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What’s Behind the Rise of Women’s Philanthropy?

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The author, a veteran fund-raiser, explains new data on women’s generosity—and how the projects they support strategically expand possibilities for women and girls around the world.

While the worldwide economic downturn continues to threaten the well being of women and girls, some good news has come from the philanthropic community. A report released this year, “Accelerating Change for Women and Girls: The Role of Women’s Funds,” shows increased giving by and for women—growth that exceeds that of philanthropy overall. Between 2004 and 2006, giving by the 55 women's funds analyzed in the report, released by The Foundation Center and Women’s Funding Network, rose 24 percent after adjusting for inflation, while foundation giving overall increased just 14.8 percent.

Women’s funds operate at the intersection of the women’s movement and philanthropy, raising money primarily from women to support women-led organizations in communities around the world. With economic stress threatening both individuals and institutions, one would expect these foundations to be experiencing a severe downturn. Yet in this period of uncertainty, many women’s funds are in fact seeing an increase in support—even at a time when charitable giving overall is taking a hit.

Nevertheless, the percentage of giving to women’s funds and programs that directly target women and girls is still too low. The Women Moving Millions campaign—spearheaded by Women’s Funding Network and philanthropists Swanee and Helen LaKelly Hunt—is helping to move the needle on the share of giving for women and girls. Just this past May, we announced we had exceeded our goal by raising more than $180 million for women’s funds through individual million dollar gifts.

How was this possible? Because more donors—men and women alike—have come to trust women’s funds with their money, realizing that giving to a women’s fund is making an investment in a whole community. For more than 30 years, women’s funds have worked to create social change, promote human security, fund low-to-no-income women and their families, and democratize philanthropy for all.

Increasingly, the global community recognizes that women are powerful agents of change. In 2006, The Economist called women “the world’s most under-utilized resource,” noting that “over the past decade or so, the increased employment of women in developed economies has contributed much more to global growth than China has.”

But progress is uneven:

Unemployment for women who head households in the United States has risen steeply in recent months: 3.1 percentage points between December 2007 and April 2009, compared to an increase of 2.7 percentage points for all women 16 years and older.

Unbelievably, the gender-wage ratio in the United States has not improved significantly for nearly two decades. Women are still paid only 77.8 cents for every dollar a man makes for full-time work. The disparity is even greater for African American women, who make 63 cents, and Latinas, who make only 52 cents for every dollar that a white male earns.

Women, who continue to be disproportionately affected by the world’s most pressing challenges, are uniquely placed to identify solutions and advance true security. Led by women’s funds, more and more entities—from Goldman Sachs and Ernst Young to the World Bank and the Obama Administration—have recognized the importance of investing in leadership and opportunities that will bring equality for women and girls.

The work I did while CEO of the Atlanta Women’s Foundation exemplifies the strategies women’s funds and their donors employ that allow them to have a measurable impact on the lives of women and girls.

In 2000, Atlanta’s juvenile court system was logging an increased number of child sexual exploitation cases with increasingly younger girls. A woman philanthropist provided initial funding for a local nonprofit organization to open a safe house dedicated to taking girls off the street and rehabilitating them and this important works continues today. However, the root causes of trafficking for sexual exploitation and child prostitution remained entrenched in the community.

The Atlanta Women’s Foundation—in partnership with another donor activist—turned a spotlight on the domestic human trafficking in our midst. We understood that rescue and rehabilitation alone could never solve the interconnected social problems that were contributing to this issue: poverty, violence and other societal inequalities. So the foundation brought together community organizations, local law enforcement agencies, legal experts and community leaders to build a coalition to address the root causes.

Within eight months, this coalition achieved a significant goal. In 2001, the governor of Georgia signed into law the Child Sexual Commerce Prevention Act. The law makes pandering of children a felony that is punishable by up to 20 years in prison and a fine of $20,000. This coalition continues, has expanded and even in this last legislative session, eight years later, fostered additional public policy reform.

This is the kind of systemic change women’s funds invest in around the world. And more and more donors are discovering and choosing to support such proven strategies.

(You can follow the work of women’s funds around the world by joining us on Facebook, Twitter, at our blog, The She Change, and on the Web at www.womensfundingnetwork.org andwww.womenmovingmillions.org).

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