Martha A. Taylor: On Accelerating Social Change for Women

Martha A. Taylor, longtime women’s philanthropy expert and Vice President of the University of Wisconsin Foundation, shares insights about how to accelerate social change for women.

“Major societal change happens through major institutions,” says Martha A. Taylor, women’s philanthropy pioneer and Vice President of the University of Wisconsin Foundation. Taylor doesn’t discount the energy that comes from the streets, and in January she attended the Women’s March with her then 94-year-old mother, who carried a sign invoking both FDR and Obama. Still, Taylor says that for women to effect change, they need to occupy leadership positions in major institutions.

That maxim applies to the corporate, political and non-profit spheres. “When you sit in a board room where hundreds of millions of dollars are raised, that gives you real power and ability to impact society,” says Taylor, who notes that prior to the women’s movement, women’s leverage was applied from outside the power structure. “Now women can exert our leadership from within as well,” she says, “Where real change takes place.”

Taylor started working at the University of Wisconsin Foundation (UWF) in 1975, after completing a BA at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a master’s degree focusing on philanthropy and higher education at West Virginia University. In 1988, she co-founded the UWF’s Women’s Philanthropy Council (WPC), the first co-ed university major gifts organization of women philanthropists. The impetus for its founding was simple. Traditionally, monied male graduates had comprised 95 percent of the prospects for fund-raising, and women were an afterthought. Taylor realized that half the team was sitting on the sidelines, and with the WPC she made a concerted effort to attract female donors of means.

One of Taylor’s pre-internet strategies for getting the word out on women’s philanthropy was to pick up the phone. “We would just call reporters at various papers and let them know what we were doing,” says Taylor. One of those calls resulted in a 1991 New York Times Magazine article by Anne Mathews entitled “Alma Maters Court Their Daughters.” The piece quoted Taylor extensively, and focused on the wellspring of untapped money and expertise residing in college alumnae.

The NYT Magazine article noted that women didn’t give as much as men because fundraisers didn’t think they had much potential and so didn’t cultivate them; predictably, this lack of attention yielded a low level of female support. Beyond that, other reasons women didn’t give at the same levels as men included fear for their own financial security should they give too much money away, and the age-old practice of deferring to a husband or other family member regarding financial matters, including charitable giving. Some successful women were also suspicious and resentful of their alma maters, perceiving the upper reaches of higher education to be old boys’ clubs that excluded women and didn’t deserve their support.

Higher education has changed dramatically since the early 90s, and women are starting to attain more positions in leadership. Taylor celebrates that the top three administrators at UW-Madison are women, and that the leadership of the University’s current capital campaign is half female. Women also currently occupy the top administrative post at the flagships of the Universities of Wisconsin, Illinois and North Carolina; the multi-campus University of California and State University of New York systems; and the universities of Virginia, Connecticut, Kansas and Washington, as well as Harvard, Penn, Emory, Case-Western, and Brown.

Women approach giving differently than men says Taylor, noting that today women often give to higher education because of its potential for personal and social transformation. They engage differently than men, and desire small group participation versus one-on-one visits by development officers. They are not nostalgic for the good old days; rather, they want to foster opportunities for the next generation.

Not all women donors focus on female-centered causes, and Taylor says that in the focus groups she organized decades ago, women resented being pigeon-holed as interested in “women’s issues.” However, when asked what they were most passionate about, women often cited education, health care, and opportunities for women and underserved communities. For this reason, Taylor is less concerned than some about a schism between the women’s fund movement (donating to causes that benefit women and girls) and women’s philanthropy (women as donors to all causes). Taylor is not one to leave money on the table for the sake of movement purity.

In the wake of that early 1990s NYT Magazine article, Taylor received a slew of calls from non-profits, prospective donors, and boards from around the country. The problem was what to do with all of the information, and interest. Months passed, and Taylor says, “I had 100 people who I’d told I’d get back to, but never did.” It was out of this energy and pent-up demand around the issue of women’s giving that the National Network of Women as Philanthropists (NNWP) was born. It started with a newsletter written in collaboration with Sondra Shaw-Hardy, Taylor’s long-time friend and collaborator on all things philanthropic. That first publication was mailed to 225 people. The nascent organization was loaned an office by the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Human Ecology, and had six founding members, each of whom developed a focus. Taylor’s primary interests were higher-ed and donor education, and Shaw-Hardy’s giving circles.

