Women Donor Activism: Harnessing Water to Produce Electricity

Gender and Giving Aug 26, 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 Two. Read Parts One, Three, and Four.


During her 9-year term as a trustee with the University of Hawai’i Foundation, Marivic Dar saw major donors – both men and women – make major gifts to honor a man. Even when a woman decided to make a leadership gift, she named it in honor of her deceased husband. In response, Dar became a founding member of a group dedicated to growing women’s philanthropy in Honolulu.

“I always feel like we’re the ocean, but a large body of water means nothing unless it does something.” Dar said. “We should be like a dam, not an ocean. How do we harness this water to produce electricity?”

Dar has worked tirelessly to leverage the power of women to lead. Like many women across the country, Dar is troubled by national politics and the possibility of losing ground in the fight for gender and racial equality. This motivates her philanthropy and her board service with the Women’s Fund of Hawai’i.

Women’s funds and foundations have long channeled women’s outrage at the gap between our vision for a world where all women and girls thrive and the reality in which we still fight for women’s safety, education for girls, and other important issues. Today, women’s funds and foundations are expanding philanthropy by offering women donors the opportunity to deepen and accelerate their impact as donor activists and leaders. Using our voices to advocate for equality is quickly becoming the fourth “T” in philanthropy: Time, talent, treasure, and testimony.

This aligns with recent findings in the report All in for Women and Girls: How Women’s Fund and Foundation Donors Are Leading Through Philanthropy. According to the research by the Women’s Philanthropy Institute, donors to women’s funds and foundations are more than twice as likely as general donors to consider themselves donor activists. And, nearly half view themselves as philanthropic leaders compared to general donors.

“In the past, the push for equity required that we approach our work with a polite sensibility. Our voices were raised to a volume that was acceptable,” said Wendy Nelson, a business and philanthropic leader in Minneapolis. “Fast forward to today, the context has shifted for many reasons and we no longer have to mute the anger that rises with inequity.”As an individual donor and chair of her family’s foundation which focuses on equity and access for young people, Nelson’s awakening to the entrenched systems of gender and racial inequity occurred because of her involvement with the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota and its role in working across sectors and political parties to bring solutions.

“When you work with a women’s foundation, you learn quickly that the support of services alone does not find lasting change or broad reach.” Nelson said. “You recognize the importance of a purposefully raised voice and quickly become an activist and an architect simultaneously raising up the realities and building the coalition that can take on systemic barriers.”

How To Strengthen Your Philanthropic Leadership and Activism Skills

  1. Deepen your involvement with an organization you support by getting directly involved as a volunteer or board member.
  2. Learn to give testimony on behalf of the causes and organizations you support. Beyond the infamous elevator speech, connect your own life story with your philanthropic commitment.
  3. As former U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski said, “Each one of us can make a difference. Together we make change.” Work together. Encourage the organizations you support to work across sectors and political parties.