If you spend time reading about women and philanthropy, you will invariably come across Helen LaKelly Hunt. Along with her sister, Swanee Hunt, these two feminist philanthropists are major players in the women’s funding movement, which hit the big leagues in the past decade as high-net-worth women began to make gifts of over $1 million dollars to fund causes for women and girls.
While researching for her dissertation on the origins of American feminism, Hunt discovered that 19th century women didn’t fund the suffrage movement. Instead, they funded things like their husband’s alma maters, churches (where they had no voice) and the arts. Years later, when women began pledging and making million-dollar gifts to women’s funds, Hunt captured that history in a book called the Trailblazer book, which was circulated to other women donors. This compilation of women’s testimonies helped catalyze the founding of Women Moving Millions.
The murder of two women joggers in the past week has focused new attention on sexual violence against women. Over the past few years, this issue has been on the agendas of several key sectors of society—including universities, which have grappled with campus sexual assaults; professional sports, where top players have stood accused of attacks; and the military, where rape is common. All of these are different forms of gender based violence.
Philanthropy is another sector paying attention, with new sources of funding appearing in recent years.
Last year, we mentioned that a documentary on campus sexual assault, The Hunting Ground, had inspired a funding effort that includes resources at NEO Philanthropy, an intermediary that works with both funders and nonprofits. It’s not clear how much money that effort has raised, or what these funds have been used for. What is clear that the film brought major attention to campus sexual assault, an issue that has drawn in other funders, too—most notably the Avon Foundation, as we’ve reported.
Here’s some good news this week, in case you need a little cheering up: The Obama administration hosted the first-ever United State of Women Summit in Washington, D.C. With Michelle Obama and Oprah headlining the event, this convergence included many old and new fighters for gender equality including Darren Walker, Gloria Steinem, Matt McGorry and Amy Poehler. Also adding to the excitement: women’s funds.
President Obama and Vice President Biden also participated, with the president drawing wild cheers from the crowd as he announced in classic Obama style: “I may be a little grayer than I was eight years ago, but this is what a feminist looks like.”
Here’s the story of how Emily Nielsen Jones and her husband, Ross Jones, discovered their niche of integrating a gender focus into their faith-inspired philanthropy. The Boston-based couple once funded Christian Union, an Ivy League campus ministry, to launch a new branch at their alma mater, Dartmouth College. They were impressed with the organization at first because of its interest in mobilizing students to engage in combating human trafficking.
But as Jones got closer to the organization and started asking gender-related questions, she uncovered that within its own organization, the Christian Union promotes what it calls a “complementarian” leadership structure, which excludes women from top leadership positions. Once the couple gained more awareness about this policy, which creates gender ceilings for both staff and students, they engaged in a dialogue to encourage Christian Union to reconsider its practices of limiting women in the organization.
But what’s really going on here? What’s the impact of women’s leadership in philanthropy in terms of (a) where resources are actually going; and (b) how things are done in the philanthrosphere?
These questions are important to the sector, but they also link up with the larger perennial debate over just how much change occurs when women start calling the shots. Philanthropy offers an intriguing case study in this regard.
Our own impression from IP’s ongoing reporting in this area is that there are good reasons for all the excitement about women’s leadership in philanthropy. In fact, this leadership has mobilized new resources to advance gender equity and does seem to be affecting how philanthropy writ large operates.
Two years ago, we published a list of the 15 most powerful women in U.S. philanthropy. The idea for that article emerged because we were struck by how many women are involved in philanthropy at a high level—and equally struck by how little attention they tend to receive. In particular, while the spouses of billionaires often play a lead role in charting a couple’s giving, the spotlight usually falls on their better-known husbands when major gifts are made. Not only is this unfair, but it misses the real story of how today’s big philanthropy is unfolding as new mega-donors enter the scene—with women in the lead.
Nearly every week at Inside Philanthropy I meet another woman leader who shows me a way that women’s funds and foundations are impacting the philanthropy landscape, and breaking down barriers to equality for women and girls. This week I talked to Roslyn Dawson Thompson, President and CEO of the Dallas Women’s Foundation (now the Texas Women’s Foundation) and the chair of the board of directors of the Women’s Funding Network.
Much of our discussion was about the role of economic security in empowering women. “If women are not able to achieve economic security then it has massive implications for workforce development and the economics of every state and the country overall,” said Thompson.