The NNWP became the Women’s Philanthropy Institute, and incorporated as a non-profit in 1997. In 2004, it joined the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University. That alliance has given the WPI more resources, and a greater focus on research and education. Taylor is delighted with the evolution of the WPI, but says, “When Sondra and I founded it in 1991 we had to be more advocacy driven.” She notes that with its focus on media and advocacy Philanthropy Women is occupying a similar space as did WPI in its early years.

There had been women philanthropists for generations, but as far as conceptualizing the field, and seeing female donors as an entity distinct from men worthy of study and cultivation, Taylor and Shaw-Hardy were on the ground floor. To date, they have collaborated on several books on the topic, including the 1995 title Reinventing Fundraising: Realizing the Potential of Women’s Philanthropy, which defined the field. Taylor gladly shares the credit with her friend Shaw-Hardy, “I don’t think either one of us would have accomplished what we have if we had been working alone,” she says, adding, “It was so fun.”

Taylor has seen many changes over the last 40 years in women’s philanthropy. For starters, women are giving much more than previously. This is because they have physical and psychological control of more money than was the case years ago, and are increasingly the primary decision makers concerning philanthropy in the family. Moreover, today’s donors want to be partners in giving says Taylor, not simply check writers whose money is spent by others. Philanthropy is seen as a way for people to act on their values and pursue their passions. Rather than presenting donors with a laundry list of institutional needs, “We ask, what issues do you care about?” says Taylor. She has found that in the higher-ed arena, female donors are particularly interested in “programs and people,” with funding scholarships and professorships high on the agenda.

Taylor says that this less paternalistic approach to philanthropy has made women more generous, and powerful, than past generations. Taylor does sound a warning note, however, suggesting that while it is essential to see donors as collaborators rather than warm-blooded cash machines, one shouldn’t forget philanthropy’s reason for being: improving lives. She notes that donors can be lured into “feel-good giving” instead of “giving with an impact,” that can change lives. In order for the latter to happen, savvy donors need to financially support nonprofit and higher education organizational infrastructures and capacities. That’s why Taylor believes donor education is so important. Ultimately, all donors want their gifts to be used effectively.

A little ego is not a bad thing when you’re getting things done, and Taylor encourages women to use their names in their giving, rather than remaining anonymous. While every woman doesn’t need her name on the side of building, having women identified as major donors (whether alone or as part of a couple) provides a powerful example, and encourages others to realize their philanthropic potential. This is particularly important when courting very high net-worth individuals who are often surrounded by people of similar means. Visibility helps women donors understand and value their philanthropy and take full ownership of it. “You have to create the interest and passion around philanthropy,” says Taylor. “It needs to be just as exciting as buying a new house.”

Taylor, who lives in Madison with her husband, has two grown sons and three grandchildren. This year will be one of change, as she will be retiring from her position at the University of Wisconsin Foundation in July and moving over to the University itself where, not surprisingly, she will be teaching, researching and working in the women’s philanthropy field. Freed from actively soliciting funds herself, “I am going to drill down on donor education,” she says. Taylor says that her new role will included “teaching the culture of generosity,” as well as “leveraging women’s voices.” While Taylor has been focused on women’s philanthropy in higher education over the last several decades, ultimately she says she is asking “What is women’s role in our democracy? And how do we realize that through philanthropy?”


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Author: Tim Lehnert

Tim Lehnert is a writer and editor who lives in Cranston, Rhode Island. His articles and essays have appeared in the Boston Globe, the Providence Journal, Rhode Island Monthly, the Boston Herald, the Christian Science Monitor, and elsewhere. He is the author of the book Rhode Island 101, and has published short fiction for kids and adults in a number of literary journals and magazines. He received an M.A. in Political Science from McGill University, and an M.A. in English from California State University, Northridge.

One thought on “Martha A. Taylor: On Accelerating Social Change for Women”

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    Martha has done some amazing work on recognizing the contributions of women donors, especially in institutional philanthropy, where many women tend not to be immediately acknowledged. Her wisdom continues to inform my daily prospect development practice working with local social service agencies. I’m so grateful that she’ll continue to dedicate her time to growing women’s philanthropy in the future. You go, Martha!

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