Sheryl Sandberg is part of a growing movement of women leading the philanthropic charge. How do we harness their generosity?

In June 2022, Sheryl Sandberg announced she would be stepping down from her role as chief operation officer at Facebook and its parent company, Meta. The tech power-figure sited the main reason for her departure as the desire to focus on philanthropy and her foundation, the Sheryl Sandberg & Dave Goldberg Family Foundation.

In May, Sheryl shared her concerns about the potential overturn of Roe v. Wade (the constitutional right to abortion) in the US, stating in an Instagram post:

“If the leaked draft opinion becomes the law of the land, one of our most fundamental rights will be taken away. Every woman, no matter where she lives, must be free to choose whether and when she becomes a mother. Few things are more important to women’s health and equality.”

Her concerns turned out to be justified, with the US Supreme Court overturning the 1973 landmark decision on 24 June 2022. “This is a huge setback,” she wrote on her Facebook account. “For ourselves, our daughters, and every generation that follows, we must keep up the fight. Together, we must protect and expand abortion access.”

Whilst this is a sad moment indeed for women’s rights, Sheryl’s resolve and future focus provides the opportunity to view the news through the lens of women’s evolving role in philanthropy. Because, when it comes to women’s giving, the effect is two-fold: it is both a channel of monumental potential, and it is one of the world’s best chances of a laser-focus on women’s and girls’ issues. For example, Sheryl’s giving to date has supported a variety of needs, but her foundation has primarily focused on women’s and girls’ needs.

A growing number of high-net-worth women, such as Melinda French Gates, MacKenzie Scott, Laurene Powell-Jobs, and now Sheryl Sandberg (all signatories to the Giving Pledge) are dedicating their time and treasure to philanthropic endeavours. This is a pivotal moment for women driving philanthropic funds and the increased attention it brings to funding for women and girls.

F&P’s Fiona Atkinson spoke with Women’s Philanthropy Institute Director, Jeannie Infante Sager, and Associate Director, Jacqueline Ackerman, in the days leading up to the US Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, to find out more about women’s philanthropy and what it means for women, girls and the world at large.

What is the Women’s Philanthropy Institute?

The Women’s Philanthropy Institute (WPI) is an affiliate of global leader in philanthropic studies, the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, based at America’s Indiana University. Currently, it is the only institute in the world whose primary focus is gender and philanthropy.

Their mission is to conduct, curate and disseminate rigorous research that helps to grow women’s philanthropy. Their goal? A world where women donors understand their growing power and influence to support the causes they care about, and where fundraisers and nonprofit leaders understand how to nurture women’s giving. Furthermore, the WPI hopes that by looking at philanthropy through a gender lens, they will encourage both women and men to give more.

At this time, an equivalent research body does not exist in Australia, but Australians Investing In Women (AIIW) advocates for an increased investment in women and girls, and WPI “engaging women as donors” course alumni, Kimberly Downes, published her comprehensive ‘The Role & Influence of Women in Australian Philanthropy’ report in partnership with JBWere in 2021.

Before we take a close look at how women give, let us first look at their areas of need.

The context of need

What are the issues facing women and girls (in the US) today?

For starters, a lot of the issues faced by US women and girls are faced by their counterparts globally: women’s reproductive rights; women’s health in general; LGBTQIA+ rights; economic equality and gender equity; violence against women; and issues that, particularly post-pandemic, have a greater impact on women – access (or lack of) to childcare, jobs, education, healthcare, and housing.

“All of these issues then need to be looked at through a lens of intersectionality as we consider BIPOC women, LGBTQIA+ women, women with lower incomes and so on,” explains Jeannie. Because it is these women who experience the issues described above more acutely.

“The common thread through those issues,” says Jeannie “is really the issue of equity.”

Source: Australians Investing in Women.

Jeannie describes many conversations with the leaders of women and girl-focused NFPs which currently secure funding that allows women and girls to just survive. “What if, we could overcome some of these issues so that we could be raising money for programs that allow women to thrive,” she says.

Why do women’s and girls’ causes receive less funding?

Less than 2% of overall annual charitable funding – or approximately US$8 billion of $480 billion – in America goes to women’s and girls’ causes (which is not to say that women and girls do not benefit from broader projects that serve both boys/men and girls/women). Whilst it does not specify a percentage figure, the aforementioned AIIW reports that, in Australia, most philanthropic funding goes to ‘gender neutral’ causes, such as youth, medical research, the arts, homelessness or sport. Their research indicates that most funders believe that gender neutral funding reaches both sexes equally. However, this is not the case. Women and girls start from a place of greater disadvantage and, unless their particular circumstances are addressed, they tend to be excluded or marginalised within solutions.

