Power of the Purse: Report Finds Women Lead in Giving and Deserve More Focus in Fundraising



By taking into account non-traditional types of giving, a new report on the link between charitable giving, race and gender finds that women across all races and ethnicities give generously at similar rates. They also lead philanthropic giving in families and single-person households, a finding with significant implications for fundraisers.  

Women Give 2019: Gender and Giving Across Communities of Color” is the latest in a series of research reports by the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy that focus on gender differences in charitable giving. The report uses data from the 2015 Philanthropy Panel Study (PPS) of 5,954 households (627 African American, 105 Asian American, 636 Hispanic, and 4,586 non-Hispanic White) and from the 2018 U.S. Trust Study of High Net Worth Philanthropy of 1,573 households (97 African American, 134 Asian American, 100 Hispanic, and 1,231 White non-Hispanic). Interviews were also conducted with six philanthropic women in communities of color.

The Mays Family Institute on Diverse Philanthropy collaborated in the study, which found that:

  • Race does not significantly influence giving, after accounting for other factors like income and education

  • Single women are more likely to give than single men, and married couples are more likely to give than singles

  • Women in communities of color tend to volunteer informally at higher rates than in formal volunteering

The report suggests that women of all races take a lead role in prompting charitable giving, and fundraisers who ignore them do so at their peril, said Una Osili, associate dean for research at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. Yet the nonprofit sector is full of anecdotal evidence that nonprofits tend to overlook women—particularly women of color—during solicitations and outreach efforts. For years, women have been left out of thank-you letters or other communications from nonprofits, and in-person solicitors often ignore them while focusing their fundraising pitches on the men in the room.

To remedy the situation, Osili said, fundraisers and other charity leaders need to make a concerted effort to tailor their communications to women as well as men, said Debra J. Mesch, the Eileen Lamb O’Gara Chair in Women’s Philanthropy at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. They also need to expand their networks to engage men and women in communities of color in ways that appeal and matter to them.

One approach that works well is bringing women together as a group to address nonprofit causes and take advantage of their collaborative tendencies. One such women’s group established years ago at the University of California, Los Angeles, for example, has raised many millions of dollars. Giving circles in particular continue to grow more popular; research shows that women make up the majority of members in 70 percent of giving circles, and that 60 percent of giving circles are formed around an identity, like race, gender, religion or age. 

But to optimize women’s giving, charitable organizations cannot just appoint a staff member to form a group for women donors, says Kathleen Loehr. Too often, she writes in her book on the topic, women’s giving programs are relegated to the sidelines or regarded as niche programs, when an organization’s entire fundraising effort should be assessed with an eye toward appealing to women and adjusted accordingly.

The report also found that while race may affect amounts given to charity, these differences were mitigated by demographic factors. Among high-net-worth donors, virtually no difference was found between racial groups in the percentage of households that give to charity.

A key component of the study is its inclusion of informal philanthropy as a measure of giving. Formal giving is commonly known as giving to an organization or nonprofit. White people are more likely than people of color to volunteer with formal organizations. But informal giving, which is difficult to measure, is often higher among people of color. Informal giving is donating time, money and goods to friends and neighbors in one’s community. 

One reason why people of color are more likely than Caucasians to give informally, the researchers said, may be a lack of racial and gender diversity within philanthropic institutions. Also, minority donors are less likely to be approached by fundraisers. 

Implications for fundraisers include the need to engage with donors of color more often and in more depth.  Firms owned by women of color are growing and proliferating, and their founders are seeking a voice and a presence in all areas of society. Nonprofits that want to attract more diverse volunteers should be more intentional in their efforts around inclusion in the community—they should be aware that there are women and others in diverse communities who are already helping, and reach out to them. 

To get the word out, WPI partnered with the YMCA and Facebook to launch “Who is a Philanthropist?,” a video campaign challenging societal notions of what a philanthropist looks like by spotlighting the stories of diverse women who are committed to making a difference in their communities. For instance, it highlights Renetta McCann, who works for Publicis and feels fortunate in her success and a responsibility to “give some of that fortune back.”

Nicole Robinson, vice president of the Greater Chicago Food Depository, relates how she and 33 other women decided to invest in the success of women and girls. “We live in a city where probably the top three issues are poverty, violence and racism, and we thought, where are girls in this conversation? We can put our money together, because there are great programs on the ground, and we can help.”

Ximena Larkin, a Mexican American communications specialist, has a hard time seeing herself as a philanthropist, because to her, a philanthropist looks like “Bruce Wayne’s parents. But when you start to break it down and really see the definition of the word and the context of what you do every day, I think, oh yeah, I am a philanthropist.”

They are not Rockefellers, but all of the women spotlighted see themselves as philanthropists, people who need to be part of the conversation in moving their communities forward.

“Women Give 2019” succeeds in challenging assumptions about who gives and who is valuable to a community. It begs the question of what valuable, powerful, and inspiring connections for change charities miss when measuring others by mainstream (mostly male) yardsticks. The answer is too many.