granting resources and money to support women and girls. 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. The prominence of women’s foundations continued to grow through the 1990s to present day. The IUPUI Women’s Philanthropy Institute found that 71% of women’s foundations and funds were founded between 1990 and 2010. This fairly recent cultural trend continues to be a significant part of the philanthropic field today, with there being an estimated 45,000 organizations focused on support for women and girls according to the Women & Girls Index (IUPUI Women’s Philanthropy Institute).


Research has found significant patterns of giving based on gender. Overall, single women give more than single men, but married couples give more than single individuals (IUPUI Women’s Philanthropy Institute, 2019). Also, within married couples, women now have more influence and say on their household giving when compared to the influence of women 40 years ago, according to research from the IUPUI Women’s Philanthropy Institute.

The personal wealth of women is rising, with women holding 40% of global wealth (IUPUI Women’s Philanthropy Institute). Women put their wealth to work for the common good and their volunteer efforts are significant as they increasingly participate on boards and direct fundraising activities. 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. 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

Although women are involved in and support a wide variety of philanthropic organizations, most of the support to women’s funds and foundations is provided by women. This pattern is most likely caused by the higher relation and empathy women feel toward the cause than men do. As the IUPUI Women’s Philanthropy Institute found and explained, “When it comes to supporting women and girls, [women] participants were motivated in part by their own gender-based experiences with discrimination, inequality, reproductive health and education.”

In general, women and men are motivated towards philanthropy for different reasons. The factor of empathy is much higher for women when they make their decisions about giving and volunteering, and men’s reasons for giving are usually more tied to self-interest and self-gain (IUPUI Women’s Philanthropy Institute). Women also find greater satisfaction than men when they generally increase their giving (IUPUI Women’s Philanthropy Institute).

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's 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.

Key Related Ideas

Giving Circles are a trend of giving where individuals combine together their resources and assets to have a greater, focused impact on a specific cause or organization. According to the IUPUI Women’s Philanthropy Institute, 70% of giving circles are made up majority of women. Read more about giving circles at the Learning to Give page at https://www.learningtogive.org/resources/giving-circles.

Women of Color in Philanthropy, although similar, is its own endeavor within the field of philanthropy with specific trends and patterns within communities of color that differs from white women. People of color, especially women, have historically been overlooked in data on philanthropy due to higher percentages of informal giving. A report from the IUPUI Women’s Philanthropy Institute found that women of color have lower rates of formal giving than white women, but are more engaged in informal giving that is not officially counted in many reports.

Youth Philanthropy is a subfield of philanthropy that looks at the involvement of youth within philanthropy, including the involvement of young girls. Many organizations encourage youth to become involved in philanthropy at an early age to increase investment as they grow older. Learn more about youth philanthropy at the Learning to Give page at https://www.learningtogive.org/resources/youth-philanthropy.

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:


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. Learn more about Addams at the Learning to Give page at https://www.learningtogive.org/resources/addams-jane.

Melinda Gates is co-chair with husband Bill Gates of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The foundation grants money and support to various projects across the world annually, having a significant impact on the field of philanthropy. Find out more about Gates at the Learning to Give page at https://www.learningtogive.org/resources/bill-and-melinda-gates.

Madam CJ Walker is known as both a successful entrepreneur and incredible philanthropist. Walker started her own college and supported many other organizations that served black communities and particularly women of color. Learn more about Walker at the Learning to Give page at https://www.learningtogive.org/resources/walker-madam-cj.

Important Related Nonprofit Organizations

The Global Fund for Women is a foundation that provides grants to organizations and projects focused on supporting women and girls and that are working to improve the lives of women and girls across the globe. (https://www.globalfundforwomen.org/)

The Women's Philanthropy Institute’s 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 institute also works to educate and bring awareness to women’s involvement within the field of philanthropy. (https://philanthropy.iupui.edu/institutes/womens-philanthropy-institute/index.html)

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). (https://www.wkkf.org/)



Reflection Question

Think of philanthropy organizations you know about or have been involved in. What was the engagement and role of women in comparison to men? Was there a noticeable difference when thinking about gender? If so, why do you think that is?



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