Women's Philanthropy Institute

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
The Women’s Philanthropy Institute (WPI) focuses their research on many aspects of gender and philanthropy, but none more than helping to better understand the powerful role of women as leaders in 21st century philanthropy, and how to leverage that power for the common good.

Written by Travis D. Tester with some content from an earlier edition



The mission of the Women’s Philanthropy Institute is to increase understanding of women’s philanthropy through rigorous research and education – interpreting and sharing insights broadly to improve philanthropy (Women’s Philanthropy Institute).

Gender matters in philanthropy. The Women’s Philanthropy Institute (WPI) exists to carrying that message forward, deepening the understanding about how, when, and why gender matters in charitable giving and volunteering, and changing societal perceptions about who is philanthropic (Women’s Philanthropy Institute).

The Women’s Philanthropy Institute is not a funding institution, but rather is an organization that provides women with programs and services to enhance their knowledge of philanthropy.  The Institute provides various means in which to encourage philanthropy including publications, articles, speakers, trainings, and consulting services. These services provide women with the opportunity to begin or increase their philanthropic strength. Additionally, the Institute is a resource for data on the nuances surrounding genders in philanthropy. The Institute has substantial research that continues to provide data that assists donors, fundraisers, and various organizations to understand the powerful role of women in philanthropy, and how to leverage that power (Women’s Philanthropy Institute).


Historic Roots

Founded in 1997, the Women’s Philanthropy Institute, formerly housed in Rochester Michigan, moved January 1, 2004 to Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy and expanded its mission to include research as well as education. In 2008 Dr. Debra Mesch joined WPI as the first director (Women’s Philanthropy Institute).  

Historically, women have been powerful philanthropic givers to causes they support. In the 1970s, the second wave of feminism brought new money from their increasing incomes which often were often attributed to their higher educational attainments. As such, women demanded equality and they began to further explore their own philanthropic potential by creating organizations for women.  Large advances were made in the 1980s when women found a new way of funding through foundations and corporations. By 1980, a dozen women’s funds had formed, and they drew on large membership bases to raise money for scholarships, research, and grants for women and girls.  In 1985, the San Francisco-based Women's Foundation, renamed in 1986 to the Women’s Funding Network, was formed to help support and bring together various foundations.  The Network became the leader of the women's funding movement (Mollner, 2005).

Women have always played an important role in the philanthropic community. Women were traditionally seen as volunteers; however, women are beginning to be recognized widely as philanthropic donors that change the landscape of philanthropy. The engagement of women in philanthropy surged in the late 19th century and into the turn of the 20th century because of the increase in wealth among women and their desire for involvement and change. Philanthropy, much like other areas of society, is no longer dominated by men, and is not a “one-size fits-all” concept. It is for these reasons the Women’s Philanthropy Institute was formed (Mollner, 2005).



Women’s needs are of growing importance, but there is also a significant growth in women’s wealth. Debra Mesch, director of the Women’s Philanthropy Institute says “Women are becoming the recipients of a massive transfer of wealth.” $10-million-plus women-owned firms increased by 57% in 2013. Forty-five percent of American millionaires are now women, and 48% of estates worth more than $5 million are controlled by women. In 2013, an estimated 60% of high-net-worth women made their own fortunes, and by some estimates, as much as two-thirds of all wealth in the United States will be controlled by women by the year 2030. "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). This reveals the importance of encouraging women to enter the philanthropic community. 

The Women’s Philanthropy Institute is important because it provides an arena for women to educate themselves in the area of philanthropy and also provides invaluable research on gender in philanthropy. Through philanthropy, women have 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.

The Women’s Philanthropy Institute’s area of research is recognized as one of importance. So much so, in 2015 the Institute was awarded a three-year grant for 2.1 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to accelerate research on giving by men and women. “This new grant acknowledges that while knowledge about gender and philanthropy has come a long way in a relatively short period, we have barely scratched the surface and many key research questions remain to be answered,” said Debra Mesch, the Eileen Lamb O’Gara Chair in Women’s Philanthropy, director of Women’s Philanthropy Institute, and principal investigator for the project (Philanthropy News Digest, 2015).


Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

The Women’s Philanthropy Institute is important in many ways to the broader philanthropic sector - especially as the gender gap narrows.  The Institute believes that women are important and unique in their giving.  Women are encouraged to donate based on six distinct areas, which the Women’s Philanthropy Institute’s co-founders, Sondra Shaw-Hardy and Martha Taylor, identify as the “6 C’s of Women’s Philanthropic Giving”.  The 6 C’s include Create, Change, Connect, Collaborate, Commit, and Celebrate (Women’s Philanthropy Institute). 

  1. Create - To help create a new opportunity for philanthropic leaders to work together to inspire, educate, and encourage women to fulfill their philanthropic potential.
  2. Change - To support an organization dedicated to helping women change the world through philanthropy.
  3. Connect - To connect to a national network of philanthropic leaders.
  4. Collaborate - To collaborate with philanthropic leaders to promote the development of research and best practices on the topic of women and philanthropy.
  5. Commit - To commit voluntary and financial resources to the development of women’s philanthropy.
  6. Celebrate - To celebrate the philanthropic leadership of women past, present, and future.

These six beliefs are the basis in which women philanthropists are encouraged to give back to the greater nonprofit society (Women’s Philanthropy Institute).  Encouraging these charitable ideals as a model of giving strengthens women’s footprint and importance in society. 

The various research agendas of the Women’s Philanthropy Institute allow scholars, fundraisers, donors, and organizations to see trends of gender in philanthropy to understand that findings in Women’s Philanthropy Institute’s research do, and will, have important implications for philanthropy. For example, Women Give 2017 finds that charitable giving increases life satisfaction, adding to the body of research showing that the joy of giving improves overall health and happiness. This ongoing research will allow insights into philanthropy to determine trends, nuances, and ways of engaging intentionally with both women and men (Women Giving, 2017).


Key Related Ideas

  • Giving Circle - The idea of collectively giving to society by pooling individuals’ funds together.  These groups in turn decide which charities or investments they will support. Giving circles vary greatly in size, extent, and purpose.  Giving circles are important because they facilitate group ideas about philanthropic giving (Minnesota Tool Kit for Giving). Giving Circles help women become more financially literate and aware of community needs. Giving circles represent a new way to encourage giving and, as such, are important to philanthropy (Shaw-Hardy 2009).
  • Women’s Funding Movement - The idea that there is a movement shaping women and philanthropy.   It is a movement defined as have the following characteristics: a core constituency, leaders, a mass audience, and opposition/enemies. What is at stake?  Vital interests, core values, and hidden agendas like race, class, and ideology. What makes a movement work? Local action, acts of symbolic power, and milestones (Capek 2007, 1).  This movement is evident and accelerating in 2017, not just because of the key underlying driver that more women now control more wealth, but because new threats to gender equity under President Trump will quicken the pace at which wealthy women come off the sidelines (Inside Philanthropy, 2017).
  • Women’s Philanthropy - The movement to empower women within society as philanthropists is seen in a multitude of ways. Women make a major impact on the field of philanthropy as nonprofit executives and employees in the nonprofit sector. Women are playing a prominent role in shaping today’s philanthropy both as donors and recipients. Often women’s roles in philanthropy are emerging more quickly than they can be answered. And as the gender gap continues to narrow, women are realizing greater control over their philanthropic decision making and are becoming more entrepreneurial in their giving. They play a major role in shaping the future direction of the economic, social, and political arenas, as well as philanthropy.


