Where Are Young Women in Philanthropy?

In the same ways that traditional philanthropy has been historically dominated by white, older, high net worth men, feminist philanthropy has a noticeable population gap in younger age groups. Young women, in particular, in an era of crushing student loans, underemployment, and uncertainty in the face of COVID-19, are noticeably absent from a movement dedicated to their wellbeing.

Young women’s activism is at an all-time high — but why are we missing from feminist philanthropy? (Image Credit: Gayatri Malhotra)

This is not to say that the younger generations aren’t pulling their weight. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Young activists like Greta Thunberg and Sarah Goody are leading the way to revolutions in social justice and culture change. LGBT+ and POC youth are standing vanguard against discrimination, homophobia, and rollbacks of minorities’ legal rights.

The Disturbing and Demoralizing Giving Gap for Young Women

What’s missing, however, is the young woman’s voice in feminist philanthropy. We are here, we are engaged, and we are frustrated with the state of the economy and social justice, and yet there is something so disturbing and demoralizing about devoting a percentage of our income to philanthropy and culture change, only to feel like our five or twenty dollars is a drop in the bucket compared to the MacKenzie Scotts and Melinda Gateses of the world.

Having spoken about this issue with other young women in my social circles, the overwhelming response is that women in my age group simply do not have the income necessary to live comfortably, let alone give a portion of their income to the causes they believe in most.

“As a teenager, I gave to charity because I had disposable income,” said Amber B., “Now, giving $20 to a fund to keep my favorite club open [during the pandemic] is about all I can do.”

Amber is an interior designer and mother of two living and working in Georgia. During the pandemic, her design firm has been lucky enough to see an influx in clients; in fact, business for the firm has been so good that they’ve had to turn away multiple clients.

However, Amber is paid hourly — and with two kids at home, she has to balance homeschooling with the difficulties of two full-time jobs suddenly squashed into one home (her husband also works from home due to the pandemic). The result is that Amber and her family are coasting by on a “just enough” income.

“Since the emotional burden of child rearing STILL seems to fall mainly on women, I can’t get in enough hours to make any extra income,” she explains. “I would love to give to charities, but I basically can only participate in social media campaigns.”

On the flip side of the coin, Kyana M. finds small ways to make her own contributions.

“As a young adult, I’m not in a position to be able to support the causes I care about as much as I’d like, but I still do give a little bit each year,” she says. Kyana is an event planner living and working in New York City, where she’s had a front row seat to many of the tumultuous social movements of 2020, as well as the emergence of COVID-19.

“2020 notwithstanding, the ways in which I give money are typically in entrance fees to events,” Kyana explains. This version of charity is prevalent among younger women — Kyana picked up the habit from her college sorority, Tri Delta, which instilled philanthropy as one of its major values. For example, the sorority often hosted events in support of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

“For the last two or three years, I’ve given money to St. Jude and LLS [the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society] to attend walks and fundraising galas once or twice a year,” she says. “To be honest, it’s not always something I can afford, but it’s important to me.”

Another way Kyana makes an impact in her daily life is by choosing a bank with a charitable giving program. The bank that houses Kyana’s savings account offers a program that matches the interest accrued on Kyana’s savings as a donation to Planned Parenthood.

“I could get a better interest rate somewhere else,” Kyana says. “But to me, part of philanthropy is making little sacrifices, usually money or time, to help people who need it.”

At the same time, both Kyana and Amber face a similar issue: Living on the front lines of social and cultural movements — in New York City and Georgia, respectively — and feeling like they are spread too thin to support the causes that matter most to them.

Living in Georgia, a state where political turmoil and the outdated social norms of the American South go hand in hand, Amber deals with a growing frustration.

“I am financially, emotionally, and mentally exhausted,” she says. “We’re fairly comfortable but we have no extra money. I’m routinely broke by the Wednesday before payday. I think that’s why activism has had such a huge resurgence — we’re angry but we’re broke.”

Kyana echoes this feeling. “Beyond the money side of it, I think it’s hard for people of our generation too because there are SO MANY problems in the world,” she says. “We’re not only seeing but living through tragedy after tragedy. It can feel impossible to keep up with all the things you’re supposed to know about, care about, and take up arms over.”

This feeling is particularly crushing for young women in the United States: Witnessing all the horrors we face in our country on a daily basis, and feeling like there is “nothing” we can do about it, simply because we don’t have enough in our bank accounts to donate to an organization and still buy groceries for the month.

“We get stretched so thin it’s hard to feel like there’s anything left to give,” Kyana says. “As soon as you start to give your already minimal resources to one cause, you’re asked, ‘Why is no one talking about this other horrible thing?'”

When Young Women Make More, They Give More

One point here seems to be that we need to pay our young women more. The pay gap has been a hot button issue for generations at this point, and supporting organizations committed to diversity and inclusion in our future workforces is one excellent step forward we can take in feminist philanthropy.

At the same time, the growing popularity and prevalence of giving circles, women’s empowerment groups, and activist organizations offers a potential solution for women in this demographic to start out on their philanthropic journeys. Here at Philanthropy Women, we often highlight large foundations and high net worth individuals making the most with their impact — all work that is critical to support and amplify. But we cannot forget about the young women at the beginning of their journeys, either.

There’s an argument to be made for older, more affluent women supporting the giving journeys of younger women with less in their bank accounts. We need to support the rise of collaborative models like percentage-based giving circles or circles in which women with the means “sponsor” other women who can only give so much (i.e. one woman commits 150% of the ask so that another woman can give 50%).

Education, too, presents a poignant opportunity for young women in philanthropy. Feminist philanthropists with the means must support leadership and empowerment programs like Invest for Better’s Circle Leader training program, the Ellevate Network’s Squads system, and the free or low-cost resource programs, research projects, and publications coming out of organizations like Girls Leadership, the Ms. Foundation for Women, and Philanthropy Together.

Get Involved So Philanthropy Can’t Ignore You

I’ve said many times that the only way out is through, and that has never been more true for young women wanting to get involved in philanthropy.

“What I think people forget sometimes is that it’s not about how much you give or how often, it’s about being grateful for what you do have,” says Kyana. “If you find yourself in a moment of abundance, give back to those who aren’t so lucky.”

The barriers between women in my age group and supporting the change we want to see in the world are very real, but some of them — like the feeling that giving what we can will never be “enough” — are barriers that exist only in our minds and hearts. Only by working together to dismantle the current social constructs and “club rules” mentality of traditional philanthropy will we be able to bring diverse new voices into the field.

We’re focused on diversifying the workforce, political leadership, and social justice: It’s time to diversify philanthropy, too.


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Author: Maggie May

Maggie May is a small business owner, author, and story-centric content strategist headquartered in Annapolis, MD and Philadelphia, PA. She has a passion for finding stories and telling them the way they're meant to be told.

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