Debra Mesch, Director, Women’s Philanthropy Institute, IU Lilly Family School of Philanthropy

Debra Mesch, Director, Women’s Philanthropy Institute, IU Lilly Family School of Philanthropy

The road to equality for women in the United States has been long and winding. Women only gained the right to vote in 1920 with the passage of the 19th amendment and were not legally protected from discrimination in employment based on their sex until passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Progress on the equal rights front accelerated in the 1970s and 1980s with passage of Title IX of the Education Amendments in 1972; the appointment of Sandra Day O’Connor to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1981; and the nomination of Geraldine Ferraro as the first woman vice presidential candidate of a major party in 1984. Other "firsts" soon followed.

Today, women occupy positions of leadership in every field of endeavor and have more opportunity than at any point in history. And they are gaining a higher share of the world's wealth: new data released earlier this month reveals that women now control 30 percent of global wealth (a number that is expected to rise) and that their wealth is growing at a faster rate than overall global wealth rates. Moreover, while the gender pay gap persists, women are using their increased financial and political clout to support causes and influence societal change as never before.

Recently, PND spoke with Debra Mesch, Eileen Lamb O'Gara Chair in Women's Philanthropy and director of the Women's Philanthropy Institute at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, about WPI's research and what it tells us about the differences in the way men and women give and how those differences translate into philanthropic practice. With support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the institute released its latest report, Giving to Women and Girls: Who Gives, and Why (52 pages, PDF), in May.

Philanthropy News Digest: WPI's research focuses on gender differences in giving. Why is this a good moment to examine that topic?

Debra Mesch: Well, for starters, because we have seen women's roles change dramatically over the last fifty years or so. And those changes suggest there's huge potential for women to play a bigger role in philanthropy. Look at the key variables that affect philanthropy — income, wealth, and education. Those are the strongest predictors of philanthropic giving. And today we see that women have more of all three: they're more educated, they are out-earning their husbands in some cases and their wealth is increasing, and they are making more of the financial decisions in their households. So we're seeing these new household configurations where women are increasing their potential to engage in philanthropy. And these changes, with women earning more and inheriting wealth of their own, either from their parents or because they outlive their husbands, mean that women, as a group, are going to be in control of a huge amount of money, some of which will be available for philanthropic causes. 

We also see that women engage in philanthropy in a different way than men do, and it's important to understand those differences. In the past, the traditional nonprofit model for engaging donors was very male-centered. I'm not saying there's something wrong with that, I'm just making the point that men and women are different and engage in philanthropy differently. That's why we're at a tipping point. We're seeing women like Melinda Gates, Priscilla Chan, and others, very prominent women, finding their own philanthropic voice. In fact, Melinda Gates, who is very focused on women's and girls' issues, is an important funder of our research. And while the Women's Philanthropy Institute isn't focused on women and girls per se, we are trying to understand gender differences in giving across all types of philanthropic organizations and how the voices of individual women are having an impact on the field.

PND: If gender is a social construct, and sex is about biology, what does your research tell you about how gender and sex influence the way women give?

DM: In general, we find that women are more empathetic and engage in more pro-social and altruistic behavior than men do. It goes back to social-role theory, which holds that men and women in a country like ours are born into very traditional roles that come with well-established expectations. Women in the U.S. — women in most countries — are socialized at an early age to take care of their families and children. Despite all the changes in other areas of women's lives, that really hasn't changed much. The latest data show that even when both the man and woman in a household are working full time, it's the woman who has more responsibility for taking care of her family and the needs of the household, and she spends significantly more time than her male partner doing so. As a result, we find that women engage in philanthropy differently and have different philanthropic motivations based on the role they've been socialized to play. At the institute, we like to say that women give from the heart while men give from the head. We find that women are not that interested in the tax implications of charitable giving; instead, they want to know that when they give, their gift will make a difference. Men, on the other hand, are much more willing to write the check and hand it over to an organization without worrying so much about what happens after it is cashed — unless, of course, it involves having their name attached to a building. That's another difference. Women don't care so much about having their name splashed on a building. Empathy for others is a very strong motivation for women when they give, whereas for men giving is often more about self-interest.

PND: Based on your research, can you say that women are more generous than men? Or is it more complicated than that?

DM: If you're talking about generosity as giving a bigger share of the pie, then, yes, women are giving a bigger share of their smaller pie. But if you're looking at actual dollar figures, we can't say that. Men earn more than women, they have more saved for retirement, and in general they have more assets, so when they give, the dollar amounts tend to be larger. But in our studies, we find that women are more likely to give, and, after we control for all the other factors that relate to giving — income, education, wealth, number of children in the family — that they give larger amounts. So, yes, when you tease out those specific gender differences and hold everything else constant, we do find that women are more likely to give than men, and to give more.

PND: So if gender differences are an important factor in giving, would you expect that women's giving patterns will change as their gender roles evolve?

DM: Some of our newest research tries to delve a little bit deeper into the household differences I mentioned. We are starting to look, for example, at how those differences affect giving in the general population and then compare those findings to giving by high-net-worth families and households. And what we're finding is that income seems to make a difference in the way women give. That is, women in high-net-worth households give differently than women in the general population, and as household income increases, women's giving starts to look more like the giving of men in the same income bracket.

We're also seeing that as women start to acquire real wealth, they become much more focused and strategic in their giving. What's more, when we look at who makes the decisions about giving within the household, we find that for about 75 percent of the general population, the husband and wife make those decisions together, whereas when we look at high-net-worth households, the number drops to about 50 percent. That would seem to suggest that as more and more women acquire wealth of their own, they are making their own decisions about what to do with that money. So income does seem to be a big factor in how women engage in philanthropy.

PND: What are the implications of your findings for the $40 trillion intergenerational transfer of wealth that's coming our way? And what are the implications for future research in the field?

DM: When I do speaking engagements around the country, I'm always amazed by the number of women who say they feel either ignored or insulted by nonprofits that don't seem to understand that they are the ones making the decisions in their households about charitable giving. Many of them also tell me they are much more interested in engaging their families and children in philanthropy than their husbands are. And the implications of both those things for practitioners and nonprofit leaders are obvious: If you don't understand how to engage women donors, you're going to leave a lot of money on the table. Nonprofit leaders need to look at their boards and make sure women are represented there, and they need to have strategies for engaging women donors that are different than the strategies they use to engage men. Women are not that interested in having their names splashed on buildings. They're not eager to stand up at an auction or gala fundraiser and announce that they're making a major gift. They do like to collaborate, they do like to network, and they do like to make decisions democratically, which is why we’re seeing a proliferation of women's funds and women's giving circles. The nonprofit sector has made progress on this front, I want to be clear about that, but there's a lot more that needs to be done with respect to understanding how to engage women donors.

In terms of future research, what we want to understand is what motivates both men and women to give more, to give more intentionally, and to give more strategically. What are the models of engagement? How do you best communicate with men and with women? How do you transfer or transmit philanthropic values from generation to generation? How do you engage millennials, of both genders? How can you use technology more effectively? Are there gender differences in the way millennials use technology? What's working? What isn't working? We also need to have a better understanding of this whole new area of giving to women and girls, on which there’s very little data at the moment. So researchers in this field have a whole list of questions to keep them busy, and I'm really excited to be a part of that effort.

— Mitch Nauffts