The Butterfly Effect: Tracking the Growth of Women’s Funds

The Women’s Philanthropy Institute released a new report today, detailing the landscape of women’s funding in the U.S. (Image credit: Women’s Philanthropy Institute)

Today, the Women’s Philanthropy Institute (WPI) at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy released a new report called, “Women’s Foundations and Funds: a Landscape Study.” It presents a range of updated data and new insights into a major branch of women’s philanthropy — one that has grown significantly over the last few decades. It follows up on a report of a similar nature in 2009 that focused on organizations within the Women’s Funding Network (WFN), but this newer study widened its scope beyond that particular philanthropic community. Elizabeth M. Gillespie, doctoral candidate at the School of Public Administration at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, authored the report, and it was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

While women’s philanthropy can take many forms, this study focuses on “women’s grantmaking organizations that exclusively give to women” and that meet certain criteria, including being based in the U.S. and having a primary function of grantmaking (though many participate in other civic activities). A database of 209 such women’s foundation and funds was created, with data drawn from public sources like the organizations’ websites and tax forms. Also, 26 organizational leaders were interviewed.

Key Findings on Women’s Foundations and Funds

The study found most women’s foundations and funds are relatively new, with 71 percent established between 1990 and 2010. Most (92 percent) are publicly funded. These groups are widespread through the U.S. — found in 44 states and D.C.

A total of 63 percent of women’s foundations and funds are members of larger community foundations or other organizations, and the study notes that asset data for these groups “are largely unavailable.” As for the assets of the independent women’s foundations and funds, they ranged from less than $1,000 to more than $500 million in 2016.

Annual grant totals for women’s foundations and funds vary widely too, from a few thousand up to almost $130 million. About 44 percent of the organizations give out less than $100,000 in grants each year, and 40 percent distribute between $100,000 and $1 million.

The more than 100 members of the WFN granted about $410 million to women and girls in 2015, and there are dozens of women’s foundations and funds giving outside of this network.

Local Focus, Gender Lens and Popular Causes

About half of the groups in the study articulate overarching grant-making philosophies, which are diverse. The study finds “gender lens philanthropy—addressing the specific concerns of women and girls—is the most prevalent” philosophy. While target populations can be hard to categorize, and many groups chose more than one, “women and girls (general)” were identified as a priority for 52 percent of the groups.

Most of the women’s foundations and funds prioritize grants for local community organizations, and many identify as changemakers and empowerment facilitators in their communities. Having an impact was mentioned by 53 percent of the organizations. Along with “wanting to positively impact the lives of women and girls…  impact meaning there is a chance for a greater ripple effect that benefits the broader community, as well,” the report states. One Northeast foundation or fund interviewee said, “If you think about the butterfly effect, if you think about women rising up, somebody has to be behind them to support them, to give them that power.”

While these groups typically provide funding in multiple areas, education received the most funding (63 percent). “Interviews for this study reveal this is due, in part, to the view that education serves as a precursor to women’s advancement—particularly their economic advancement,” a report summary states. Economic empowerment, security and self-sufficiency (as one category), and health were also popular issues; they were identified as priorities by more than half of the funders.

Basic needs, such as housing, child care and transportation received 26 percent. As the NYWF recently reported, these needs must be met in order for women to be healthy and to succeed at school and work. The intersectionality of women’s issues was brought up by many of the interviewees.

Programming and project grants are “overwhelmingly” the most commonly awarded grants of women’s foundations and funds. Along with grantmaking, 64 percent of these organizations also engage in other activities to fulfill their missions, such as providing other resources, running events, research, programming, partnerships and collaborations, advocacy, education, scholarships, and hosting giving circles or donor-advised funds (while some giving circles were included in the database if they met certain criteria, groups that identify primarily as giving circles were not a main focus for this research).

Other Target Populations and a Call for Equity

Other subsets of the population were also identified as priorities by these funding groups. Women and children, low-income women, women and girls of color, Jewish women and girls, and LGBTQI women and girls were identified as priorities by between seven and 15 percent of the groups. Girls and women who are young, immigrants, refugees, single mothers, incarcerated, in rural areas, and those who have disabilities were noted as priorities less often — by either 1 or 2 percent of funding organizations.

A Midwestern foundation/ fund director said the women’s funding movement needs “to put an increased focus on racial equity in our work.”

I think when we talk about feminism, a lot of people still think of feminism as white women’s issues and issues that mainly impact the well-being of white women… We’re really committed to this being an inclusive movement and that there is leadership space, and voice and representation that’s largely evenly weighted to women of color, in order to advance gender equity…

One of this study’s research questions was, “What is the demographic makeup of donors to, and members of, these organizations?” The report’s demographics section shares the gender makeup of donors (mostly women), whether funds were private or public, or were “special interest,” such as Jewish women’s funds. Why were key demographics, such as race and age, not included?

The WPI Research Team tells Philanthropy Women this landscape scan did not “focus on developing an in-depth profile of donors… in the interest of including data points in a variety of other areas” which included “organizational characteristics and funding approaches.” Also, they point out that while interviews were carried out, much of the data came from online public sources, which did not include donor details. The researchers added that a second phase of this study will take place later in 2019, which will include more interviews and “provide a deeper, more nuanced answer to many of the questions posed.” WPI also explored issues of race and gender in philanthropy a few months before this landscape study was released, in a report called, “Women Give 2019: Gender and Giving Across Communities of Color.”

As for, “Women’s Foundations and Funds: a Landscape Study,” the summary concludes women’s foundations and funds “award millions of dollars in grants each year and contribute critical resources to raising awareness on the status of and issues facing women.”

Author: Julia Travers

I often cover innovations in science, the arts and social justice. Find my work with NPR, Discover Magazine, APR and Earth Island Journal, among other publications. My portfolio is at

One thought on “The Butterfly Effect: Tracking the Growth of Women’s Funds”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.