Women giving back

Women and Wealth


Women have long made their mark on their communities and American society as a whole through a powerful vehicle for change: philanthropic giving.

“Philanthropy has been one of the most influential parts of the economy that women have engaged in for the past 200 years,” says Karen McNeill, director of family history for Ascent Private Capital Management at U.S. Bank.

Over the past decade, as women’s wealth has grown at an unprecedented rate, increasing from $34 trillion to $51 trillion between 2010 and 20151, so does their influence on their family’s finances and in the world of philanthropy.

“You have this tidal wave of interest among women in playing much more active, vocal roles in the family wealth and decisions around money,” McNeill says. “There’s a long history of women influencing philanthropy, but what’s different now is the scale. More women have more money to give.”

McNeill works closely with families to document their shared histories and values as a way to inform decisions about family wealth. She’s also a historian who has spent time studying women’s growing influence in money matters. Here, McNeill talks about the history of women and philanthropy, the momentum she’s seeing now and her outlook on the future.

Q: Can you talk about the social and cultural trends that have contributed to the growth in women’s financial influence and, as a result, their impact on philanthropy?
A: Women’s influence has ballooned in the past 10 years. It’s partly due to a wealth transfer from previous generations. Women have inherited approximately 70 to 80 percent of transferred wealth going back at least 90 years, but there’s more happening. The many decades of change leading up to the past 10 years have created a structural, legal, cultural and social environment that makes it OK for women to have money, to make decisions around money, to make more money and to do what they want with their money.

Q: How does that history connect to women’s role in philanthropy today?
A: Philanthropy is an arena where women have played an enormous role in education, health, medicine, social services, children’s issues, women’s issues and more. Throughout the 19th and into the 20th century, women had few job opportunities because of gender barriers. It was considered inappropriate for women to be in the workforce. So, they engaged in nonprofit work because it allowed them to get outside of their homes and have an impact on their community.

A lot of the trends we see in women’s philanthropy now can be traced back to this very long history, whether it’s the causes they support or the ways they donate.

Q: How do you see women’s growing influence show up in the work you do with families?
A: The biggest way it shows up is in women wanting to make sure that whatever their family does with its wealth is aligned with values and anchored in the family story. They really want to be strategic about their wealth. They don’t want to just give money away. They want to know the money is being used well and whatever causes they’re supporting align with their values and principles.

Women are also interested in investments, particularly younger women, but where women really find a strong voice in family decisions about wealth is in philanthropy. Through the generations, discussions around money, values and philanthropy tend to be where women stake their claim.

Q: What causes do women tend to gravitate to?
A: Women still give to educational causes a lot. They’re more likely to give to causes that help the environment. They’re interested in social services and issues around women and girls, whether it’s addressing the wage gap or providing better education. And they’re still interested in health — that’s a huge one.

Women are more likely to give locally and to organizations, they have a personal association with. And, they’re more likely to take time to educate themselves about the causes they give to because they care about the impact. It’s values-based giving.

Q: And what about the way women give? Do they approach philanthropic giving differently from men?
A: Women are more likely to donate less money to more causes than men, but more money overall. They’re also more likely to give in an organized way. A century ago, women would come together collectively for a cause in part because they wouldn’t have a significant impact giving individually because they had less money. By giving collectively, they could have a bigger impact.

Today, women can still pool their funds collectively and have more economic power, but it’s not out of necessity anymore. It’s become the culture of women’s giving. Women educate themselves together. They volunteer together. They organize activities so they can learn about specific causes. They invite speakers to come to events. They’re still pooling their resources, but the shift we’ve seen in recent decades is in more formal structures around giving at the state, national and even international level. These could be in the form of collective giving funds or giving circles.

Q: What are giving circles and how do they work?
A: Giving circles are intentional structures — groups that are formed in which entry into the group means giving a certain amount of money. You can give $50 and be part of the circle, or you can give much more significant donations. They create a way for women of varying economic backgrounds to come together around a particular cause. Membership in a giving circle might also be attached to meetings, community events, site visits, publicity, etc. It’s an old style of giving, but the scale of it is much bigger today.

Q: With so many causes to choose from, how can women make decisions about where/how to give?
A: It often just sort of happens by accident. They might start in a school, and then they start building networks and are introduced to causes that way. Being invited to join a board is often an important entry point because it gives a woman a chance to get to know an institution and become more invested in the outcomes of its work.

Women might begin their giving by just writing checks, but then over time, they want to be more organized, disciplined and strategic. They might turn to consultants to help themselves and their families be intentional about figuring out who they are, what their values are, what their goals are and how all of it can align in terms of their giving.

“There’s a long history of women influencing philanthropy, but what’s different now is the scale. More women have more money to give.”

Q: How are philanthropic organizations engaging with and appealing to women donors?
A: Impact is really, really important to women, and that has deep historical roots. If you think about women in the past — they had a finite amount of money to give and so they wanted to be sure the causes they gave to created social good.

So, today, what becomes imperative for philanthropic organizations is not simply the cause. Of course you have to get people to buy into your cause, but you can’t just send an annual letter. You also need to develop programs that attract women to come to your organization to participate in an event that showcases your mission, your people, whatever need you have and maybe even a sampling of the work you do. That experiential, educational or volunteer opportunity becomes really important to attract women to your organization.

Q: So as women’s economic power continues to grow, the structures of giving become more sophisticated, and organizations do more to cultivate women donors. What does all of that mean for the future of women’s influence on philanthropy?
A: It’s going to be huge. As women accumulate more money, there’s no reason to think they’re going to stop giving. Historically, giving has been one of the primary places where women can wield their power, and as they have gained more wealth, they have given more. As they continue to accumulate wealth at a faster pace, it stands to reason that women’s influence and control over the philanthropic world is going to increase as well.

Read more about how U.S. Bank is committed to helping women work toward their financial goals.

1Women’s wealth is rising,” The Economist, Mar 8, 2018.