Current Events and Philanthropy / Philanthropy and Historical Research

Historical Context to $2.1 Million Grant to Women’s Philanthropy Institute

Editors’ NoteIn early January, Inside Philanthropy announced that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation had gifted $2.1 million to the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. Below, the Institute’s Director Debra Mesch and Associate Director Andrea Pactor provide some historical perspective to the grant.  

While the history of women’s activism through philanthropy is long, the history of empirical research about gender differences in philanthropy is short. Anne Firor Scott recalled in her introduction to Making the Invisible Woman Visible (1984) that the study of the first strand of women’s giving accelerated as a demand for women’s history grew during the early days of the feminist movement in the 1960s. One rich area of study focused on women’s use of voluntary associations to advance civil society. Susan Ware noted that during the 19th century, women “may not have been voters or held political office, but they influenced public policy nonetheless, through voluntary associations, churches and charities.” We owe a debt to historians including Lori Ginzberg, Linda Gordon, Linda Kerber, Gerda Lerner, Anne Firor Scott, and Kathleen McCarthy who brought this historical record to the foreground.

The second strand of research takes an entirely different approach to studying and analyzing women’s (and men’s) philanthropic activity. Rather than documenting the history of women’s accomplishments in philanthropy, it aims to bring clarity to philanthropic behavior. Over the past quarter century, researchers in the fields of economics, psychology, sociology, nonprofit management, and organizational studies have begun to explore how and why people give and volunteer. An outcome of this growing literature is evidence that gender matters in philanthropy. For the purposes of this post, philanthropy is defined as voluntary action for the public good, encompassing giving, volunteering, and civic action.

This second strand of research was bolstered in November 2015 when the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation awarded a $2.1 million three-year grant to the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. The award is the largest single grant we know about for research on how and why men and women give. It will fund investigations in two areas: (1) factors that influence women and men to give more, give more intentionally, and give more effectively; and (2) factors that affect who gives to causes for women and girls.

This unprecedented investment in empirical research on gender differences in philanthropy is an outgrowth of several factors. First is recognition that today’s complex and seemingly intractable problems require input from philanthropy and government alike. Second is the demographic reality that women have access to more wealth and may well inherit trillions from the ongoing intergenerational transfer of wealth. According to IRS data, 42.3 percent of the nation’s top 2.29 million wealth holders are women. A Boston Consulting Group report stated that women “controlled an estimated 27 percent, or about $20 trillion of the world’s wealth in 2009” with the expectation that women’s wealth will continue to grow. Third is that the empirical data shows that women tend to be more empathetic and altruistic than men; are more likely to give and give more than men; and often influence household charitable decision-making. Fourth, today women themselves are more forthright in their philanthropy, creating innovative models for engagement and leveraging their resources for the common good.

The mission of the Women’s Philanthropy Institute (WPI) is to increase understanding of women’s philanthropy through rigorous research and education, interpreting and sharing these insights broadly to improve philanthropy. Our research focuses on gender differences in giving and volunteering to help practitioners, donors, and the community-at-large recognize that today women are as likely as men to make charitable gifts. A highlight of the research agenda is the annual release of Women Give, a translational report on a facet of gender differences in giving to charitable organizations. The Women Give series is an example of the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy’s goal for research to inform practice. In general, fundraising practices have not caught up to the research data about gender and philanthropy.

As part of an initial project also funded by the Gates Foundation, the Women’s Philanthropy Institute catalogued extant research in the gender and philanthropy field for a literature review (2015). It referenced more than 150 studies across the social sciences and management fields primarily since 1990, documenting the disparate approaches research has taken to better understand the dynamics of gender in charitable behavior. While we’ve made progress in analyzing how gender affects philanthropic motivations and patterns of giving, more targeted research allows us – scholars, practitioners, and donors – to explore the complexities and nuances that earlier studies may have identified. For example, with the new Gates Foundation grant we will explore models and interventions that are successful in generating more giving by women and men. We will examine how technology, social networks, motivations, donor education, and other forms of philanthropy (e.g. impact investing) affect giving by men and women differently. We want to understand how donor preferences change over the life cycle.

