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  • Experience Matters: Who Gives for Women and Girls, and Why

    by: Kiersten Marek

    Do you ever wonder what motivates someone to give money? Obviously, the answer is "yes" if you're a professional fundraiser. But those who give may also wonder what's really causing them to reach for that checkbook. 

    Research from the Women’s Philanthropy Institute sheds light on this area, particularly as it pertains to women at every level of society. Now, WPI has released a study showing for the first time that women are motivated by personal experience to give to causes that benefit women and girls specifically.

    Sounds like a no-brainer, right? Well, it’s actually significant, useful information. Women's tendency to donate money to specific causes based on experiences like having a child or discrimination suggests that philanthropy might take off in new directions as women become primary asset-holders in society and further increase their giving.


    With the growth of women’s giving, so grows the visibility of this giving, and so grows the research. The new report, "Giving to Women and Girls: Who Gives, and Why," explores the methods and motivations of donors who give to women’s and girls’ issues. The report is one of three produced by the Women's Philanthropy Institute with a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has recently swung new resources behind WPI, as we've reported

    “Understanding the demographics and motivations of those who are giving to women’s and girls’ causes is increasingly important if we are to improve the lives of women and girls, and their families and communities,” said Debra Mesch, Ph.D., director of the Women’s Philanthropy Institute, upon release of the report.

    This research involved a brief nationally representative survey panel, and used seven focus groups drawn from "United Way and women’s fund donors who actively funded women’s and girls’ causes as well as donors who focused on other areas in their giving." The study found that women are likely to give more, and give larger amounts, to causes that benefit women and girls. In particular, women are more likely to fund "domestic violence organizations, women’s centers, LGBT rights, cancer care and research, and economic opportunities for women and girls."

    Again, this may hardly seem like news, especially if you follow our coverage of women's philanthropy at IP. But hard data that nails these trends down has been pretty scarce. 


    Meanwhile, the report also confirms that women’s funds are a strong and diverse new way that people are giving more intentionally, and with gender equity impacts in mind. But the report identifies some significant gaps in data—such as aggregated financial information from women’s funds, both past and present, that could help determine which women’s funds are increasing their resources over time, and what fundraising approaches help facilitate growth of these funds. This is important data, and it is surprising that we are only now at the point of addressing this information gap, given that women’s funds have been growing across the country for decades.

    It is unknown if the growth of women’s funds is a broad, pervasive trend, or if the distribution of growth is unequal, with some funds skyrocketing while others barely limp along. As you might expect, not all women’s funds thrive to the same degree. I know of at least one women’s fund in which the endowment never fully recovered from the 2008 economic meltdown, and there are probably more out there like that. At the same time, other women’s funds have been booming, such as the Dallas Women’s Foundation, which is now at $33 million in assets. What's to explain the divergent fortunes of different women's funds? 

    This research also questions the value proposition of women’s funds as opposed to other philanthropic vehicles, and suggests that further research is needed to determine which models for women's funds are sustainable over time. Would women’s funds be better off positioned as leadership development and/or incubator organizations for women’s entrepreneurship, rather than long-term regranting organizations for nonprofits?

    The report also addresses the role of men in giving to girls’ causes. Contrary to what you might expect, men comprised 40 percent of the respondents who donated to causes for women and girls. More research in this area is also needed. For example, how does including men on governing boards of women’s funds impact giving? Does more diverse and inclusive leadership of women's funds expand donor populations for women’s funds?

    Another important finding: the language of women’s and girls funds is changing, becoming more sophisticated, and targeting broader issues like poverty, community development, and social policy change. Early on, women’s funds used the language of “funding for women and girls,” while today, women’s funds are “advancing leadership” and addressing “economic security,” language designed to elevate the conversation and create larger-scale systemic change.

    Women's philanthropy has been rising. But beyond that, there are many unanswered questions in this area. Nobody is doing more than WPI to shed light on these questions, and it's good to know that the Gates Foundation has put some serious money behind this effort lately.