The Power of Women in Philanthropy by Gioia Perugini

I recently had the pleasure of presenting at an event focused on the power of women’s philanthropy. My charge was to report on the national and local data which tracks how women give, and then extrapolate themes and how they play out in the day-to-day giving of families with whom we work. Digging into the history and data on this topic, there were a few surprising findings of both past and current trends related to women’s giving. There were dozens of examples from the late 19th and early 20th century of women whose passion for giving and giving back set the tone and pace for others to follow. Clara Barton, for example, found her passion for giving back from directly assisting soldiers on Civil War battlefields. The result was the creation of the American Red Cross. Harriet Hemenway used her social position to save birds from being killed for hat decorations. The result: a ban on trade in wild bird feathers and the founding of Massachusetts Audubon. You can read all about it in one of my favorite children’s books, She’s Wearing a Dead Bird on Her Head.

So like many areas where women’s involvement is often not at the forefront of popular understanding, the history and current trends related to women’s philanthropy is enjoying a bit of a renaissance. The research and trend analysis is led in large part by the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at the Lilly School of Family Philanthropy at Indiana University. Their research shows that women continue to be powerful forces in charitable giving and volunteerism. Single and married women give more than married men. Young single women today give slightly more than their counterparts of 40 years ago, and young married women have greater influence on the decisions about charitable giving, and give more when they influence those decisions, than their counterparts did 40 years ago. Women’s giving is more typically issues-driven, and they are more likely to give to education, the environment and basic needs. The trend linking volunteerism and philanthropy remains strong as well. Nearly 30% of all women volunteer and represent more than half of the 4.3 billion hours of annual service, according to the Corporation for National & Community Service. Women are also statistically more likely to focus on transmitting their values to the next generation through both their giving and their volunteerism.

So what does this mean for the modern, day-to-day practice of philanthropy? Many women talk about an “ah-ha” moment that crystallized their passion for philanthropy. Whether it was volunteering with a local organization, seeing their children get excited about community service, or experiencing a challenging life event themselves, many women can pinpoint a specific moment in time when they made their decision to get involved and give back to an organization and a cause.. Women want to talk with their families, especially their children and grandchildren, about their values and how they express those values in their giving and volunteering. Women are saying “yes” to nonprofit board service and leadership, where their voices in governance, program development and fundraising are critical. Let’s not forget the power and history of women’s giving, and as we prepare to honor the women in our lives for Mother’s Day, we can continue to use the examples of women in philanthropy across all generations to inspire us to innovate and serve those most in need. We Can Do It!

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