Women and Giving

This guide provides an introduction to the world of women and philanthropy. Written for both established and emerging donors, it aims to help women delve further into the potential growth and fulfillment that can come from giving.


Think of this guide as an experienced friend—a partner who can guide you in investigating, learning and maybe even getting inspired by how women give. Think of it as a companion as you explore how philanthropy can add to your life and the life of your loved ones.

Because philanthropy can help organizations take calculated risks, not all philanthropy achieves its goals. However, when successful, philanthropic and personal investments can pay dividends in the form of meaningful connection and even joy.

Why does women’s philanthropy matter? Here are three reasons:

1. Women control more of the financial pie than ever before.

The IRS reports that 43 percent of the nation’s top wealth holders are women. Top wealth holders are defined as individuals with assets of $1.5 million or more. These assets are valued in total at $4.6 trillion. As a whole, women control more than half of private wealth in the U.S.

2. The percentage of women wielding wealth is only going to rise.

Many women will inherit twice—from their parents and from their spouses or partners. Women will inherit 70 percent of the $41 trillion in intergenerational wealth that is expected to change hands over the next 40 years [Forbes]. This philanthropic influence is likely to be amplified given that many women also play key roles in facilitating the education and involvement of other family members in giving.

3. Research supports the idea that gender differences in giving between women and men are real.

In a 2010 survey, single women were more likely to give charitably than single men by a margin of 9 percent and femaleheaded households were not only more likely to give, but also tended to give nearly twice as much. A 2011 survey found that women spend more time than men on due diligence before making decisions about charitable giving and view giving as a collaborative, shared even. It also found that women expect a deeper level of communication with the organizations they support and place greater importance than men on hearing about the impact of their gift.

Getting Started

Part of our Philanthropy Roadmap series, this guide provides an introduction to the world of women and philanthropy. Written for both established and emerging donors, it aims to help women delve further into the potential growth and fulfillment that can come from giving.

Re-balancing Philanthropy

Research shows women have the means and the motivation to change philanthropy. The organizational structure is developing, too. After the first prominent women-focused foundation, the Ms. Foundation, began grantmaking in 1972, the field grew slowly for the first few years. But in the last 20 years, it has exploded—with the Women’s Funding Network reporting in 2011 the existence of 160 women’s funds in the U.S. and around the world.

Not every woman donor, of course, will prioritize women’s and girl’s issues in her giving. But the story of the development of women’s funds speaks to the potential for women to seek more balance in a vital sector of society, philanthropy, which has been controlled disproportionately by men. The emergence of a new wave of female philanthropic leaders suggests the re-balancing act is already underway. The Women’s Donor Network, for example, says it leverages $150 million a year through its members and allies “towards solutions that address the root causes of injustice and inequity.”

Key Questions

Key Questions

Because this is your journey, we believe you will probably want to create your own itinerary. So we provide key questions designed to help you discover your own priorities. Here are a few to get you on your way.

What approach to giving – and what issues – will allow you to feel authentic? Where do your values and passions lie?

How much do you want to set aside for philanthropy? How much do you need for yourself and your family?

What role might your family play in your role as a philanthropist?

What legacy do you want for yourself? For family members?

What profile would you like to have with your giving? The possibilities range from staying anonymous to having your name – or your family’s name – inscribed on a building. What best suits you? 

How would you describe the influence of parents, grandparents and/or other relatives? How does that impact your giving?

What have been your personal experiences as a donor – both good and bad? 

The single most important thing we can do is unleash the full power of half the people on the planet—women. We know that women need the tools of development, but development also needs women. All the disadvantages, from poverty to violence, from ill health to illiteracy, that women experience around the world also limit the advance of families, communities, entire nations. - Judith Rodin, President of the Rockefeller Foundation

Do Women Give Differently Than Men?

Do women actually give differently than men?

Unfortunately, there is very little research out there on how women’s giving actually differs aside from their increased generosity, and what there is has very narrow sample sizes, so we must rely on other sources that indicate trends. In 2010, the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at Indiana University used a nationally representative sample of U.S. households to survey men and women’s giving. With more than 800 responses, it found women are more likely to give than men and when they do give, they give more.

Other Evidence

Academic research and observations from philanthropic experts suggests the following trends:

Males tend to concentrate their giving among a few nonprofits, whereas females are more likely to spread the amounts they give across a wide range of charitable organizations.

Some women are hesitant to make big donations—in part because they are looking to support a number of organizations in the community. It’s not uncommon for these women to prioritize support for the key organizations that make for a thriving and healthy community and to see how collectively these organizations can work together. Such women are less likely to be looking for a silver bullet or single solution.

Some women are likely to fund core basic human services like food, shelter and counseling, but studies suggest inconsistent findings about which causes attract most women’s donations.

