In 1992, something remarkable happened: For the first time, women-owned businesses employed more of the United States population than did the Fortune 500.
Add to that an increased presence of women in the upper echelons of corporate management, and the result is an emerging cadre of financially high-powered females poised for philanthropy.
As women gain financial clout and control, many take a greater interest in giving. "I think we're going to see women as major philanthropists more and more," says Ann Sanders, executive director of the New England Women's Fund, known as NewFund.
According to the US Census Bureau, the percentage of women with income of at least $75,000 a year - albeit a small number - has doubled since 1984. And of the 3.4 million Americans classified as top wealth holders by the Internal Revenue Service, more than 40 percent are women.
As a result, charitable giving is undergoing a noticeable shift, influencing everything from how philanthropies pursue donations, to the types of causes that receive money, to the level of donor involvement.
"By the year 2000, more than half of new businesses will be started by women. We're looking at a tremendous impact on the economy, a tremendous potential in terms of making a difference, in terms of influencing where money goes," Ms. Sanders says.
Empowered to give
Influence may be the operative word in how women are changing the face of philanthropy.
Increasingly, as women earn more and have access to their own funds, they feel more empowered to give, says Jamie Jaffee, president of Fidelity Investments Charitable Services.
Most of Fidelity's gift funds, for example, are joint accounts, says Ms. Jaffee. But 15 percent are held by women, a significant increase from, say, five years ago.
The phenomenon of women in philanthropy is already attracting the attention of a number of groups. Recently, the Boston Club - a group of more than 300 senior executive and professional women - sponsored a forum on women's higher profile as donors.
"Many men give as a way of achieving influence and power," says Sanders, who spoke at the forum. "Women want to make a difference, and they tend to give to influence social decisions."
Men also seem to look factually and quantitatively, while "women seem to be more comfortable with the soft, more complex side of giving," says Ellen Remmer, a consultant with the Philanthropic Initiative in Boston.
Indeed, fundraisers may need to revamp their techniques to appeal more to women. "They have to now take women seriously. There's a new opportunity to reach money," says Elizabeth Boris, director of the nonprofit sector research fund at the Aspen Institute in Washington.
This new influence may offer additional opportunities for certain kinds of charities, as women often choose to donate to different causes than do men.
"With the role of women as nurturing and keeping the family together, they are more attuned to being sympathetic to needy causes," says Dan Borochoff of the American Institute on Philanthropy in St. Louis.
Theresa Heinz, chair of the Howard Heinz Endowment and the Heinz Family Philanthropies in Pittsburgh, concurs. "If you had to pick issues - health, children, and all the services - I would focus on women as the kind of permanent caregiver."
Ms. Heinz and other female philanthropists point to the possibility of increased giving to causes such as health and human services, the arts, women's education and sports, and aid for victims of rape and domestic violence.
Only six cents of every donor dollar goes to programs for women and girls. Yet the number of women's funds has grown from 15 to about 70 in the past decade.
"I'm encouraged to the extent that women look out for their sisters," says Walteen Grady Truely, president and CEO of Women & Philanthropy in New York.
Ms. Truely cites the San Francisco group Resourceful Women as a good example of how a national network can help women develop a value system about money and giving. "The key piece is there is a growing recognition in the power of women when we move consciously on behalf of the whole society, and, being humanitarian, we need to include an understanding of women's specific needs," Truely says.
Perspective may also come from the inside: Women are heading up not only companies with more frequency, but also foundations - so much so that some wonder if the field is becoming "feminized."
"It's not the old boys club it used to be," says Ms. Boris of the Aspen Institute. Since the 1970s, the number of women on staffs of foundations has skyrocketed. Some 65 percent of program officers are female today, compared with 15 percent in 1970.
A ways to go
But women shouldn't be too optimistic, says Remmer, who is also a managing trustee of her family's foundation. "Women need to support each other and remind themselves that women are the poor of this country and women are still not in charge. They're not the trustees on the boards of foundations."
Still, women philanthropists and fundraisers say a big challenge exists in convincing potential female donors to step up to the plate.
"Women need to get comfortable taking risk," Sanders says. "If someone asks them for $10 or $10,000, if they believe [in the cause] they have to see themselves investing in the future. As more women get into business, they understand what risk and investment are all about."