Key takeaways

  • Women have long engaged in nonprofit work, but women have more money and make more decisions around money now than ever before.

  • Women are more likely to donate more money overall than men and gravitate toward giving money to education, social services, health and women’s and children’s issues.

Women have long made their mark on their communities through a powerful vehicle for change: philanthropic giving.

Women’s wealth has grown at an unprecedented rate, expected to rise from $34 trillion in 2010 to at least $81 trillion by 2023.1 As women acquire more wealth, their financial influence grows within their family’s finances and within the world of philanthropy.

“There’s a long history of women influencing philanthropy,” says Karen McNeill, family historian for Ascent Private Capital Management of U.S. Bank. “But what’s different now is the scale. More women have more money to give.”

As a historian, McNeill 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.

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

Karen McNeill, family historian for Ascent Private Capital Management of U.S. Bank

Q: Can you talk about the 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, 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 okay 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 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.


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 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.

MacKenzie Scott is an interesting figure. She’s cut out a lot of red tape around grant applications and reporting that sucks time and resources away from nonprofits and their ability to accomplish their missions. You can imagine, though, that Scott’s done a lot of research about the causes she cares about and organizations that align with her values before she makes these generous donations.


Q: And what about the way women give? Do they approach it 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 had less money individually. 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: 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.


Q: How are philanthropic organizations engaging with and appealing to women donors?

A: Impact is 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 important to attract women to your organization. 


Q: What does all of that mean for the future of women’s influence on philanthropy?

A: 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.

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