Though women philanthropists often attempt to connect with grantees, other donors and the populations impacted by their giving, research suggests that, ironically, they often make philanthropic decisions independently from their partner or spouse.

More research is needed, but it’s also worth noting that the field of women’s philanthropy is evolving day to day. Both on their own and with their giving networks, women are busy rede- fining gender roles in giving. In this sense, donors might carry out some of their own personal research by asking women friends who give what motivates them and how they go about their philanthropy.

Disclaimer: It’s unwise to expect general research to fit individuals perfectly—or even at all. Our purpose here is to empower and embolden the individual philanthropist. Don’t think of this information as prescriptive; rather, think of it as a starting point. The most thoughtful, effective philanthropy is a reflection of your own values and approach. Nothing can replace that.

Family, Legacy & Giving

Family Matters

Some male donors act independently—sometimes foregoing consultation with family members, whereas women often express interest in involving the next generation in philanthropy. Many women focus on how they can instill philanthropic values in children and grandchildren at an early age.

Sometimes this desire comes with a willingness to reach a compromise that allows everyone in the family to participate. Such compromises can extend a philanthropy’s legacy and give new generations “skin in the game,” but they can also diffuse philanthropic focus.

Women donors might find themselves asking these questions:

To what extent should I make decisions independently and to what extent should I consult family members in the next generation or generations? 

How do I balance the next generation’s priorities with what I see as immediate philanthropic opportunities? 

How can I integrate our family’s diverse philanthropic viewpoints and interests while keeping our giving enjoyable and rewarding?

Many women create their own wealth through business and investing. But some, because of their relative longevity, do—or will—inherit the source of their philanthropy. These women often see themselves as caretakers of this wealth. In spite of the current interest in foundations that spend-out in a limited amount of time, many of these women donors want to pass on the ability to partake in philanthropy to future generations and therefore can be less likely to make big gifts or do anything to limit the lifespan of their foundations. Many women seek a balance between honoring their legacy while still expressing their own approach to philanthropy.

Philanthropy is often about relationships. Balance is paramount, but so is transparency. Many donors have learned that clarity while setting up a family philanthropy—or re-organizing it— can reduce conflict. By seeking engagement from family members before decisions are concluded, new possibilities can be considered and a better outcome achieved. But it all starts with the woman philanthropist herself and two very important questions:

Who will be involved in this philanthropy?
And if it is to be shared, how and for how long?

See other guides in this series, Talking to Your Family About Philanthropy and Giving as a Couple for more information.

Private or Public?

The Visibility Question

No journey in philanthropy is free of doubts. One common worry centers on the public exposure that can come with giving.

“If I become more visible in my giving,” donors sometimes ask, “what will the impact be on me and my family? If I start making larger donations or more public donations, will it compromise my privacy?”

The answers to these questions can have significant influence on the form and function of your philanthropy.

Anonymous donations can allow you and your family complete privacy. However, being a public advocate for a project can increase its impact and help recruit important allies and other funders.

On the down side, anonymous giving can limit the roles family members can take in philanthropy. On the other hand, putting your name and your reputation alongside an organization not only can open the possibility of similar organizations seeking financial support, it can also expose you and your family to public reaction—especially if the cause or the organization is controversial or part of a polarized debate.

While there are good reasons to give anonymously and other good reasons to be very public about one’s giving, most female donors exist somewhere in between. They state their goals and announce their grants, but do not seek a high profile or activist role. Donors may also employ both strategies—anonymous and public giving—for different types of gifts and at various points in their philanthropic journey.

Once again, process and clarity are valuable goals. Answering the visibility question offers an opportunity to discuss your philanthropy with important advisors, both personal and professional. Few women make decisions in true isolation. By being solicitous of others’ input, a better plan or way of approaching the issue may emerge. And doubts about the public/private balance in philanthropy can be eased.

Finding the Right Focus

Finding the Right Focus

It doesn’t matter how much you give as long as you give something—so goes one of fundraising’s oldest sayings. But common sense tells us this is false. A $5 million dollar gift is likely to have a far different impact than a $5 donation. Perhaps the truth in the old saying lies in the idea of giving not only in line with your budget, but in accord with your own priorities, purpose and individual inspiration.

Sustainable giving is a distinctly personal endeavor. Intuition, life experience, family history, values and personal connections come into play here along with the major “heart and head” elements of compassion and impact.

In this quest to find the right personal fit for philanthropy, some women can find themselves asking what would be the “responsible” giving style to adopt. Should they focus their philanthropy on a tightly-defined area or give to support a broad range of organizations?

The answer, of course, lies within the donor herself. The most effective philanthropy stems from issues that the philanthropist herself cares deeply about—issues with which a donor can identify and to which she can make a commitment.

