As the current global public health crisis galvanizes people to give, women are well positioned to accelerate changes in the philanthropic landscape that are already in motion.
According to Giving USA's recently published Report on Philanthropy for the Year 2019, charitable giving in America totaled nearly $450 billion in 2019, the second-highest total ever (adjusted for inflation) and a 4.2-percent increase from 2018.
And while conventional wisdom might have predicted a decline in giving over the first three months of 2020 due to COVID-19, the pandemic has actually motivated Americans to give at a rate higher than seen in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and after the 9/11 attacks. Further evidence of Americans' generosity was provided by Fidelity Charitable, which released a report in June showing that grant awards from its donor-advised funds since the beginning of the year totaled some $3.4 billion, up 28 percent over the six-month period in 2019.
Another survey, this one conducted by the Community Foundations Public Awareness Initiative, found an 80 percent year-over-year increase in gifts to thirty-two community foundations from March to May 2020.
"Before the pandemic started, women were increasing their giving and broadening beyond what they might normally support," Jennifer Alcorn, deputy director of philanthropic partnerships for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, told Forbes. "From research and development, local food banks, giving direct relief to families across the country, to global health — women are a driving force behind the increase in giving we're seeing right now."
This shifting dynamic is best understood as a movement started by women eager to engage in philanthropy that has the potential to benefit women. According to the Boston Consulting Group, private wealth held by women grew from $34 trillion to $51 trillionbetween 2010 and 2016 — an increase of 50 percent in just six years. It's a trend likely to continue, as a significant amount of the private wealth projected to change hands over the next few decades is likely to be transferred to women.
What's more, it seems that philanthropy comes naturally to women. A 2017 study by the University of Zurich found that women are more likely than men to engage in prosocial behavior (defined as voluntary behavior intended to benefit others), including simple acts of kindness and donating to charity. Indeed, research supported by PayPal found that women give more to charity despite earning 19 percent less than men, and that as they age they become even more generous.
Perhaps most importantly, women are taking control of their own destiny. A study by the Women's Philanthropy Institute at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis found that women increasingly are spearheading efforts focused on addressing women's issues. Specialized women's funds and foundations are going beyond grantmaking to achieve impact, engaging in activities such as relationship-building, partnerships, and policy advocacy to pursue broader social change.
All of this affirms what I have witnessed as a professional philanthropist and social activist: as women secure more power for themselves, the face of philanthropy will continue to change. It is vital that women shape those trends with intention and an eye to strategy.
One way women who engage in philanthropy can be consequential is to encourage increased support for nonprofits working to empower women and girls, including organizations focused on preventing and funding a cure for breast cancer, providing relief for women who are victims of domestic violence, and supporting female entrepreneurs. While women are exceedingly generous when it comes to donating to other important causes, just 1.6 percent of Americans' charitable giving goes toward nonprofits that work to empower and advocate for women and girls. If women better support one another, others will surely follow and increase their support for women who find themselves at risk.
Women also can more effectively support each other by approaching philanthropy strategically and with the goal of maximizing their return on investment. Individually and collectively, we can be more discerning when deciding where to give and using data to shape our decisions. Viewing giving as a business whose ultimate objective is to deliver the best result for the greatest number of girls and women almost always will amplify the impact of one's gift.
At the Ruderman Family Foundation, we use an intersectionality lens to focus our philanthropic investments: empowering marginalized communities and women to take a more active role in shaping their lives. My experience over the last twenty years has taught me that our approach to managing challenges and creating solutions works. Philanthropy has proved to be one of the best vehicles we have to express our values and put to work our skills and expertise. I know, and my experience has taught me, that women and girls can be powerful agents of change, and it is up to philanthropy to help them fulfill that destiny in the boldest way possible.
The tangible impact of women's giving will continue to change the world. The COVID-19 pandemic is an opportunity to accelerate this much-needed revolution.
Shira Ruderman is the executive director of the Ruderman Family Foundation.