How – and how much – women give is changing the philanthropic landscape

“Broadly, collectively, holistically”: with increasing awareness that it’s time to unlock the potential of women as a key demographic in fundraising strategies, and with women’s and girls’ organizations receiving just 2% of funding, research like that being done by the Women’s Philanthropy Institute aims to jump-start a more woman-friendly version of philanthropy.

“Broadly, collectively, holistically”: with increasing awareness that it’s time to unlock the potential of women as a key demographic in fundraising strategies, and with women’s and girls’ organizations receiving just 2% of funding, research like that being done by the Women’s Philanthropy Institute aims to jump-start a more woman-friendly version of philanthropy.


Maybe you know her. She fills a purse with menstrual products and gives it to someone in need. She walks 5,000 kilometres to raise awareness for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. She joins a giving circle with a $1,000 e-transfer. She is the woman who gives, and while she is many things, “predictable” doesn’t make the list.

Much to the frustration of fundraisers, “the typical woman who gives is not typical,” says Jeannie Infante Sager, director of the Women’s Philanthropy Institute (WPI). The institute, housed in the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University, aims to “conduct, curate and disseminate rigorous research that grows women’s philanthropy” with an ultimate mission to increase the understanding of gender and philanthropy, says Sager. “Identity matters, and life experience matters,” she says, shaping almost everything we do. Why should philanthropy be any different? “But we have a philanthropic world that, like many other systems in the world, doesn’t speak as clearly to women as it does to men.” Gender inequity filters into everything, she says, from how women who give are treated to what is funded.

We have a philanthropic world that, like many other systems in the world, doesn’t speak as clearly to women as it does to men.

Jeannie Infante Sager, Women’s Philanthropy Institute

Media outlets have noted that women philanthropists are “breaking up” the philanthropic “boys club.” They demand accountability, Sager told the New York Times, and “wield funding as leverage to create policy change.” Women don’t simply want to write a cheque and get their name on a building, she said; they’re in it for impact. This shift from “an ego-system to an ecosystem” isn’t just a trend, according to PhiLab researcher Manuel Litalien: feminist philanthropy is “colouring the philanthropic landscape.”

Unfortunately, many organizations are stuck in time when it comes to attracting the woman who gives. “Women are not a monolith,” says Sager. “You cannot reach women donors using the same old tactics that have been tried for decades.” WPI research, including these fundraising tips, helps jump-start a more woman-friendly version of philanthropy. The woman who gives wants to be welcomed by an organization that “leads with curiosity,” Sager says, that appreciates both her financial support and the other ways in which she shows generosity.

Rather than identify as ‘a philanthropist,’ women really lean into generosity.

Jeannie Infante Sager

The term “generosity” comes up often. “A lot of our research falls into three buckets,” Sager says: women give broadly, collectively, and holistically. “When I say women give broadly, it’s that idea that women are drawn to this expanded definition of philanthropy. They don’t connect to the word ‘philanthropist.’” But ask them about generosity, and that’s another story. Ask them if they volunteer, serve on a board, advocate for a cause on social media. Rather than identify as “a philanthropist,” women “really lean into generosity,” Sager says.

And women like to be generous in the company of other women. Hence, the rise of giving circles, overwhelmingly started and led by women. Women like to know their $1,000 gift has a $10,000 impact, says Sager. They like the democracy of how such circles work – one gift, one vote. Women leverage their social capital to encourage others to join them. Sager cites MacKenzie Scott (who has given more than US$12 billion since 2019), who invites others to give by embedding links to the non-profits she supports in her Medium articles. “Even at the highest levels of giving, women want this to be a collective effort,” Sager says.

Women give from the head, the heart, and the hands. They want to see it, touch it, feel it, and understand it.

Jeannie Infante Sager

Last, but not least, women give holistically. Empathy informs motivation, Sager says, not a tax credit or their name on a building. “I often say, from what the research shows, that women give from the head, the heart, and the hands. They want to see it, touch it, feel it, and understand it.” Basically, “they’re willing to be ‘all in,’” she says. “They’re willing to access all the different tools in order to be generous.”

The more Sager talks, the more you feel proud to be a woman. You want to be the woman who gives, or at least be her friend. Sager laughs. This isn’t the first time someone has shared such a sentiment. When presenting WPI research, she sees the expression on women’s faces change. “They feel seen,” she says. After more than a quarter of a century working in the sector, Sager knows how important this is. “You can’t be what you don’t see,” she says.

