One of the most significant barriers to women starting out in philanthropy is lack of knowledge about how and where to donate money. Women new to philanthropy, including women whose families may have ill-prepared them for the financial management of inheritance, may have trouble picking an organization or cause to focus on. They may be confused about which kind of donation will create the most value for an organization, or may simply not understand the tax ramifications of different forms of philanthropy.
The storied fortunes of the Gilded Age are so closely associated with the men who made them that the wives who used that money to help society are often unknown. Wealthy women in the 19th century were expected to be little more than heir-producers and society hostesses.
But women such as Louise Whitfield Carnegie, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney did not spend their days merely updating the Social Register, getting fitted for sumptuous gowns, or meeting for luxurious, gossipy lunches. They also worked hard to make sure that their families’ fortunes—all built on the backs of the less fortunate—were used to help others. Wealthy 19th century women were not supposed to work outside the home, and they certainly had no financial need to do so. But these women expanded their limited roles through charitable work and in doing so created a new public role for women.
Visit any historic property in the United States, and more than likely you’ll discover that women were responsible for its preservation. Though Americans often argue over what to preserve from our nation’s history, one thing remains clear: historic preservation is vital to understanding our nation’s past and forming our national identity. American women have played the main role in securing valuable historic properties to tell the story of the American past, and used political activism, philanthropy, and social networking to do so.
Sustainable Harvest International Founder and President Florence Reed did not encounter many other women leaders in philanthropy when she started the organization in 1997. “I was flying by the seat of my pants. I literally went to a library and checked out a book on how to start a non-profit, and went through it chapter by chapter,” she recalled in a recent interview with Philanthropy Women. Who knew then how successful her initiative would be: Sustainable Harvest International (SHI) was recently named by Charity Navigator as one of the “six highest-ranking charities in the sector making major strides to increase sustainable food production.”
American women have not generally been celebrated for their philanthropic activity, so it shouldn’t be surprising that African-American female philanthropists are especially invisible in contemporary culture.
But that wasn’t always the case. In the early 20th century, African-American women were engaged in a literal battle for survival in a segregated and violently racist nation. One African- American woman, however, managed to go from being a laundress who sometimes earned less than one dollar a day to becoming one of the first self-made female millionaires in the United States. Her name was Sarah Breedlove, but she was known far and wide as Madam C. J. Walker, the founder of a hair care empire and a noted philanthropist. Walker used her fortune to champion the YMCA, the Tuskegee Institute, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and other important civic and educational organizations.