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Category: Economy

A Candle Cursing the Darkness

| December 23, 2008

Despite the gloomy economic reality, women’s wealth proportionately is increasing in the United States. The author tells how she and other women donors are creating a new model to use their funds to make a difference.

One evening in October, when the stock market was in free-fall, I walked into a New York gathering of women donors. Many in the room had given to an initiative I co-lead, a campaign to invite women to raise the bar on their philanthropy by making gifts to 135 women’s foundations around the world—to the tune of $1 million and more per gift.

I entered the gathering expecting that room to have the all the excitement of a wake—after all, billions of dollars’ worth of wealth was in the process of evaporating. But much to my surprise, one of the women in the room asked, “When are you going to ask me for a second million?” And others in the room echoed that sentiment. I was stunned.

Amidst the darkness of December, a darkness that this year symbolizes doom and gloom along Wall Street, to Main Street and deep into the world of philanthropy, I see a candle that is cursing that darkness: women donors are stepping up to the plate. A notable example is the Dallas Women’s Foundation, which announced in September that it had raised two-thirds of a new $30 million campaign to strengthen women and girls in their community.

It is now becoming widely understood that when women are strengthened, families and communities are strengthened. Most recently Goldman Sachs has committed $100 million to empower women in the developing world. In the UK, Cherie Blair has announced that she will be starting her own women’s foundation. The wisdom of investing in women is coming into focus.

So is the power of the woman donor. Massive amounts of money are coming into the hands of women as part of a massive wealth transfer that is unique in history. Today women are estimated to own just more than half of the nation’s wealth, and that percentage is growing with time. Even though this wealth has shrunk with the crash on Wall Street, it is significant nevertheless, and the women receiving it are ready to use it to make a difference—and to go about it differently.

What I am learning through my work with women donors is that they are creating a new “business model” for philanthropy. Philanthropy at large stands to benefit greatly from what is emerging in women’s philanthropy.

What does this new approach to giving look like?

Women donors give more than money. They become fully engaged in giving, wanting to give of all of themselves—their ideas, their energies, their time, their passion.

Women donors are strategic. They like leveraging their dollars, and they see investing in women as a strategic way to address the larger problems in a community. 

Women donors tend to give in community with one another. They come together to share interests and strategies and sometimes to gain support in becoming comfortable with the ownership of wealth, a common problem among women whose wealth comes from family or other outside sources.

Women donors collaborate with the recipients of their philanthropic dollars and thus are shifting philanthropy from a “vertical” model to a “horizontal,” more democratic model. Women’s philanthropy invites cross-class, cross-race partnership. So it is common for donors and women grassroots leaders to sit side-by-side making decisions as to how to direct philanthropic dollars to address fundamental problems and have a dramatic societal impact.

Women donors look for that impact. They stay close to where their money goes, and they watch to see the difference in makes.

Women donors see philanthropy as an open, inclusive process, inviting giving at all levels—not as an exclusive club, as has historically been the case.

Around the United States, and around the world, this new approach to giving is coming to the fore. So much so that—in a reversal of the usual dynamic—major donors have often approached me, and my colleagues as well, asking if they can join their gifts of $1 million and more to our efforts. It’s as if something new is dawning, a light emerging just at a time when many are experiencing darker days.

While experts are predicting that 2009 will be a bleak year for philanthropy, that million-dollar-plus campaign enlisting women donors is closing in on its $150 million goal. Watch for philanthropy to enter a new era in the years to come, and watch for women to lead the way.