The Women’s Philanthropy Institute (WPI)’s newest report, Women’s Foundations and Funds: A Landscape Study offers fresh insight on these organizations, which serve as a dynamic force in giving by women to women. While women and girls are the main funding priority of the organizations included in the study, the report reveals a variety of other similarities, and some differences, in their key features and funding approaches.
The study has important implications for donors and nonprofits alike. Women’s foundations and funds have been pioneers in this area of philanthropy for decades, and serve as examples for funders who have more recently begun to focus on women and girls. Donors can look to women’s foundations and funds for their expertise in giving to these causes.
Why study women’s foundations and funds?
Elizabeth Gillespie, a doctoral candidate in the School of Public Administration at the University of Nebraska Omaha, conducted the landscape study in partnership with WPI, based on her dissertation on women’s foundations and funds. Gillespie chose to research these organizations in part to learn why only 7 percent of foundation funding goes to women and girls.
“That’s a big question, so I decided to focus more on finding out who that 7 percent is and what they are doing,” Gillespie said.
To answer these questions, Gillespie examined publicly available data on more than 200 women’s foundations and funds in the U.S. and conducted in-depth interviews with 26 leaders of these organizations. Thanks to support from WPI, she completed 23 of the interviews in person, allowing her to build relationships that enhanced the research.
Key findings about women’s foundations and funds
A number of findings are detailed in the report. Some of the highlights include:
- Women’s foundations and funds can be found all across the United States.
- The asset sizes and grant amounts of these organizations vary widely.
- The majority of women’s foundations and funds are publicly funded (i.e., receive funding from an array of sources), affiliated with a larger foundation or other charitable organization, and relatively new (i.e., established in the last 30 years).
- Although women’s foundations and funds primarily exist for the purpose of grant-making, most of these organizations participate in other activities—such as research, collaboration, and events—to fulfill their mission.
Gillespie discovered that women’s foundations and funds are sometimes the only organizations in their state conducting research on the status of women and girls. These organizations are often unique in their research methods as well. “They find out the needs of women and girls in their community by asking those very individuals,” Gillespie said. “They work with the population they serve instead of deciding what’s best for them.”
- Women’s foundations and funds prioritize similar areas for funding, such as education and economic security, in their efforts to advance women and girls.
- These organizations are active members of their communities and largely support local nonprofits.
“They fund the broader community like other organizations, but the way they do that is through women and girls,” Gillespie said. “People sometimes ask, ‘Why women only? Why not men and boys?’ It’s a matter of getting people to recognize that everyone benefits when women are doing well.”
- Women’s foundations and funds also approach their grant-making strategically, with many of these organizations articulating specific philosophies, including gender-lens investing (i.e., addressing the specific concerns of women and girls), that guide their philanthropy.
While Gillespie generally understood that women’s foundations and funds operated strategically, she was surprised to learn the extent of the work that goes on behind the scenes of their grant-making. “They don’t just cut a check and hope for the best,” she said. “They make well-informed decisions.”
The big takeaway for Gillespie is that women’s foundations and funds seek to foster change in their communities and make funding decisions through a gender lens. She hopes the study will help these organizations pursue collaborative efforts that lead to more systemic change for women and girls in the future. “Research tends to focus on the largest, private foundations,” Gillespie said. “Many women’s foundations and funds are smaller, but they have power as a collective movement.”
Gillespie’s work on women’s foundations and funds doesn’t end with the release of the landscape study. She plans to defend her dissertation this summer and will partner with WPI on a second phase of research on these organizations. Slated for release at the end of 2019, the forthcoming study will involve a deeper dive on women’s foundations’ and funds’ efforts to create impact, including interviews with 17 more organizations.
Gillespie describes her work with WPI as “a career-changing partnership brought about by a wonderful mentorship.” (Her Dissertation Committee Chair Angela Eikenberry, Ph.D., has collaborated with WPI on research about giving circles and connected her with the Institute.) Gillespie said that much of WPI’s research informed her work; without this literature and funding from the institute, her research would not have evolved into what it has.
“The relationship between WPI and my research is itself an example of women helping women,” she said. “It demonstrates the ripple effects of supporting emerging scholars like myself.”