These are not new observations. In a review of Women Who Give Away Millions: Portraits of Canadian Philanthropists, published in 1996, the reviewer suggests considering women, who “put their money where their emotion is,” as a separate category of donors. Twenty years later, a podcast suggests it’s time to unlock the potential of women as a “key demographic” in fundraising strategies, as do numerous reports. What’s new is women’s growing financial clout. Globally, the number of women billionaires is at a record high. Women now hold 40% of global wealth. By 2026, women will control 48% of Canada’s wealth. “When women control more wealth, the face of philanthropy will change,” Forbes predicted in 2018.  

“The time is now,” states a WPI fact sheet, for women’s philanthropy to reach its full power and potential. Research shows that women are more likely to give, and give more, to women’s and girls’ causes, and “the more women see other women giving to women’s and girls’ organizations, the more they will give,” says Sager. “Women lift up half the sky,” she says, and to lift women and girls is to lift entire communities. For women who want to give strategically, to see “impact returns on their investments,” there is no better strategy than to invest in women and girls.

While everyone from the World Bank to the United Nations to World Vision Canada agrees, WPI’s Women & Girls Index 2022 shows that women’s and girls’ organizations still receive just 1.9% of the U.S. charitable giving pie. Paulette Senior, executive director of the Canadian Women’s Foundation (CWF), notes that figure also “seems right” in a Canadian context. Sadly, it was the same figure from a 1986 report that helped spur the creation of the CWF. This figure hasn’t moved because we are unmoved, Senior says: “In a sense, we expect women’s lives to be difficult and draining. Women’s suffering does not particularly shock or move us, especially when they’re single mothers, racialized, living with a disability, or living in poverty.”

While Sager is definitely a glass-half-full kind of person, this long-standing pattern can be discouraging. She has watched the tides of awareness around gender equity (spurred by movements such as #MeToo), and subsequent investment in women and girls, rise and fall, and sometimes fall even more. She calls this “that old notion of one step forward, two steps back” – and it’s not a small backwards step, she says. She worries about recent WPI research showing that single women, who are more likely to give than single men, are giving less than men for the first time since their research began more than a decade ago.

Globally, statistics show that while some women may be wealthier than ever, others are increasingly vulnerable to shocks and crises, disproportionately affected by the four Cs (COVID-19, climate emergency, conflict, cost of living). Gita Gopinath, first deputy managing director of the IMF, notes that 64 million women lost jobs during the pandemic and that 80% of people displaced by climate change are women. Sima Bahous, executive director of UN Women, says that investing in women and girls is “more urgent, more needed, and makes more sense than ever,” with initiatives such as national action plans for women growing from 37 to 103 countries in the past decade but funding for women’s organizations steadily decreasing. For gender-based violence prevention and response in humanitarian emergencies, she notes a 72% funding shortfall.

This is where WPI research can truly connect the dots, urging donors to “think critically and strategically about how they want to practise philanthropy,” says Sager. New initiatives such as Give to Women and Girls Day, along with a host of organizations that primarily serve women’s and girls’ organizations, such as the Ms. Foundation for Women and Women Moving Millions, spotlight this strategy across the United States. While feminist philanthropic foundations such as CWF continue to spearhead change, for the most part Canada has some catching up to do. The report Resetting Normal: Funding a Thriving Women’s Sector points out that of 200 foundations on the Charity Village website, fewer than 10 mention women and girls. CanadaHelps lists more than 1,700 organizations when the search term “women and girls” is applied, but no discrete category for “women and girls” to corral would-be donors exists.

It’s time for some ‘code-switching’ – to create fundraising systems that appeal to more women, and to a more diverse, younger community of people.

Jeannie Infante Sager

Ushering in the new era of women philanthropists, and boosting the 2%, calls for a system overhaul. Little has changed in fundraising structures since the 1960s, says Sager, when the word “philanthropist” conjured up a 65-year-old, white, heterosexual male. Sager says it’s time for some “code-switching” – to create systems that appeal to more women, and to a more diverse, younger community of people. Customer-relationship-management systems (CRMs), she points out, still default to males as head of household, even though WPI’s Women Give 2021 shows that women make most households’ charitable-giving decisions. “What if we just shifted all of those CRMs to female head of household?” Sager asks. “What if we lead with this idea that the woman is the primary decision-maker?”

What if, she ventures, one day we could take the word “women” out of “Women’s Philanthropy Institute,” signalling this was “just the way philanthropy was done.” For the time being, Sager would be happy in a world “where more women will stand up and say, ‘I’m a philanthropist,’ that they see themselves in the research, that it resonates for them, and that it activates joy.” Research shows that all people experience greater life satisfaction when they give, but women find higher life satisfaction when they can give more, she notes. “How can we activate this joy for everyone, and in particular for women, so that they know that all the ways they lean into generosity count?”


Correction: This article was updated on November 29, 2022, to correct a factual error: a search for “women and girls” on the CanadaHelps website returns more than 1,700 results, not 20,000.

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