Important People Related to the Topic

  • Ann Castle (1951- 2000) championed extensively for the on-going effort to involve women in philanthropy.  She spoke on several occasions on her research pertaining to the topic of women and philanthropy, in which she is said to be an expert in the field (Women in Philanthropy).
  • Sondra Shaw-Hardy, J.D. founded and cofounded numerous nonprofit groups and, with Martha Taylor, cofounded the Women's Philanthropy Institute, now a program of the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. Shaw-Hardy is the author and coauthor of six books all relating to fundraising and women’s giving. She was described by Town and Country magazine as “the pioneer” in women’s philanthropy.
  • Martha Taylor - for over 40 years has embodied all aspects of a fundraiser, but has also been a pioneer in the field of women’s philanthropy. Taylor was the first woman vice president in development in the Big Ten, at the University of Wisconsin Foundation. Along with Sondra Shaw-Hardy, she cofounded the Women’s Philanthropy Institute.
  • Dr. Debra Mesch is director of the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. As of July 1, 2015, she holds the Eileen Lamb O’Gara Endowed Chair in Women’s Philanthropy at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. Dr. Mesch’s primary responsibility for the Women’s Philanthropy Institute is to guide the research agenda on the role of gender in philanthropy. Dr. Mesch’s research agenda has focused on women’s philanthropy; issues of civic engagement; volunteer motivation and management; executive compensation in nonprofits; human resource management in nonprofits; diversity; and race and gender issues in giving and volunteering (Women’s Philanthropy Institute). 


Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • The Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University houses the Women’s Philanthropy Institute.  The Center promotes knowledge pertaining to philanthropy and works to improve practices.
  • Girls Rock Camp Foundation is a nonprofit that is dedicated to generating support and funding for Girls Rock camps across the United States. Girls Rock Camps help girls develop life skills, creative expression and collaboration through music.
  • Philanthropic Educational Organization (P.E.O.) is a philanthropic organization where women celebrate the advancement of women, educate women through scholarships, grants, awards, loans, and stewardship of Cottey College, and motivate women to achieve their highest aspirations.
  • Women’s Donor Network is an organization that works to encourage and educate women who are not only donors, but are part of the larger philanthropic community.  Members can seek additional information pertaining to conferences, trainings, publications, and other helpful endeavors to furthering and enhance their philanthropic giving.
  • Women & Philanthropy offers information related to women and philanthropy.  This organization encourages women and girls to create a better society not only in the area of philanthropy, but also in life.


Reflection Question - As women continue to shape the nonprofit sector and the image of individual philanthropists, how do you see the Women’s Philanthropy Institute influencing the future of giving by women and girls and how will that transform society?


  • Callahan, David. “Philanthropy Forecast, 2017: Trends and Issues to Watch” Inside Philanthropy, January 18, 2017. https://www.insidephilanthropy.com/home/2017/1/18/philanthropy-forecast-2017
  • Capek, Mary Ellen. “Women and Philanthropy: Old Stereotypes, New Challenges” Vol. 3.  Women & Philanthropy 2007. http://www.effectivephilanthropybook.org/_documents/capek-mono1.pdf
  • Center for Philanthropy at Indiana University.  General Information. http://www.philanthropy.iupui.edu
  • Fisher, Luchina. “Women are giving more money than ever.” Women’s eNews, May 2, 2003. http://womensenews.org/2003/05/women-are-giving-away-more-money-ever/
  • Hardy-Shaw, Sondra. “Women’s Giving Circles: Reflections from the Founders” Women’s Giving Circles: Reflections from the Founders, August 2009. https://scholarworks.iupui.edu/bitstream/handle/1805/6262/womensgiving_circles.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
  • Mollner, Carol and Marie C. Wilson. Women, Philanthropy, and Social Change: Visions for a Just Society, edited by Elayne Clift (2005).
  • Philanthropy News Digest. News. Gates Foundation Awards $2.1 Million to Women’s Philanthropy Institute. Accessed 28th October 2017. http://philanthropynewsdigest.org/news/gates-foundation-awards-2.1-million-to-women-s-philanthropy-institute
  • Taylor, Martha and Sondra Shaw. Women & Philanthropy: Boldly Shaping a Better World. http://charityvillage.com
  • Women In Philanthropy. Tribute to Anne Castle. http://www.women-philanthropy.umich.edu/tributes/index.html


This paper was originally developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at Grand Valley State University. It is offered by Learning To Give and Grand Valley State University.

This paper was later updated by students taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University in 2017. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.