Once motivation and focus are clear, a donor can seek solutions through her giving—funding not the problem, but concrete strategies to solve it. This means not only having a clear focus on a challenge of appropriate size, but having a clear vision of what change you want to achieve. Whether you call it a goal, an outcome or a solution, it’s important to define what end result you seek. And you’ll need a clear-eyed view of the milestones along the way that indicate progress.

Moving Forward

Moving Forward

Women donors often develop their giving strategy around relationships. Outwardly-focused, they collaborate, communicate, engage, involve, understand, adapt, and most importantly, build bridges to different individuals and groups. Their aim: to serve multiple purposes while sustaining or even strengthening relationships. But what if the best way to realize the full potential of these talents meant looking within instead of without? Would you be willing to take an inward journey to better serve the communities around you? After all, no matter how other-oriented you might be, your giving depends on yourself. Sometimes we forget how much our identity drives our lives. And sometimes we forget that we hold more control over that identity than anyone else, that we are the authors of our life stories as well as the main characters. So, as you consider your next steps in giving, why not think about these questions:

In your life story, would you like to include a passage on your giving? How would it read?

Try this exercise. Write your own story as a philanthropist in a short paragraph. It matters little if you have given for years or not at all. (If you haven’t given much, use your imagination.) What really matters to you? How might you best contribute? What brings you the deepest satisfaction? Then put your paragraph away. After a few days, read it aloud, listening to it afresh. Does 2 4 2 5 it capture your spirit? How can you change the story to better match who you are and the role you might want as a donor? If you do the exercise, be prepared. Once you begin to tell the story of your own giving, you might feel compelled to make it real. And you might be surprised where it takes you.

Sometimes we forget that we hold more control over that identity than anyone else, that we are the authors of our life stories as well as the main characters.

Donor Checklist

Donor Checklist

Find a personal focus

Sustainable giving is personal giving. Intuition, family history and personal experience all have roles to play alongside fact-based analysis and due diligence. Take the time to understand what focus will be most rewarding to you as a person. The right approach can help your passion for philanthropy grow, and that makes your charitable giving more effective.

Balance personal motivations with family and wider commitments

The English poet John Donne should have written “No woman is an island entire of itself.” Many women are natural connectors, networkers and communicators and so have a sense of the wider concerns of family and community. The grace of giving often relies on a dynamic balance between the “me” and the “us” in philanthropy.

Learn from others

A growing community of donors is often willing to share expertise and experience. Networking with peers can increase your impact even as you gain friends. Networking with the nonprofits you support and the people they serve can lend insights that inform future giving.

Find advisors who share your values

These people—friends, peers, family and professionals— can help you find your voice as a donor. Women sometimes inherit advisors from parents and grandparents. Find someone who fits you and your own approach.

Build time and balance into your giving strategy

Carrying out thoughtful philanthropy while balancing work, family and other commitments is often challenging. Consider a strategy that recognizes all your commitments and gives you time—and wiggle room—to get things done without getting too stressed. Also, be aware that philanthropy can change over time. Plan flexibility into your approach so change can be welcomed when it’s appropriate.

Talk to your children early about money and giving

Financial literacy empowers a donor’s philanthropy. Beyond that, communication about money matters helps children understand family values. Good communication usually has traffic flowing in both directions. Giving children space to share their values and motivations around family philanthropy can foster their involvement.

Plan an exit strategy

Some women might think: “If I’ve funded an organization for 10 years I have to do it forever.” This is not true. Consider making commitments over limited periods of time and being transparent with your grantees about these time frames early in the process. A gift is not a life commitment.

Additional Resources

Finding your community

Because communication, collaboration and community are often important to women’s giving, finding the right group(s) of donors with whom you share interests should play a role in your strategy. Responses from a recent study of women in a giving network indicate that women who are well networked in their giving are more loyal to philanthropic causes, more educated and informed about philanthropic choices, and more trusting of nonprofits than others. Fortunately, there is tremendous infrastructure in place to help women and donors network. You are bound to find donors who can help teach you, collaborate with you and introduce you to others who can do the same.

Below you will find donor groups sorted by various categories. If none of these look up your alley, you might consider creating your own group of like-minded women who are passionate about the issues or geographic region to which you give. Sometimes it can be started as simply as inviting a few friends over for discussion.

Networks of women donors

Women Donors Network

Rachel’s Network 

Women Moving Millions

Women’s Funding Network

Women’s Perspective on Money and Spirituality

Groups for donors by affinity and geography

Finding fellow donors who have a common philanthropic focus, or donors in your region with whom you can network on a local scale, can make a huge difference in your learning curve and your ability to collaborate.

Click here for a complete list of donor groups by affinity  

Click here for a complete list of U.S. regional associations  

A selection of other donor networks

Bolder Giving

Institute for Philanthropy

Legacy Ventures 

National Center for Family Philanthropy

Omidyar Network

Resource Generation

Social Venture Partners

Synergos Global Philanthropists Forum

Threshold Foundation

Wealth and Giving Forum