By Merrill Wolf
American philanthropy was once almost solely the domain of rich old white guys – captains of industry or scions of long-wealthy families who gave generously to promote the arts, education and other causes, often in exchange for seeing their names chiseled in marble above hallowed doorways.
But a revolution is underway. As part of the broader democratization of philanthropy in North Carolina and throughout the U.S., women are playing an increasingly substantial and visible role in supporting social change.
At least 11 women’s funds – groups of female donors, many of whom focus their collective giving on programs that benefit women and girls –have been created across the state.
More are in early stages of development, often with support from local community foundations.
In addition, countless women have come together in less formal groups, or giving circles, to pool their contributions of time and money and thus amplify their impact.
According to the national organization Women & Philanthropy, programs serving women and girls currently receive less than 10 percent of U.S. philanthropic dollars.
Experts believe that the growth of women’s funds could have significant impact.
“If anybody’s going to make change in North Carolina, it’s going to be the women who do it,” Beth Briggs, president of Creative Philanthropy, told about 100 women and a few men attending the second annual conference of the N.C. Network of Women Givers Oct. 15 in Raleigh.
Creative Philanthropy, Raleigh consulting firm, is partnering with NCGives, a $6 million field-of-interest fund at the North Carolina Community Foundation, to promote women’s involvement in philanthropy, in part by connecting women givers across the state so they can learn from and inspire one another.
Attendees at the recent conference included individual women thinking about starting giving circles, as well as members of firmly established groups.
In Raleigh in February 2006, for example, a group of young people, mainly women, mounted a production of “The Vagina Monologues,” the Eve Ensler play that has become an international rallying point for fighting domestic violence, and donated $1,000 in proceeds to the local Planned Parenthood affiliate.
After a second benefit production in 2007, several group members decided that they wanted to be involved in something larger and formed the Beehive Collective, whose mission is to “pollinate community giving …and inspire young women to lead” in Raleigh.
Founding member Nicole Stewart told conference-goers that by 2012 the group aims to contribute $60,000 annually to local nonprofits.
Since early 2005, the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina in Asheville has hosted a fund called Women for Women, which now has more than 300 members.
Members make a three-year commitment to donate $1,100 each a year for causes that improve the lives of girls and women.
The group has awarded nearly $500,000 to community organizations that provide services such as transition housing for homeless women and recovery support for victims of domestic violence.
Observers attribute the rise in organized giving by women largely to the fact that, after several decades in the workforce, women now control more resources than ever. Women also live longer than men.
Some say “philanthropy” is just a big word for something women have always done – quietly, individually and often, giving time and talent rather than money.
Lillie Sanders, whose giving ministry is estimated to have distributed more than half a million dollars worth of food and clothing to needy people in Duplin County, says the word but not the concept of philanthropy was foreign to her until recently.
“I couldn’t pronounce it, I couldn’t spell it,” Sanders says in a video produced by NCGives to promote giving among women, African Americans, youth and other groups not traditionally recognized as philanthropists.
“But I know I’m a giver,” she says. “Now, if you want to put it into philanthropy terms, that’s fine with me.”