Women's Use of the Nonprofit Sector as an Alternative Power Source

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Women have long fought to obtain power equivalent to their male counterparts. Historically, women have not been entitled to equal rights, opportunities, or treatment. As a result, they have had to find alternative means of exerting influence over societal structure and conventional beliefs. Philanthropy and the nonprofit sector have proven to be effective vehicles for women in providing them with a relative source of power. Largely through the establishment of nonprofit organizations, women have gained valuable experience in the workings of politics, law, governance, finance, and diplomacy.


The nonprofit sector, according to Lester Salamon (1999), is "a set of organizations that is privately constituted but serves some public purpose, such as the advancement of health, education, scientific progress, social welfare, or the free expression of ideas."

Women have accessed this sector as an alternative to conventional methods of holding power or influence. Largely due to the patriarchal and/or religious rules on which many of today's societies have been built, women and other minority groups have been inhibited to fully participate at all levels. Women have not always been entitled to equal rights, opportunities or treatment thus they have had to find alternative means of exerting influence over societal structure and conventional beliefs. Wealthy, educated men have controlled most political and economic positions of power in the societies of western civilization. Yet, the nonprofit sector has proven to be an effective vehicle for women in providing them with a relative source of power. Largely through the establishment of nonprofit organizations, women have gained valuable experience in the workings of politics, law, governance, finance and diplomacy.


Historic Roots

Volunteerism and charitable acts initiated by women have been taking place throughout history. Prior to the nineteenth century, men controlled most formally organized charitable groups both financially and administratively. Meanwhile, women raised funds and provided the care and services to those in need.

During the nineteenth century, many women began to call into question the legitimacy of laws that did not afford equal rights to women as well as men. Women assumed leadership roles in nonprofit organizations as a means to influence society. Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were two such leaders. Mott and Stanton organized the first women's rights convention known as the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848. The movement gained attention of other women who would collectively write the Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions, a document that declared women to be equal to men and openly criticized men for denying such equality to women.

The 1950s brought a revolutionary change for women's lives. Margaret Sanger established the organization known today as the International Planned Parenthood Federation. This nonprofit was a culmination of many years' work by Sanger to educate women on issues involving sexually transmitted disease and birth control. Junior Leagues, YWCAs, and various settlement house organizations sprang up around the country as a result of the leadership of women. Each of these organizations set out to provide information, healthcare, education, social opportunities, recreational opportunities or living quarters for those in need. These types of nonprofits played a pivotal role in the societal reform that has taken place since the early 1900’s in America.



The existence of the nonprofit sector in the economic market, and the fact that women have used this sector as a means of accessing leadership roles and seats of power, has heavily impacted the structure of modern society. The public sector has been an important avenue for power for women as they have been historically under-represented in the private and governmental sectors. Women did not gain the right to vote until 1920 leaving women largely out of the political realm. Instead, women turned to the third sector, or public sector, to influence their communities and societal change. For instance, women used voluntary action to create the women’s suffrage movement that ultimately lead to the addition of the 19 amendment of the constitution, granting women the right to vote.

Even with the right to vote, women have been under-represented in government. The late twentieth century saw women elected into nearly 40% of political positions. Yet, no woman had been elected Governor "in her own right" until 1974. Despite these gains, the United States lags behind other countries in women’s representation in government. In 2019, the United States was ranked 77 in women’s representation in government by the Inter-Parliamentary Union with only 23.5% of women in the House of Representatives and 25% in the Senate.


Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Women have been key to the formation of a formal nonprofit sector in the United States, one that serves as a model to countries around the world. Through leadership, volunteerism and charitable contributions, women have built portions of the sector that primarily serve the underrepresented, underprivileged, and powerless - namely, women themselves, children, and minority groups. Through these roles, women have not only met their missions of social and public policy changes, but also have accessed traditional seats of power and influence.

While women have made tremendous strides in what they set out to accomplish through the leadership of nonprofit institutions, they could not have done it without those who were willing to give their time and money to support a cause. Margaret Sanger may have founded the International Planned Parenthood Federation; however, it was Katherine Dexter McCormick who provided the primary source of funds for the development, testing and marketing of the birth control pill. The development of a birth control pill was not an endeavor in which corporations and government were interested. As a result, this societal need was created through the public sector by women leaders and their philanthropic acts. Similarly, Mary Lyon founded Mount Holyoke in the 1830s with intentions to be an institution of higher learning for women at a time when such opportunities were few. Ms. Lyon solicited financial support from a wide base of donors, as well as secured the commitment of time and expertise from male supporters who served as the Board of Trustees for Ms. Lyon's vision. This structure of founders and funders collaborating to create change repeated numerous times over the years.

As women gain standing in the private and governmental sectors, the importance of the public sector as a source of power is not diminished. Women are using this sector to build programs that will empower future generations to utilize the nonprofit world as a way to create change and influence. For instance, YWCAs and Junior Leagues provide leadership programs for girls and educate classrooms about the importance of giving and volunteering.

The form of influence also continues to evolve with time. The twenty-first century brought a new form of women using this sector for influence with the creation of giving circles. In 2006, Karen Dunigan developed the first giving circle, 100 Women Who Care, designed to bring women together to pool resources for large impact. The structure of giving circles allows for women to unify to make an impact on their communities in way that they could not do alone. By 2019, nearly 400 similar giving circles were formed for women in the United States.


