Women establish themselves as players in the philanthropy field

Published: Friday, Sept. 28 2012 11:00 p.m. MDT

Warren Buffett, left, Melinda French Gates and Bill Gates stand together, Sunday, June 25, 2006, in New York, shortly after Buffett's announcement that he would be starting to make an annual donation of about $1.5 billion to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Associated Press

Some women in India are improving their living conditions by tying courtship to toilets. "Show us your loo before you woo, Indian men are told," read a headline in the Sunday Times.

Melinda French Gates believes the success of that marketing campaign was a critical lesson, an example of what nonprofits can learn from Coca-Cola. So she presented it at a Technology, Entertainment and Design conference. Striking presentations are the norm for TED talks, and Gates made her case in front of a large screen full of headlines as she strolled across the stage.

"One state in Northern India has gone so far as to link toilets to courtship," Gates said. "And it works — look at these headlines. I'm not kidding. Women are refusing to marry men without toilets. No loo, no 'I do.' "

The laughter that followed was evidence that Gates had made her point: Innovative marketing campaigns "can change communities and whole nations." She might as well have been talking about the thousands of women who are transforming the philanthropic sector. Billionaires like Warren Buffett and Gates' husband, Bill Gates, are taking notice.

"Bill Gates says that he knows that without Melinda he wouldn't give as much and it wouldn't be as much fun," said Sondra Shaw-Hardy, who has been described as "the pioneer" in women's philanthropy.

In an interview with Fortune magazine, Buffett said Melinda Gates "sees the big picture," and that he would have been hesitant to invest in the Gates Foundation had she not been involved, Shaw-Hardy said.

Research shows women give differently than men and are more likely to give in groups and to organize on-the-ground initiatives. They are leaders in mobile donations and utilizing technology for giving. Women also are most likely to follow up on where their money is going. As they establish private family foundations and donor-advised funds to funnel money to the charities they care about most, they are having more of an impact on the sector than ever before, experts say.

Rise of women

Several factors explain the increasing influence of women on philanthropy, said Jacki Zehner, CEO of Women Moving Millions, a philanthropic organization dedicated to the advancement of young women. Women now account for half of the workforce and hold wealth in increasing numbers, she said.

"Never in history have women had so much economic and financial power," Zehner said. "Women have always been primarily volunteers, but now women have increasing financial resources to put behind their passions and visions for the world."

Shaw-Hardy, who has had her hand in six books on women's philanthropy since 1995 and has founded many nonprofit groups, said not only are women making money but they are also feeling more comfortable controlling the money. She said women have courage to make important decisions in regard to giving and that in the majority of couples, women control the giving.

When Shaw-Hardy was at the University of Wisconsin in 1988, people didn't take the idea of women in philanthropy seriously, she said. There also was little research on the subject, but thanks to initiatives such as the Women's Philanthropy Institute, the tangible effects women can have in the sector are now being documented.

"The combination of need and opportunity have come together and raised the visibility and potential impact for women's philanthropy," Zehner said.

Women and men

The difference in giving practices between men and women also holds important weight in the sector, Shaw-Hardy said.

"Women give collaboratively because they like to work together as opposed to competing," she said. "Women are more nurturing by their very nature and so they give more from the heart."

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