WGI = Women & Girls Index. Source: Women’s Philanthropy Institute –

So why does such a tiny fraction of giving go to work that is specifically dedicated to women and girls? Jacqueline shares thoughts formed by WPI research and discussions:

  • Firstly, it is not so much a case of Americans making a conscious decision not to give to women and girls, but rather that the option is simply not front of mind. Where most American households are focusing their giving is on religion and local needs.
  • People see gender equity as a very complex issue that is intertwined with most other societal issues. They therefore decide to give more broadly to what they often describe as ‘root’ causes, or, as a result of feeling overwhelmed by the scale of the gender equity issue, they give to something else entirely.
  • Donors have an equality mindset of “I can’t just give to one group and not another” and so they want their dollars to serve men, women, boys and girls.
  • Many women’s causes in the US are related to larger public policy questions, which makes a lot of donors uncomfortable, leading them to support to causes that feel less controversial. This is particularly true when it comes to collective giving (something that is especially important to women donors) – there is a strong desire to keep any politics separate when donating with family and friends.

Thankfully, what Jeannie and Jacquie have not witnessed in response to America’s growing conservative leaning is a decline in giving to women’s and girls’ causes. Their current data set relates to 2012 – 2018 and, over that time, they have seen giving in this area steadily increase, even if it still makes up a minute fraction of overall giving. Giving to women’s reproductive health has grown particularly significantly during that time frame. What the numbers suggest is that those who choose to give to women’s and girls’ causes are not swayed by the conservative persuasion and, conversely, those on the other side of the aisle are not convinced to support.

In 2018, the WPI released a study that looked at the 2016 presidential election. What they discovered is that ‘rage giving‘ is very much real, and that it is more likely to be done by women. In response to the election of Donald Trump, donors (mostly women) gave in relation to topics that were contentious during the campaign – reproductive rights, anti-racism, inclusion, LGBTQIA+ rights, climate change, and immigrant rights to name just a few. What this highlights is that women are informed about current political and social issues, they are highly responsive to them, and they are willing to buck the trend of giving that feels ‘safe’. To illustrate this, Jeannie shares that she recently attended a Women Moving Millions summit, with a theme of ‘the demise of democracy’. The summit aimed to inform and educate its delegates – women who have pledged at least US$1 million to organisations and initiatives benefiting women and girls – about why supporting women and girls is integral to supporting democracy, not autocracy.

What Sheryl Sandberg means for women’s philanthropy

“We’re pretty excited about it,” says Jeannie of Sheryl’s growing philanthropic aspirations. For starters, her existing commitment to women and girls is crystal clear. The subset of her family foundation helps women come together through ‘Lean in Circles‘ and publishes the annual Women in the Workplace study, amongst a plethora of other female-focused work., the second arm of the Sheryl Sandberg and Dave Goldberg Family Foundation, is dedicated to helping people build resilience in the face of adversity. And while she gives to a variety of causes, a consistent thread in Sheryl’s philanthropy is supporting women and girls. Her giving to food banks and COVID-19 relief, for example, has specifically been to help impacted women and girls.

What WPI’s research of high-net-worth (HNI) women has shown is that they invest in women’s and girls’ causes because funding for these needs serves as a nexus for other issues, such as poverty, climate change and wealth inequity. This sentiment is reflected in Sheryl’s giving.

“What’s interesting in this announcement,” says Jeannie, “is that so much of her giving has been intertwined with her writing and in her role at Facebook and Meta – she’s been so vocal and transparent.”

This is in contrast to the giving of many other women which, WPI research has shown, tends to happen anonymously. “To use her own terms, she has really ‘leaned in’ to talking about philanthropy as agency,” says Jeannie.

Sheryl Sandberg is just one on a growing list of ultra-high-net-worth (UHNW) women using their philanthropy as agency. The more open and transparent they can be about it, the more they can inspire others to do the same.

These women – Sheryl, Melinda, MacKenzie, Laurene and their philanthropic peers – are not just leading women’s philanthropy, they’re leading philanthropy more broadly. “We’re on the cusp of the world’s largest philanthropists being women for the first time in history,” says Jeannie. And not only are these women giving big, they are giving big to women and girls on a scale never seen before.

The sphere of influence

MacKenzie Scott has written for Medium on several occasions and a running theme throughout her narrative is the encouragement for others to join her.

“If you’re craving a way to use your time, voice, or money to help others at the end of this difficult year, I highly recommend a gift to one of the thousands of organisations doing remarkable work all across the country. Every one of them could benefit from more resources to share with the communities they’re serving. And the hope you feed with your gift is likely to feed your own,” she wrote in December 2020.

Mackenzie is onto something: firstly, that women enjoy giving collectively and secondly, that women are drawn to an extended version of philanthropy – time, talent, treasure, social capital and networks. What she knows to be true is that women like to tap into all their resources in order to be generous.

Where does this influence go? Does it go sideways to other UHNW individuals, or can it trickle down to donors of more modest means?

“It’s a both/and situation,” says Jacqueline. “For a long time, Melinda French Gates has known she is an example to both women at the same wealth level and to everyday women. She has sought out her peers to sign the Giving Pledge and she has partnered with [women such as] MacKenzie Scott on at least one philanthropic venture.

“Women really enjoy the communal aspect of giving, and I don’t think that changes because you are ultra high net worth. It’s actually even more important that you have a community where you can share and be honest with each other about investments that have worked and those that haven’t fulfilled all of your dreams for them.”

