Americas

Breaking Up the Philanthropy ‘Boys Club’

“Philanthropy has been a boys club for a long time and we’re at this precipice where that’s starting to shift.”

— Megan Tompkins-Stange, an assistant professor at the Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan

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Back in 2001, when Shira Ruderman first got involved in leading the Ruderman Family Foundation, she often found herself the only woman in the room. That wasn’t especially nerve-racking — she had just wrapped up a stint with the Israeli Army’s intelligence unit, so briefing American men in business suits seemed like a cinch. What she did find vexing, though, was when the men she met with asked to speak instead with her father-in-law, who was the foundation’s founder.

“It was like they were saying, ‘Your opinion is not that meaningful to us,’” she recalled. “It was annoying to walk into a room and feel like ‘I’m not good enough to make this decision for you.’”

Twenty years later, Ms. Ruderman is rarely the only woman in a meeting: The face and culture of philanthropy are changing, and with those shifts has come a steadily growing stream of funds for gender equality. Between 2012 and 2017, philanthropic support for women and girls’ organizations increased over 36 percent, according to the Women & Girls Index, which measures giving to women’s and girls’ causes.

This year, in the midst of a women-centered care and economic crisis, there’s been a boom in charitable giving toward gender equality. In July, MacKenzie Scott, Melinda French Gates and Schusterman Family Philanthropies partnered to give $40 million to four initiatives promoting gender equality. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation pledged $2.1 billion over five years to the issue and the Ford Foundation pledged $420 million over five years, both announced around the time of the Generation Equality Forum held this summer in Paris. The Black Girl Freedom Fund, launched last year, is working to gather $1 billion in funding over 10 years — and it started with the singer Ciara donating the proceeds from her song “Rooted.”

There’s no single force fueling the uptick in women-focused philanthropy. But it’s likely been helped by the rise of high-profile female philanthropists, like Ms. French Gates, who have made the case that investments in women yield greater returns, as well as the steady increase in the amount of wealth that American women hold. In 2020, women controlled a third of total household financial assets in the U.S., amounting to more than $10 trillion; by 2030, they’re expected to control much of the $30 trillion in baby boomer financial assets, according to McKinsey & Company. Women philanthropists are more likely than their male counterparts to donate to women and girls, according to a 2017 study.

“Philanthropy has been a boys club for a long time and we’re at this precipice where that’s starting to shift,” said Megan Tompkins-Stange, an assistant professor at the Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan.

It’s hard to quantify just yet how the broader philanthropic field has been impacted by this year’s surge of giving toward women. The Women’s Philanthropy Institute at Indiana University has analyzed Internal Revenue Service data every few years to look at charitable giving toward women, and it has hovered under 2 percent of overall philanthropy since 2012. Jeannie Sager, director of the institute, said it’s possible that percentage has risen in the midst of the #MeToo movement and the “she-cession.” Her team is crunching the most recent data, which will be released in late October.

“We’ve heard about all these major investments but we need to see if they really moved the needle or if they are just keeping up with the overall increase in philanthropy,” Ms. Sager said.

But on a cultural level, according to Ms. Sager, women philanthropists have already changed the way their field operates. Research from the Indiana University institute shows that female philanthropists tend to be more focused on forging relationships with their grantees and amplifying the voices of those closest to inequities and social issues.

“Women don’t simply want to write a check,” Ms. Sager said. “The relationship building is important to them. They’re motivated by the stories of the people being served.”

The National Domestic Workers Alliance, a nonprofit which aims to raise labor standards for care workers, is one of the women-led organizations that has benefited from this model of philanthropy, which centers relationships with grassroots communities.

In 2006, the group’s founder, Ai-jen Poo, approached The New York Women’s Foundation with a plan to organize a movement of nannies, housekeepers, home health aides and other domestic workers across the U.S. To some other funders, the idea had seemed preposterous; Ms. Poo was warned that the people she was trying to organize weren’t laborers united on a factory floor, they were dispersed across different sectors and communities. But funders at The New York Women’s Foundation, after deep conversation with Ms. Poo, decided to place a bet of roughly $30,000 on her vision.

More than a decade later, Ms. Poo’s organization has ballooned to over 70 local affiliates and 250,000 members of an online community. It recently won $10 million from Ms. Scott and Ms. French Gates’s Equality Can’t Wait Challenge. Its success, according to Ana Oliveira, president of The New York Women’s Foundation, is a testament to the work of philanthropists who amplify the voices of women, especially those most affected by injustice.

“Women’s foundations are very close to the people we support,” Ms. Oliveira said. “That’s how we mitigate risk — by listening. We don’t just issue a grant and say ‘See you in a year.’”

The philanthropic field’s largest players have also started to mimic smaller women’s foundations by listening to communities on the ground and building personal relationships with grantees.

Darren Walker, head of the Ford Foundation, said he has seen a concerted effort from philanthropists, including at his own foundation, to center the perspectives of women closest to the challenges at hand, whether those concern women’s education or economic inequality.

“Twenty years ago you’d be on a call about African women’s empowerment and the people who talked most were the experts from the U.S.,” Mr. Walker said. “A seminal moment for me was during Covid when I was on a Zoom call with various organizations, philanthropists and donors from the U.S. and the African women did most of the talking.”

Critics of mainstream philanthropy, like Anand Giridharadas, author of “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World,” note that charitable giving isn’t a sufficient answer to any gender inequity — and in some cases, it can serve as a distraction from the deeper work that’s needed. Some philanthropists, Mr. Giridharadas noted, invest great sums in girls’ education or reproductive health but then perpetuate inequities through their businesses, whether by propping up all-male boards or offering inadequate family leave.

“They moonlight as philanthropic saviors while by operational daylight they’re the cause of the problems,” Mr. Giridharadas said.

He recalled attending a Clinton Global Initiative meeting in 2016 where someone made a presentation on how beauty salons present an entrepreneurial opportunity for women.

The irony wasn’t lost on him. “In a world of gender equality there might be fewer beauty salons,” he continued. “They’re part of an industry that puts expectations on women that aren’t put on men.”

But to Ms. Sager, there’s promise in the work of women philanthropists who demand accountability from the organizations they support, and wield their funding as leverage to create policy change. She recalled one female donor who had been funding a nonprofit organization for years and then noticed there were no women on the board. So the donor told her grantee that she would cut off support unless they addressed the lack of representation.

“Lo and behold,” Ms. Sager said. “The next year there were two new female board members.”

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