Women’s funds – A growing role

By Todd Cohen

Despite the economic downturn, women are creating a growing number of charitable funds and foundations and, recent studies suggest, are positioned to exercise a lot of philanthropic clout.

“There is enormous opportunity for women to increase and build on their tradition of volunteerism and philanthropy,” says Siobhan O’Riordan, director of Giving New England, a group that promotes philanthropy.

Citing studies by Merrill Lynch and Independent Sector, a new women’s guide to philanthropy notes that women — 85 percent of whom end up in charge of financial affairs — are more likely than men to volunteer, and that charitable giving by volunteers is 2.5 times that of people who don’t volunteer.

The San Francisco-based Women’s Funding Network is getting ready to launch a campaign to help its member women’s funds and foundations – which control $177 million in assets and make grants of $26 million a year — raise $100 million over 10 years, targeting women who can contribute $1,000 or more.

Women also are forming “giving circles” throughout the U.S., pooling their funds and making grants to local groups.

In Miami, for example, Deborah Hoffman and Nita Prieto-Maercks saw a lack of funding for the arts. So in 1996, they formed “Fifty Over Fifty,” aiming to recruit 50 women to contribute $1,000 a year each.

The group’s 200 members have contributed nearly $1 million to 137 arts programs.

And in Boston, after heading the volunteer fundraising arm of the New York City Opera, Susan Priem launched the Hestia Fund – named for the Roman goddess of the hearth — recruited 20 women who gave $5,000 each in 2000, and doubled that to 40 women in 2001.

“Regardless of the size of the individual gift, when it’s collective, you can really give something substantial,” says O’Riordan of Giving New England. “It’s really leveraging an individual gift and that’s very powerful.”

Giving New England, one of 30 coalitions throughout the U.S. that promote philanthropy and are supported by New Ventures in Philanthropy in Washington, D.C., offers a giving-circle starter kit on its Web site.

New Ventures, a project of the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers in Washington, D.C., that encourages its coalitions to develop new ideas it then shares with them and the Forum’s 28 members, will publish and distribute “A Plan of One’s Own,” the new women’s guide to philanthropy.

The guide, produced by the Baltimore Giving Project, examines women’s role in philanthropy and features “how-to” sections on creating and using a variety of charitable-giving vehicles. It also lets local groups customize and target the guide to local donors.

“My hope,” says Buffy Beaudoin-Schwartz, the guide’s author and director of the Baltimore Giving Project, “is that women will again have the opportunity to more fully understand our role as philanthropists, both in the past and the future, and to have more of an understanding of the type of vehicles that are available to which we can give.”

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