Bold Moves in Women’s Philanthropy: Then and Now

Gender and Giving Sep 9, 2019

This four-part series amplifies research on women’s philanthropy through real life stories and consider what women donors can apply to their efforts today. Part Four. Read Part One, Part Two, and Part Three.


Dianne Doherty still remembers the spark that launched the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts. She had traveled to China with 50 other women from her valley to attend the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995 in Beijing. Buoyed by a global community of women and fired up from hearing Hillary Clinton declare that “women’s rights are human rights,” Doherty considered how to “carry this same kind of impact to our community.”

On the bus ride to the Great Wall of China, the women of Western Massachusetts started sharing ideas and organizing. The result was a bold philanthropic campaign by women, for women: A women’s fund.

“Loyalty to helping women and trust in each other made our goal a reality,” said Doherty.

Women’s funds and foundations first emerged in the 1970s and grew in number throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Their primary purpose – to elevate women’s voices and accelerate positive change for women and girls – remains true today. More than 100 women’s funds and foundations are making a difference in communities around the world in part because their donors are, like Doherty, passionate and committed for the long haul.

This unique trait that helps power women’s funds and foundations – long-time, loyal donors – is affirmed in the latest report from the Women’s Philanthropy Institute. All in for Women and Girls: How Women’s Fund and Foundation Donors Are Leading Through Philanthropy tells the story of what sets donors to women’s funds and foundations apart from other donors – who they are, what motivates their philanthropy, and why they stay so committed to the cause.

According to the research, donors to women’s funds and foundations are more likely than donors in general to have been giving for 10 or more years. They are also more likely to have made their largest gift in the last several years. Donors to women’s funds and foundations are more likely than donors in general to be currently giving at capacity and would increase their gift to women and girls with more resources. Donors to women’s fund and foundation are also significantly more likely to include a charitable provision in their will, increasing their impact over time.
Seeing and Measuring Impact

Nearly 25 years later, Doherty is still committed to being bold to make change because she witnesses the impact of her philanthropy.

“Our region used to be totally male led, primarily bank presidents called all the shots,” Doherty said. “The Women’s Fund helped professionalize nonprofits by running a very thoughtful mission-driven organization and it put 250 women through trainings to run for political office and take leadership positions in their town. Now, women’s voices are heard. Women are respected.”

And, community members have noticed. A recent newcomer to Western Massachusetts recently shared with Doherty that she was most surprised and impressed by the caliber of female leadership in the region.

Measurement is also a key component to driving impact and keeping women donors committed. Lindsey Chitwood, a technology consultant in Birmingham who focuses her philanthropy on increasing economic opportunity for women or color, relies on both data that documents inequality in her community and the corresponding metrics that illustrate the impact of women’s funds and foundations over time (or when it’s time to pivot to a new approach).

“Women’s funds open your eyes about what philanthropy can actually do, the impacts we can make,” Chitwood said. “It’s opening my mind to what we need to do to make big changes.”

The commitment of these women donors is already inspiring the next generation. Olivia McCulloch, a rising junior at Bates College in Maine said, “It’s really inspiring to see women donate and be a part of the fund for a long time and end up in leadership positions all over the community. It’s exactly what I hope to see in my own life – work hard to build the mountain higher so women behind you can see further.”

How To Strengthen Your Philanthropic Commitment

  • Reflect on the many ways in which you give – time, talent, treasure, testimony – and celebrate your many contributions to making the world a better place.
  • Share the story about your most meaningful gift with your family, friends and colleagues. This may encourage them to give or to give more.
  • Rely on data to measure your impact in your community.
  • Be bold in your giving to the causes about which you are passionate.  Be willing to take risks to support innovative ideas and initiatives.