The Gender Gap in Philanthropy Revealed

If you were to do a “man on the street” survey in the United States asking the question, “Who is the first person that comes to mind when I say the word ‘philanthropist’?” the vast majority would likely respond with Gates, Buffet or Soros, if they’re able come up with anyone at all. If a prominent local landmark is named after a philanthropist, they might come up with a different name, but odds are that person is man too.

If you do a Google search for the word “philanthropist” the first several pages are dominated by male entries; Wikipedia lists no women in its “modern philanthropists” section.

The US is known for its philanthropic culture and giving spirit. Natural disasters trigger an outpouring of cash donations. The earthquakes in Haiti, for example, resulted in $1.3 billion raised by US-based non-governmental organizations and private charities.

Americans’ generosity is not new. Alexis de Tocqueville does not use the word “philanthropy” in Democracy in America, but some modern scholars interpret Tocqueville’s writing on the American phenomenon of forming “associations” as a comment on our philanthropic spirit. Tocqueville can be forgiven for not including women in his analysis, given the status of women in society at that time. But times have changed.

Recently, there has been some focus on the surging role of high-income women’s rise in philanthropy as witnessed with the success of the Women Moving Millions campaign by the Women’s Funding Network. But focusing on wealthy women alone creates a narrow understanding of women’s philanthropy.

A new study by the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University shows that women, across nearly all income levels, are more likely to give and give more than men after controlling for education, income and other factors that affect giving.

Specifically, in the income level of $23,509 or less, women are 28 percent more likely to give than men; in the income level between $23,509 – $43,500, women are 32 percent more likely to give; in the income level between $43,5000 – $67,532, women are 49 percent more likely to give; in the income level between $67,532 – $103,000, women are 43 percent more likely to give than men; and in the income level of $103,000 and more, women are 26 percent more likely to give than men.

And it’s not only that they are more likely to give, but they give at higher levels — nearly twice as much in many cases (the exception being in the $23,509 – $43,500 income bracket).

Women’s philanthropy has been shaped to a significant extent by women’s shifting economic position and social roles. Income and education in particular are strong predictors of giving. Women have made notable gains in both over the past three decades. More women – 59.9 percent – are in the labor force today. The proportion of working women with a college degree roughly tripled from 1970 to 2008: 36 percent of these women held college degrees in 2008, compared with 11 percent 30 years ago.

Women today are also earning more than ever before, although gender imbalances persist. In 1979, women working full-time earned 62 percent of what men did; in 2008, women’s earnings were 80 percent of men’s. The proportion of wives earning more than their husbands also has grown. In two decades’ time (1987 to 2007), the percentage of working wives who earn more than their working husbands grew by 8 percent to a total of 26 percent.

The Women’s Philanthropy Institute report is illuminating, not because it proves women are “better” than men because they tend to give more, but because it disrupts conventional wisdom about what a philanthropist looks like in terms of both gender and income.

The word “philanthropy” literally means “the love of people” and is now colloquially understood as someone who gives money to a cause or charity. Research from the Women’s Philanthropy Institute show that women, in general, score higher on motives of care and empathy. However, further research needs to examine other motivations for giving by gender — particularly across cultures.

In the meantime, nonprofits should take note of the gender gap in giving. They should be deepening their engagement with women in their fundraising efforts, whether it’s a $10 text to the Red Cross, $35 a month to sponsor a sister at Women for Women, or the $1 million check to Citymeals-on-Wheels.

Beyond the conclusion that women should be counted among philanthropists’ ranks, this new report encourages us to go beyond focusing only on the big givers. Americans at all income levels are giving. They should all be proud to call themselves philanthropists. Tocqueville saw it in us and perhaps now we can see it in ourselves – women included.

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