Women bring a new approach to philanthropy

Female-headed households are more likely to give to charity than male-headed households, and women are creating their own styles of giving.

Ints Kalnins/Reuters/File
Women in pink wigs blow soap bubbles during a 'Go blonde!' festival in Riga, Latvia, in 2011. The festival aims to raise funds for charity to build playgrounds for disabled children. Around the world, women are taking an ever-bigger role in philanthropy.

When feminist writer Courtney Martin wanted to raise money to fund research into the future of online feminism, it made sense to turn to other women for funding.

She called in Jacquelyn Zehner, chief executive of Women Moving Millions, a philanthropic organization made up primarily of women who have donated at least $1 million each to women's causes. Ms. Zehner arranged for a conference call with a small group of wealthy women and Ms. Martin this spring.

"They responded immediately and enthusiastically," said Martin. In a month, this audience raised $24,000 to fund the research. For Martin, it was a satisfying and natural extension of some of her earlier activities. In 2006, she created The Secret Society for Creative Philanthropy, an annual gathering that began with a gift of $100 each to 10 friends, with instructions to give it away and then tell how.

Welcome to the world of female philanthropy – it's not your father's United Way.

"Women are taking ownership," said Andrea Pactor, associate director of the Women's Philanthropy Institute at Indiana University, which has found that female-headed households are more likely to give to charity than male-headed households, and that in nearly all income groups women give more than men.

Women are exerting a greater influence on how philanthropy is done as they accumulate wealth and use their clout to change the way funds are raised and distributed. Roughly 1 million women in the United States each have assets of at least $2 million, according to 2007 Internal Revenue Service data, the most recent available. Wealth controlled by charitably minded women can be expected to grow as they build careers and inherit money from their parents and their husbands.

As more women give, they are likely to change not only what is funded but how they raise money, because female philanthropists often prefer to raise money in a group.

Three years ago, the Red Cross raised the ante in its women's program, called the Tiffany Circle, to $100,000 a year, and pulled in 61 new members the first night.

"We raised over $6 million in 30 seconds," said Melanie Sabelhaus, a former deputy administrator at the Small Business Administration who heads the Tiffany Circle, "and not one of the women picked up the phone and asked her husband."

Another group, the Women Donors Network, has 175 members who combine individual gifts in the $100,000 to $200,000 range and give $200 million a year to women's causes. And Women Moving Millions, after five years, has more than 150 members.

Insiders say women have their own culture in grant-making.

"We really believe the solution lies with the people on the ground. We don't think we have all the answers," said Zehner of Women Moving Millions.

For example, the Global Fund for Women (GFW), unlike most grant-givers, accepts handwritten proposals of any length and in any language, and is unusually open to grants for general purposes rather than specific projects. It also funds meetings to create networks of women activists.

The approach demonstrated its power during Egypt's Arab Spring, said Christine Switzer, GFW's director of development. "Our women were able to mobilize together," she said, pointing to 77 grants totaling more than $1 million GFW has given to Egyptian women, young and old.

Women have also helped establish a new model for medical research grants. For example, lupus, an autoimmune disease, typically hits women of child-bearing age, and often strikes minorities. Research was at a standstill in the late 1990s, so the lupus community created the Lupus Research Institute in 2000 to give small grants to fund experimental research on projects not necessarily likely to pay off quickly.

Few private groups were doing anything like it at the time.

"We were open with each other about our frustration, and that led us to be able to take risks," said lupus activist Jennie DeScherer. Now the foundation is going international, and the small-grant approach has spread.

It is obvious that with everyone glued to their cellphones, nonprofits would miss out if donors couldn't text money. But the United States lagged Europe in mobile donations until American women broke the logjam.

A $34.7 million Red Cross text campaign to aid victims of the 2010 Haiti earthquake was put together by a team of women that included a special adviser at the State Department, leaders at the Red Cross, and Jenifer Snyder, a lawyer who created the platform with women technologists.

Snyder spent two years working out financial arrangements that are still in place with carriers. For every $100 texted, $93 goes to the charity, $6 covers costs, and $1 is donated to the mGive foundation, which Snyder co-founded to vet nonprofits and help them use texting imaginatively, not just for fund-raising.

The text-for-Haiti effort wasn't the first time that women innovated in the field of philanthropy. Giving circles were embraced in 1991 by the Ms. Foundation, and they have caught on and stuck. Members decide together where to give their dollars. Many groups don't stipulate how much each person must contribute. Community foundations often manage the money.

Female philanthropists now are also establishing private family foundations and donor-advised funds to funnel money to the charities they care about most.

But the real surge in woman's philanthropy may be yet to come.

"I'm waiting for the whole women's funds movement to come to scale, understanding the interchange between economic security and health and civil rights and violence," Zehner said.

When that day comes, expect a mobile-giving campaign, and a whole lot of lucrative conference calls.

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