March 7, 2022

Female philanthropy: Out of the shadows and into the spotlight

March 7, 2022
Karen Kardos
Head of Philanthropic Advisory

Women have engaged in life-changing philanthropy for as long as men. Recognition of their vital contribution has been woefully inadequate, but this is now beginning to change.

Great acts of humanity do not always gain the recognition they so richly deserve. When it comes to female philanthropy, however, it is more a case of an entire tradition that has gone largely unhailed.

Women have made selfless contributions to improving the lives of their fellow beings since the dawn of time, acts traditionally underappreciated. In recent decades, as women have gained more influence and wealth than at any time previously, female philanthropy has intensified and, with that, comes recognition.

As we mark International Women’s Day 2022, it is a fitting moment to reflect on this, while also looking to the future.

A recent Citi Global Perspectives and Solutions (GPS) report helps quantify the large and growing importance of women in this regard, one that the authors think could significantly change the philanthropic landscape. 

By 2025, 60% of US billionaires are forecast to be women; women already control $11 trillion in assets; and women will inherit 70% of the intergenerational wealth transfer by 2035.

What’s more, the philanthropic landscape will be influenced by a different character of charitable giving than the traditions established primarily by men.

For example, women are more likely to give to causes that have some bearing on their own identity as women, and particularly support causes that advance gender equality. There is also greater emphasis on direct involvement with chosen causes versus donations alone.1

Another feature is a preference for unrestricted giving. Typically, women place fewer requirements upon how money is used. While precise data is still emerging, women appear to be more prepared to make philanthropic donations without restrictions.

A high-profile example of this is MacKenzie Scott, who has to date, donated roughly $8 billion to hundreds of nonprofit organizations as unrestricted funds for a range of purposes.2

The Citi GPS report also states that women are more likely to spread their giving among a higher number of charities and sectors. Women currently make up just 10% of high-net-worth individuals, but a report from the Charities Aid Foundation calculates they account for 14% of donations. 3

The profile of volunteers is similar. Globally, women account for 56% of volunteer labor and their contribution only increases in direct volunteering. North America is home to the largest volunteer workforce and women are more likely to volunteer than men — just as they are more likely to perform unpaid work at home.

Catalysts for change

A New York Times article from 15 June 2021, How Women Are Changing the Philanthropy Game, analyzed this traditional discrepancy, which persists despite the fact that women have more money than ever before and wish to be seen and heard in their own right, with distinct identities as philanthropists.

Women who engaged in philanthropy were the behind-the-scenes volunteers, the unrecognized work, said Debra Mesch, a professor of philanthropy at the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at Indiana University, to the newspaper. The men were the faces.4

This situation has served as a catalyst, however, to secure what has become a comprehensive transformation of contemporary charitable culture. Take, for example, the work of Valerie Rockefeller, Chair of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and Board Director at Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors.

As Ms. Rockefeller states, the anger may spur you to action, but joy for the work and loving the people you are working with is what sustains your leadership.

As the Citi GPS report details, Ms. Rockefeller observed a society crumbling around her, where racism and sexism were so blatant, and she felt an anger so intense, it was clarifying.

In the case of Michelle Mercer, the cause of women and girls as a calling for gender justice has driven her philanthropic strategies as chair of the Michelle Mercer and Bruce Golden Family Professorship in Feminist and Gender Studies at Stanford.

She has cited the importance of a diverse giving portfolio much the way investors aim to have a diversified financial portfolio and has funded female political candidates, 501(c)(4) organizations, and 501(c)(3) organizations focused on gender justice, democracy, freedom of the press, and immigrant rights

The Women Donors Network (WDN) is another place where collaboration, patient capital, and catalytic funding is inspiring women to fund organizations that reflect the world they want their daughters and sons to inherit, according to the Citi GPS report. Five years ago, CEO Donna Hall says WDN facilitated $5 million of giving; this year WDN moved over $20 million to social justice grantees.5

Making progress

Recent years have seen remarkable progress. A May 2015 report, How and Why Women Give: Current and Future Directions for Research affirms that women have greater interest in impact investing than men. One of the key findings is that there is a distinctive female tilt toward social services, including health care and education. The main charitable interest overall, according to this report, is that of the status of women and girls globally.6

If such trends continue, the compound impact will be considerable. By 2023, women’s global wealth will rise to at least $81 trillion according to a Boston Consulting Group analysis.7 Two decades ago, the Women’s Donor Network had 80 members and now has 270, while the Women’s Funding Network has grown from 20 to 120 over several decades and now invests $420 million annually in gender equity.4

A future of women in action

As Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors observes, there are five lessons to take away from the leading women in philanthropy that serve to accelerate the effectiveness of charitable giving:5

  • First, to trust grantees to know best by providing multi-year, general operating support
  • Secondly, to make use of one’s proximity to the issues being addressed (acknowledge the spotlight you can attract as a donor and shine it on your grantee partners’ work)
  • Thirdly, to build relationships on a bedrock of trust and respect so that when things become complex, grantees will be honest about necessary modifications to the operations and execution of their works
  • Fourthly, to get comfortable with longer timelines for evaluating results
  • Lastly, to ask grantee partners how they are thinking about diversity, equity, and inclusion in their organization’s planning

Ultra-high-net-worth female philanthropists are demonstrating that women can have powerful leadership roles in the world, making it a more thoroughly equitable place. Having suffered historical injustices that not only hindered their careers but also their recognition as givers, donors, and charitable workers, women are an ideal inspiration for those still facing such impediments globally. Looking ahead, what better way to honor International Women’s Day than to embrace such life-transforming achievement.


See our insights and the issues that matter for your wealth.

View all insights


See our insights and the issues that matter for your wealth.

View all insights

1 Debra Mesch et al., “Where Do Men and Women Give? Gender Differences in the Motivations and Purposes for Charitable Giving”, The Women’s Philanthropy Institute, Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, Sep. 2015.

2 Alexander, Sophie, et al., “MacKenzie Scott’s Money Bombs Are Single Handedly Reshaping America,” Bloomberg, 12 Aug. 2021.

3 Mark Green, “The crucial, growing role of women in philanthropy,” Charities Aid Foundation (CAF)

4 Valerie Safranova, “How Women Are Changing the Philanthropy Game,”  The New York Times, 15 Jun 2021

5 Citi GPS: Global Perspectives & Solutions, “Women in Philanthropy: From Behind the Scenes to Leading the Way, "Philanthropy and the Global Economy: Opportunities in a World of Transition," Nov. 2021.

6 “How and Why Women Give: Current and Future Directions for Research”, The Women’s Philanthropy Institute, Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, May 2015.

7 Zakrzewski, Anna, et al. “Managing the next Decade of Women's Wealth,” Boston Consulting Group, 5 Jul 2021.