Women Should Exert Power of Their Purse for Women

It's the time of year for giving. Women should focus their philanthropy to benefit women and exert their influence over other resources on women's behalf, urges the head of The New York Women's Foundation.

Abigail E. Disney

(WOMENSENEWS)-This December is proving to be a critical month for women's institutions across the country.

It is “that time of the year” for foundations and charities all over the country. Everyone knows that retailers rely heavily on December spending to make up much of their annual revenues, but surprisingly the story is much the same in the nonprofit world.

Every November a great deal of effort goesinto generating the right annual appeal, and every December, nonprofits wait with bated breath to see how they will fare.

This year's rough economic ride is making for some frayed nerves throughout the nonprofit world. And since, in the world of charitable giving, programs serving women struggle harder for money, fight longer for respect and more rarely reach institutional stability than programs that serve a more gender-neutral agenda, heads of programs that serve women have even more to worry about.

Women themselves have exacerbated this inequity by withholding their own money and not pushing the finances that they influence more aggressively toward groups forwarding a women's agenda. Though women control more than 50 percent of personal wealth in this country and own one-third of privately held businesses, in general they are reticent to push their resources into the service of organizations that address women's issues.

Even as professional grant-makers, women have been strangely reluctant to push a women's agenda. The foundation world is rife with women at all but (unfortunately) the very highest levels. Yet historically, less than 5 percent of foundation money has gone to groups that work specifically and explicitly on women's issues. This means, according to research gathered by the Women's Funding Network, that organizations and programs that focus on women and girls receive grants totaling about $325 million out of the $6 billion-plus in grants of $10,000 and above given out by the 1,012 U.S. foundations tracked by The Foundation Center.

Network of Women's Foundations Focus on Women's Needs

The New York Women's Foundation attempts to correct this imbalance. The foundation has been encouraging women for 15 years to move money, clout and energy into the women's organizations that are the backbone of social services in the city's poorest neighborhoods.

Started in 1987 by a cross-class coalition of women to address the needs of low-income women and girls in New York City, The New York Women's Foundation set out to shake up the generally accepted view of the foundation world that women's programming was somehow “marginal,” “special interest” and “provincial.”

To date, The New York Women's Foundation has distributed more than $7 million in grants to more than 160 New York City nonprofits, strengthening programs in domestic violence, job training and education, health, substance abuse and recovery, community organizing and advocacy. The Women's Foundation has deliberately targeted small, relatively unconnected programs and used its money and expertise to build the leadership and skills of the women running these initiatives. As a result of years of careful stewardship, the foundation now boasts a robust and well-organized cadre of service providers and advocates for women who are working hard to bring respect and economic stability to the low-income people served so poorly by the city's policies.

The New York Women's Foundation is one of many across the country. San Francisco, Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas and other cities and states boast growing women's foundations. Most are members of the national Women's Funding Network, based in San Francisco, and meet at an annual conference to share “best practices,” review trends in giving, and learn about issues facing low-income women across the country.

Women Philanthropists Should Exert Influence, Send Checks

Of course, women have to recognize that the money they have is important-and so is the money they influence. Although marketing strategies have been slow to respond to this, women are critical decision makers about cars, homes and other family investments.

The New York Women's Foundation has advocated vigorously for women's programming among both its professional foundation colleagues and the businesswomen, activists, volunteers and philanthropists who make up its core supporters. The foundation spreads its message beyond its own “family” by convening other New York City-based women's philanthropies to share information, experiences and generally to push the argument for funding women-led organizations.

In doing so, the staff articulates the case for women's funding to a group that has traditionally been skeptical, thereby moving countless new dollars to grantees. Further, by creating a grant-making process that includes community advocates, women in business, and a broad range of other volunteers, the foundation has educated hundreds of women leaders about issues facing low-income women. These “graduates” have taken their newfound perspective back to their own institutions, creating an astonishing and far-reaching ripple effect across the city's professions.

Women can make strategic decisions about their money with even the most prosaic purchases. Thinking twice about buying clothes made by a manufacturer that employs sweatshop labor or has questionable practices in developing nations, recognizing the need for domestic help to receive a true “living wage,” supporting companies that promote women in leadership positions and encouraging the next generation to think of philanthropy even on the smallest scale are all ways to “fund strategically.”

Funders who support women's programs have been visionary because they have had to be visionary. It is the unfortunate reality of all aspects of the women's movement that progress has had to be made at the cost of isolation, marginalization and the perpetual uphill battle for respect and recognition from others. But it is clear that without visionary women's funders, there would have emerged no domestic violence programming, nor would we have seen the important cultural dialogue about women, families and violence that emerged from these programs and their leaders.

Women have been prime movers in the micro-lending movement as well. They have been at the forefront of agrarian-reform movements in developing nations and environmentalism and peace movements all over the globe. It is hard to picture a modern world without the contributions of the forward-thinking women who have used their money-together with their time, talents and passions-to force significant change in every sector of global life.

At its best, philanthropy serves as a binder of communities-a bridge to a better way-and, at its worst, it functions to solidify the status quo. Women are poised to be levers of great and lasting social change because they function at the center of all important social institutions-churches, schools, block associations, libraries and, of course, families-that constitute the infrastructure of life in low-income communities. Women, therefore, are not the problem but an integral part of the solution, and as givers we must remember to step up and stand behind the critical and overlooked women who do such important work.

Abigail Disney is a mother of four and philanthropist-advocate living in New York City. She is currently president of The New York Women's Foundation and the Daphne Foundation.

Editor's note: Women's Enews does not receive financial support from The New York Women's Foundation.

For more information:

The New York Women's Foundation:

Women's Funding Network:

Global Fund for Women: