Women and Philanthropic Leadership

Ellen Remmer
Tuesday, May 11, 2010

I believe that women will in large part shape the future of philanthropy. Women are increasingly controlling the world’s wealth—in this country, they control over eighty percent of consumer spending, and the IRS reports that nearly half of the nation’s top wealth holders are now women. Thirty percent of working wives out-earn their spouses—double the rate of twenty years ago. 

More women are becoming corporate leaders, and research sponsored by Merrill Lynch and conducted for the National Foundation for Women Business Owners showed that women business owners are more likely to volunteer and encourage their employees to volunteer than are their male counterparts. More women than ever are leading major civic society organizations, including large foundations.  The Women’s Philanthropy Institute at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University has conducted several studies that have concluded that women are more philanthropic than men—single women being the most generous, followed by married couples, and then single men. And research conducted for Fidelity Charitable Gift Fund showed that women are increasingly the primary influencer in a household’s charitable giving decisions. Finally, women still outlive men by over five years and so, by virtue of pure demographics, will control an enormous amount of the massive intergenerational transfer of wealth that is taking place. While the global picture lags the U.S. situation, the status of women is strengthening in many places around the world.

So, if women are in this position, how will or might they take on the mantle of leadership? And what are the implications for our communities and the world?

Most important, I believe, is that women recognize that they have this opportunity and are inspired to seize it with gusto and a profound sense of responsibility. Achievements like the Women Moving Millions campaign, sponsored by the Women’s Funding Network, are exactly what we need. Groups like Rachel’s Network, for women committed to environmental stewardship in their giving, play a vital role. And we need more—more for aspiring female philanthropists, for women who suddenly come into wealth through widowhood, for women who are in corporate positions or who have retired but bring corporate expertise and connections, for the emerging group of global women philanthropists.

While it is somewhat politically incorrect to say so, I do believe that there are some gender differences in philanthropic motivation and practice. Let’s call it the 80-20 rule, as there are always exceptions. But generally, women like to affiliate more with others in their giving, women are drawn to causes focused on the less advantaged and with global impact, and women tend towards inclusive or “transformational” leadership. Transformational leaders serve as role models, mentor and empower others, and encourage innovation even when the organization they lead is already successful.

What do you think? Will women shape the future of philanthropy? And how?