Key Related Ideas

This topic can be further researched and examined using the following search topics:

  • Civil Rights
  • Giving Circles
  • Social Reform
  • Women's Rights
  • Women's Suffrage


Important People Related to the Topic

There are countless women who have contributed to the nonprofit sector. A few of those with tremendous impact include the following:

  • Dorothea Lynde Dix: The single driving force behind reform in the treatment of the mentally ill in America (and a number of other countries). For decades before and after the Civil War, Dix exposed the horrid housing conditions of the mentally ill in prisons and almshouses; she fought for changes in legislation; and she acquired public and private funding to open hospitals dedicated to care of the mentally ill.
  • Elizabeth Blackwell: The first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States in 1849. She and her sister, a surgeon, opened the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, which was staffed entirely by women and primarily served the poor. This hospital was later expanded to include a medical school for women.
  • Florence Nightingale: Founded the Nightingale Training School for Nurses at St. Thomas's Hospital in London in 1860. In addition, she devoted years of leadership and service to others in the field of healthcare.
  • Jane Addams: In 1889, co-founded Hull House, a settlement house in Chicago intended to help immigrant families. Addams' accomplishments throughout her life have had a tremendous impact on the lives of women, children, the poor, the working class, and urban society. Her work in the field of peace resulted in her becoming the first woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
  • Karen Dunigan: Formed the first giving circle, 100 Women Who Care, in Jackson, Michigan. The model she created has been replicated throughout the United States, Canada and other parts of the world.


Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • Listed below are only a few of the nonprofit organizations that were founded by women and are playing an important role in modern day society.
  • Association of Junior Leagues International is an organization that trains and supports local level Junior Leagues in which women work for the betterment of their communities. Junior League programs cover the gamut of community need and concern: health, education, childcare, youth services, family support services, child welfare, community development, aging, environment, and culture (Association of Junior Leagues International 2002).
  • National Organization for Women was founded in 1966 by Betty Friedan to campaign for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. NOW is the largest women's association and advocacy group in the country. It works for equal opportunities for employment, housing, health care, education, and other women's issues.
  • Planned Parenthood Federation of America is a reproductive health organization dedicated to the rights of individuals to manage their fertility through providing health care services, affecting public policies, providing educational programs, and promoting research (Planned Parenthood Federation of America 2002).
  • YWCA of the USA "empowers women and girls by offering a wide range of services and programs that enrich and transform their lives" (YWCA of the USA 2002).


Reflection Question

As women gain power in the private and governmental sectors, how might their presence in the nonprofit sector evolve?


Bibliography and Internet Sources

  • 100 Who Care Alliance, https://www.100whocarealliance.org.
  • Aburdene, Patricia and John Naisbitt. Megatrends for Women. New York: Villard Books, 1992: 14-15. ISBN 0-679-40337-X.
  • American Association of University Women, at https://www.aauw.org/, offers information about public policy and women's issues, as well as news about the Association. This site also offers information about the AAUW Educational Foundation and the AAUW Legal Advocacy Fund.
  • American Meteorological Societies Board on Women and Minorities. Facts. Available from http://www.amsbwm.org/facts.html.
  • Association of Junior Leagues International. AJLI History: A Century of Women Working Together Toward a Common Mission. Available from http://www.ajli.org/?nd=history.
  • Fugate, Sandy and Dr. Joel J. Orosz. For the Benefit of All, A History of Philanthropy in Michigan. Battle Creek, MI: W.K. Kellogg Foundation, 1997: 140. ISBN 1-891445-00-6.
  • Inter-Parliamentary Union, “Percentage of Women in National Parliaments.” New Parline: the IPU's Open Data Platform (Beta), 1 Oct. 2019, https://data.ipu.org/women-ranking?month=10&year=2019.
  • Jacobs, Eva E. Handbook of U.S. Labor Statistics, 4th Edition, 2002,
  • Employment, Earnings, Prices, Productivity, and Other Labor Data. Lanham, MD: Bernhan Press, 2001: 64-66, 223.
  • MacMillan Library Reference USA. MacMillan Profiles: Humanitarians and Reformers. New York: MacMillan Library Reference USA, 1999: 3-5. ISBN 0-028653-77-7.
  • Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2002. Women's Rights.
  • Planned Parenthood Federation of America. About Us. Available from http://www.plannedparenthood.org/about/.
  • Salamon, Lester M. America's Nonprofit Sector, A Primer, 2nd Edition. New York: The Foundation Center, 1999: 9-10. ISBN 0-87954-801-0.
  • Stearman, Kay. Women's Rights, Changing Attitudes 1900-2000. Austin: Steck-Vaughn Company, 2000. ISBN 0-8172-5892-2.
  • Sunshine for Women. Women in Philanthropy
  • Women's Philanthropy Institute at http://www.women-philanthropy.org/ is a resource for news and information about women's giving.
  • World Book. Women's History.
  • YWCA of the USA. YWCA History. Available from http://www.ywca.org.


This briefing paper was authored by a student taking a philanthropic studies course in 2019 at The Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.