Almost 26 years ago, Dr. Debra Mesch arrived at IUPUI as an assistant professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs (SPEA) and began teaching classes in public administration. In July of this year, Dr. Mesch will step down from her role as the director of the Women’s Philanthropy Institute (WPI) but continue as a professor of philanthropic studies and the Eileen Lamb O’Gara Chair in Women’s Philanthropy.
How did she go from teaching public administration courses to holding an endowed chair and the directorship of WPI? How did her journey coincide with the development of WPI and its role as the center of academic research and teaching on gender and philanthropy, and what vision does she have for WPI in the future?
It began for Dr. Mesch with a connection to the then-Center on Philanthropy after arriving at SPEA.
“I connected with colleagues here, who were studying race and gender issues in giving and volunteering,” she said. “The Center on Philanthropy resonated with me in terms of my research interests, and so my affiliation with the Center became increasingly stronger over time.”
Fast forward to 2008. Dr. Gene Tempel asked Dr. Mesch if she would step into the role of the director of WPI part-time, while also continuing to hold her professorship at SPEA.
“Originally, the WPI was a free-standing, nonprofit organization. It wasn’t focused on research as much as development and leadership training for people interested in women’s philanthropy,” Dr. Mesch said. “WPI moved to the Center on Philanthropy in 2004, but there wasn’t an established leadership position until I became the director in 2008.”
As director, Dr. Mesch’s main task was to strengthen the research component of WPI.
“It was a new challenge for me, but I was very excited to take on this role,” she said.
Ten years later, she’s lived up to that challenge.
“I wanted the public to view us as the go-to place for understanding gender and philanthropy. That vision was grounded in research. We would be the place where most, if not all of the research on gender and philanthropy would be conducted,” Dr. Mesch said. “I believe we’ve achieved that.”
To build the strong basis for high quality research, Dr. Mesch had to institute several key components. One was a research committee.
“I looked at all of the research that was being done at the time and who was doing it. I formed the international research committee based on individuals who were studying gender and philanthropy. That has worked out tremendously well,” she said. “We continue to meet biennially and discuss the latest research on gender and philanthropy. The academics involved with this committee very much support what we do at WPI.”
Then, Dr. Mesch formed the Women’s Philanthropy Institute Council, which consisted of a group of individuals working in the sphere of women’s philanthropy.
“Council members come from a wide variety of sectors and professions, which gives us a diverse range of perspectives,” she said.
The Council encouraged Dr. Mesch to have a signature research project that could be applied both academically and practically. That idea led to the Women Give series, which was first published in 2010.
Since that initial report, WPI has produced a Women Give study every year. In addition, a transformational grant from the Gates Foundation in 2014 gave Dr. Mesch and WPI the chance to greatly expand research around gender and philanthropy.
“First, they asked us to submit a complete literature review of all of the research that’s been done on gender and philanthropy,” she said. “Then, they gave us a much larger research grant to accelerate the research.”
The result? A bevy of research projects, including the Women Give series, high net worth donors’ support for women and girls, gender and #GivingTuesday, giving circles, and more.
With the increase in research projects, Dr. Mesch realized that it was time for a new phase for WPI.
“We’re rolling out new research reports almost every month, which is pretty incredible,” she said. “We want to present this research and make sure that nonprofit leaders, donors, fundraisers, and other individuals in the sector can really utilize it. It’s important for us to have this practical focus, so I’ve realized that it’s time for a new director.
“This director will be solely focused on the external side of WPI and disseminating this research broadly. We have to figure out what practitioners find useful from the research and how they have implemented strategies to incorporate our research. That’s the next vision, and how a new director can help grow WPI.”
Dr. Mesch will move into a full-time faculty position and continue to conduct research on gender and philanthropy. The impact she has made as the director of WPI on the field of gender and philanthropy is tangible and powerful.
“When I became the director in 2008, I conducted an initial literature review of the field; there wasn’t much there,” she said. “Looking back at the initial review, I see how far the field has come.”
She holds fond memories of her tenure as the director.
“I’ve been overwhelmed by the responses I’ve received from audiences I’ve presented to,” Dr. Mesch said. “Seeing the ‘ah-ha moments’ from not just nonprofit leaders, but donors who have witnessed the power of women’s philanthropy in their giving circles, women’s funds, or other giving vehicles, but until that moment did not have the research evidence to support their experiences, is inspiring. The conversations about philanthropy gives them confidence to know that the data supports what they’re doing.
“I like to ask a question at the beginning to get participants engaged in the conversation. I’ll ask, ‘what is the most memorable gift that you’ve made?’ The thought that goes into that and emotion of the women that talk about their most memorable gift is a very powerful discussion. Through that conversation, we’ve created a space for them to discuss the importance of their philanthropy and how meaningful it is to them. It’s a moment when they realize the importance of women in philanthropy.”
Her impact on WPI is noticeable, but Dr. Mesch notes the influence of the then-Center on Philanthropy and now school on her.
“I never imagined 25 years ago that I would be in the place I am now,” she said. “To be able to focus on research that really resonates with me has been incredible, and that’s a result of my connections with colleagues here. When I arrived, this was a pretty amazing place and it’s become even more amazing as the place to study and understand philanthropy.”
As for her long-term goals, Dr. Mesch hopes that we always consider the role of gender in philanthropy.
“It would be a real achievement and a testament to WPI when every research study analyzes what this means for women vs. men, do women and men behave differently, etc.,” she said.
“I hope that thinking about gender and philanthropy is integrated into everything that we do.”
Abby Rolland is the blog content coordinator for the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.