In addition to the broader questions around factors that influence women and men to give more, the Gates Foundation grant provides the opportunity to explore giving to causes that support women and girls. For this topic, practice is well ahead of research. Giving to causes that support women and girls has become a high profile funding area for individuals, foundations, and corporations. National and international campaigns such as Plan International’s “Because I Am a Girl” and “the girl effect,” a joint initiative of the Nike and NoVo Foundation which is now its own nonprofit, have elevated visibility for this type of charitable investment. Donor communities such as Women Moving Millions have collectively contributed more than $600 million to issues affecting women and girls. Despite the robust on-the-ground activity today, virtually no research exists that examines the donor side of the equation.

Over the next three years, our colleagues and I will delve deeply into who gives to causes that support women and girls and their motivations; will explore interventions that will increase giving and giving larger gifts in this area; and examine how to engage men and younger women in this effort. The studies focus on giving by U.S. donors age 18 and older across all income levels.

Regrettably, no textbook or popular history narrative exists to document either strand of research – the general historical arc of women’s activism in the public sphere or the empirical evidence of gender differences in philanthropic behavior. Perhaps McCarthy’s Lady Bountiful Revisited (1990) comes closest to an overarching historical arc with chapters highlighting voluntary associations, Latin and Black women’s philanthropy along with four chapters focused on women’s philanthropy outside the United States. Many of today’s bold, entrepreneurial women philanthropists, though, are not aware of the rich history of women’s philanthropic activism that preceded them. They may recognize the names of individual women philanthropic leaders such as Clara Barton who founded the American Red Cross in 1881. They may be aware that Abby Aldrich Rockefeller was one of the founders of the Museum of Modern Art in 1929 in New York City and contributed her art collection to it. However, the academic literature that describes women’s collective activity especially in the nineteenth century to address such issues as moral reform, care of widows and children, the mentally ill, conditions for women prisoners, abolition, aid for soldiers, temperance, suffrage, libraries, the environment, culture, public health, and medical school training is much lesser known to this general public. For example, Paula D. Watson’s “Carnegie Ladies, Lady Carnegies: Women and the Building of the Libraries” (1996) provides a captivating examination of how women’s clubs and individual donors contributed to public library development in the late 19th/early 20th centuries. Kathleen Waters Sander’s 2008 biography of Mary Elizabeth Garrett documents in vivid detail how this late 19th century philanthropist leveraged her wealth and status to advocate – successfully – that women be admitted to the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine on the same terms as men and that the school institution become a graduate school. These historical accounts connect past to present in powerful ways and deserve wider recognition today.

At the Women’s Philanthropy Institute, we hope to work on a textbook over the next several years that provides a comprehensive overview of the research on gender differences in philanthropic behavior. The long and the short of these scholarly pursuits is that we have a tantalizing glimpse of a complex tapestry but its full richness is yet to be uncovered.

In today’s contentious, fractionalized, and polarized environment, we are reminded that diverse voices are essential to civil society and to strengthen democracy. There is no better time than now to remember and recognize women’s historical contributions in the public sphere and to learn more about how their philanthropic activity today continues that time-honored tradition.

-Debra Mesch and Andrea Pactor

Debra Mesch is Director of the Women’s Philanthropy Institute (WPI) at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. She holds the Eileen Lamb O’Gara Endowed Chair in Women’s Philanthropy at the Lilly Family School, the first such endowed chair in the world. As Associate Director of the Women’s Philanthropy Institute, Andrea Pactor is responsible for program and curriculum development and implementation, marketing, social media, and operations. 


Ware, Susan. D. (2009). Century of Struggle: The History of Women’s History. In J. M. Banner, Jr. (ed.), A Century of American Historiography (pp. 103-113). Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

2007 Statistics of Income (SOI) of the Internal Revenue Service, the most recent year for which data is available:

Boston Consulting Group. (2010. Leveling the Playing Field: Upgrading the Wealth Management Experience for Women. Retrieved from:

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