Making the Case for Giving with a Gender Lens

Why give to women and girls? Do women have a distinctive style of giving? What are the best strategies for promoting women's philanthropic leadership?

These were the key questions explored at a forum hosted in May by Synergos' Global Philanthropists Circle. For the nearly 40 participants in the New York City workshop, the gathering addressed an unmet need for a space where philanthropic leaders who are women can come together face-to-face for a candid exchange on personal and programmatic concerns about giving to benefit women and girls.

Synergos Chair and founder Peggy Dulany, and Ann Graham, Strategic Planning Manager, Global Philanthropists Circle, introduced the workshop and outlined the agenda for the meeting, which convened a high-powered group of women who are private philanthropists and nonprofit and foundation leaders.

The primary goal was to highlight the critical need for funding for women and girls globally, and the importance of women's leadership in this arena. The program emphasized support for women and girls as an essential goal in its own right, and as the linchpin for wider economic and social change.

"Eighty-five percent of the world's poor are women and children," said Graham, who organized the workshop. "If we want to change the world, we have to look at people who are poor."

Research emerging over the past decade is confirming the fundamental role women play in economic development, civil society and good governance. Focusing on women is often the best way to reduce birth rates and child mortality; improve health, nutrition and education; stem the spread of HIV/AIDS; nurture self-sustaining community organizations; and encourage grassroots democracy.

Increasingly, women, who were once viewed largely as passive recipients of aid, are being viewed as active promoters of social change, not only in their own families and communities, but in wider society.

Recent research on funding for women by the Association for Women's Rights in Development (AWID -- underscores the main challenges and opportunities in keeping the focus on women and girls around the globe.

Of the nearly 1,000 women's rights organizations surveyed by AWID in 2006, about half reported more funding than in the past, but the extent of these gains was uncertain, given the weakening dollar. Only 13% were able to secure all the funding needed for the year, and two-thirds said it had become more difficult in the last five years to raise funds for activities related to women's rights and gender equality.

While the resources for women's programs and organizations fall dramatically short of what is needed, AWID noted several positive trends in private giving that may help address the funding gap.

New and emerging private foundations, particularly small family foundations, are stepping into areas that larger foundations are leaving, such as sexual and reproductive rights. And with the coming intergenerational transfer of wealth of up to $40 trillion, women will inherit considerable assets, and more women than ever before will be in a position to make major gifts.

Making the case for gender-based giving in the context of the UN Millennium Development Goals, guest speaker Judith Bruce of the Population Council ( said women and girls were the "key to engagement if you're serious about reaching global equity in the economic and health goals."

Bruce noted, however, that strategic intervention between the ages of 10 and 14 was critical to assuring that the rights of young women around the world were not irremediably lost. Without tailored strategies and exceptional persistence, government programs typically don't reach this group, and may even make the situation worse for women and girls, she said.

Participants made the case that whether as individual donors or as leaders of philanthropic organizations, women increasingly are a force to be reckoned with, especially when it comes to funding and empowering the most marginalized members of societies across the globe.

As an example of the growing influence of women in the philanthropic arena, Helen LaKelly Hunt, a member of the Global Philanthropists Circle and founder of the Sister Fund (, pointed to the emergence of women's funds, financed largely by women, for women and girls.

She noted that in traditional philanthropy, 39% of funding goes to the most marginalized populations; in the case of funds disbursed by the 120 women's funds that have sprung up across the globe, more than 80% of funding goes to people with the greatest needs.

"It's time for women to reflect on their giving. For the first time, women are funding women. We ought to do it in a big and bold way," said Hunt.

Melissa Berman, President and CEO of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors (, another speaker and facilitator, observed that women have the "motivation and means" for giving as never before, and that opportunities for information and connection on giving are unprecedented for women today.

She cited three ways in which women are making change today: with the explicit intent to fund women and girls directly; by funding initiatives where women are likely to benefit; and by their sheer presence in the philanthropic arena. Even if they are not giving with a gender lens, women bring distinctive qualities to giving such as consensus-based decision making and inclusiveness.

Guest speaker Ellen Remmer, Vice President of The Philanthropic Initiative (, offered an overview of the latest research on women's leadership styles and involvement in philanthropy, concluding that women really are different, both in the way they give and the way they lead.

Remmer pointed to a study by Alice Eagly of Northwestern University and colleagues from the United States and the Netherlands entitled "Transformational, Transactional and Laissez Faire Leadership Styles: A Meta-Analysis Comparing Women and Men." The study, published in the Psychological Bulletin (Vol. 129, No. 3), concluded that women are more likely than men to adopt leadership styles shown to produce better performance and effectiveness in today's world. Eagly's research indicated that women are more apt to be "transformational leaders." Such leaders serve as role models and mentors to empower those around them and encourage innovation. In contrast, more traditional "transactional" leaders rely on a system of rewards and punishments to appeal to subordinates' self-interest.

Synergos Chair and Founder Peggy Dulany said there was increasing recognition of the value of a "feminine" style of leadership, one that emphasizes the anecdotal and intuitive in contrast to the factual and analytical, a style often seen in individuals who are able to lead effectively but who do so without formal authority.

Dulany noted that many women adopt this style as a matter of necessity or culture, and suggested that this adaptive, bridging type of leadership offers a valuable alternative to more hierarchical styles of command prevalent in the world today.

The forum offered a safe space for a candid exchange by participants, who brought their own stories and experiences to the table: One recounted the decision to make a multi-million dollar gift to a local cause in her own name, rather than her husband's, and how that spurred other women in her community to step up as a donors in their own right.

Another spoke of the frustration of supporting a health program in India with local women in mind, only to find out that, because women weren't valued in the community, they didn't participate.

While women are entering the field and making significant inroads in bringing a new sensibility to giving, a consensus emerged that much work remains to be done in the face of a largely male-dominated field. Participants offered a range of suggestions for helping women develop as philanthropists, from creating board development programs for young women to encouraging more women to step up as philanthropic mentors and role models. All expressed an interest in keeping this particular peer group going, and efforts are underway to explore the best way of doing that.

As Helen LaKelly Hunt put it, "Women are the strategic point of intervention. Women love to talk and network and do collective giving. Let's figure out how to flex our muscles together."