How Women Donors Are Leading the Way in Philanthropy

Gender and Giving Dec 5, 2019

In a recent New York Times op-ed, Philanthropists Bench Women of Color, the M.V. P.s of Social Change, Vanessa Daniel argues that despite proven successes in creating impact, women of color are “shut out of funding” for six main reasons: A false notion that bigger is better, donors’ impulse to gentrify, implicit bias, risk, facially neutral rules, and elitist ideas of social change. Daniel says that philanthropists should shift a majority of their giving to groups headed by people of color.

Philanthropy as a whole certainly needs to do more to lift up leaders of color and ensure affected communities have a voice at the table, but I’d argue that many women leaders and donors have lived by these beliefs for years. Too often in our history of philanthropy we fail to measure the powerful leadership that women have contributed to social change because it happens alongside and not within mainstream philanthropy.

Giving Circles

Giving circles -- a model in which members pool their resources and decide collectively how to allocate funds -- have tripled in the U.S. between 2007 and 2017, according to the Women’s Philanthropy Institute’s (WPI) Landscape of Giving Circles. Sixty percent of giving circles are identity-based (gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, religious) with women’s giving circles the most prevalent. Collectively, giving circles have contributed about $1.3 billion to local communities since their inception.

The growth in giving circles today is propelled by groups forming around race and ethnicity.  The Community Investment Network is a federation of African-American giving circles throughout the country. These regional groups, such as SPIN Denver (Sisterhood of Philanthropists Impacting Needs), focus on issues affecting their local communities. For instance, SPIN provided funding for Curls on the Block, an organization that help girls of all colors build knowledge about STEAM. SPIN also invested in Sistahpreneurs, providing startup and growth support to Black women entrepreneurs. Meanwhile, the Latino Community Foundation has built Latino giving circles throughout California and has invested more than $1 million in Latino-led organizations across the state. Giving circles can also jumpstart new efforts in its community. For example, the Asian Women Giving Circle was the first funder of a new nonprofit in New York City.

Coming up in 2020, leaders of several giving circle networks are building a platform to encourage continued growth of this grassroots philanthropy. The initiative will result in more new faces and voices leading philanthropy and providing solutions for their communities.

Giving circles are one example of grassroots efforts to address challenging issues in communities across this country.  Rather than wait for funding from larger foundations, often white-led, giving circle members are effecting change now at the local level, exactly the kind of change that Daniel advocates.

Women’s Foundations and Funds

Women’s foundations and funds are primarily public foundations which make grants through a gender lens. According to WPI’s landscape scan and research on donors, 52% of the 164 foundations and funds in the study were established since 2000, an indication of a growing grassroots desire to meet the needs of the underserved populations of women and girls around the country.

One example is the National Philanthropic Collaborative of Young Women’s Initiative, a network of eight women’s foundations across the U.S. that will collectively award $41 million in grants over a seven year period to “ensure young women of color lead, prosper economically, and live safe and healthy lives.” This initiative intentionally engages the young women in leadership and decision-making.

Additionally, the recent announcement of four private foundations investing $20 million in women’s funds is further proof that this giving model is critical to supporting local communities. The funders recognize that women’s funds are “nontraditional actors” which support human rights.

Although these two models of engagement often fly under the mainstream philanthropic radar, they are effective vehicles for donors who want to heed Daniel’s advice of shifting giving to organizations led by people of color. Both models allow donors to listen carefully to their communities and interact with grantees in multiple ways. Women’s foundations, funds, and giving circles also vet their grantees rigorously and stay connected over time. Indeed, women have always been MVPs of social change in this country.