The WPI’s research shows that being public about giving big does influence others, including those who are not HNW individuals. One of the institutes studies, focused on social norms and giving to women’s and girls’ causes, shows that, for both women and men, seeing a woman give to these causes is highly influential; women have proved to be compelling examples of where and how to give.

More on how women’s giving behaviour differs from men

15 years of WPI research has shown that women and men have different motivations for giving, ways of giving and patterns of giving.

Women are more likely to give than men. They give greater amounts than men (when you hold factors such as income and education constant) – they are more likely to give, and give more, to just about every charitable sub-sector. Women spread their giving out to more organisations than men do, which may explain why they receive relatively less recognition for their generosity.

Women are generally motivated to give by their political or philosophical beliefs and by being involved with an organisation through activity such as volunteering or being on the board. Their motivations are closely aligned with empathy and altruism, whereas men tend to focus more on the benefits they receive from being charitable.

“Women tend to be all-in when it comes to their giving behaviour,” says Jeannie. “I often tell fundraisers that to get that ultimate gift, you will have needed to engage a woman in terms of time, talent, treasure, testimonies, ties and trust”.

So, big picture, women are more generous than men across many measures. And, when women and men partner in long-term relationships, research has shown that those men become more generous; in short, women do a great job of ‘socialising’ giving.

Women’s philanthropy – past, present, future

“Women’s philanthropy tends to reflect how women are doing,” says Jacqueline. “The perception that women are now giving more doesn’t mean they’ve suddenly transformed into being more generous, it means that barriers to having more money and to giving have been eased.”

So, generous women have always, and will always, be here. The difference lies in what extent society is enabling their generosity.

The biggest predictors of philanthropy are wealth, education and income. Women are on an upwards trajectory in all three areas. They are outpacing men in obtaining degrees in the US, more women than ever before are in the workplace, with numbers suggesting that 40% of women who work are out-earning their husbands, and women are estimated to hold one third of the world’s wealth. The trends are reflected in Australia.

Source: Kimberley Downes , The Role & Influence of Women in Australian Philanthropy.

We’ve come a long way – women, by and large, are financially independent (as a point of reference, it wasn’t until the 1970s that women in the US were allowed to have their own credit card) and many are in positions of power. But we still have a long way to go – and as the effects of the pandemic continue to impact women more than men, so will it affect their ability to give.

In a nutshell, when women have independence, agency, and income, they are more likely to spend that income philanthropically. For women, one of the greatest considerations of having wealth is the opportunity to give it away. This must be celebrated and nurtured.

What are the main barriers to women’s philanthropy?

Is it inequality in earnings I ask? “YES!” says Jeannie without hesitation. “You’ve hit the nail on the head – we know that when women receive more resources, they will give more. If we had policies that would lead to more resources – whether it’s equal pay, or paid parental leave, then all boats rise”.

There are also barriers when it comes to fundraisers and fundraising infrastructure explains Jeannie. “We know that often fundraisers are not talking to women in households, just the men. They’re also not understanding women’s unique motivations for giving. Rather than nurturing the ‘time, talent and treasure’ engagement piece, they are, in fact, sometimes discouraging women donors.”

Jeannie and Jacqueline hope that the WPI can educate fundraisers on how to have the right conversations with women. In the WPI Women Give 2021 report, which looked at how households make charitable giving decisions, almost 90% of those giving decisions involved a woman. “So to leave a woman out of the conversation is just not smart,” says Jeannie.

The WPI also aims to raise awareness of organisations focused on women and girls by helping them better fundraise and communicate their work and need – to women philanthropists and the community as a whole.

Next, wealth advisors are missing out on the opportunity to speak to women about philanthropy. They often act in the role of gatekeeper and fail to realise that women want to establish goals for their wealth beyond themselves, their family and their local community. The fallout goes both ways – advisors who do not get on board with savvy philanthropic direction are at risk of losing women and younger clients. WPI research shows that by connecting with their clients over deeper values (ie, instead of talking about just money itself, discussing how to make money matter and how to leave a legacy), advisors are more likely to keep their clients and increase their influence with them.

Treasure the treasure

We hope you are left in no doubt of the power of women’s philanthropy. As we continue to watch the rise of female philanthropic trailblazers, fundraisers must develop strategy and tactics that help them to better understand women’s giving and champion their generosity.

If we can master this, then we will see more giving, more collaboration, and more engagement on a multitude of levels that bring skills, networks and of course, money. The potential is vast and the impact will be felt by women, girls, everyone.

To learn more about the Women’s Philanthropy Institute, click here. Research includes Women Give: How Households Make Giving Decisions, The Women & Girls Index: Measuring Giving to Women’s and Girls Causes, and Change Agents: The Goals and Impacts of Women’s Foundations and Funds

Click here to find out more about the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy who, amongst a wealth of research, publish the annual Giving USA Report, the long-running, most-comprehensive analysis of the sources and uses of charitable giving in the US. 

To read more from Kimberley Downes’s research into Australian women’s philanthropy, click here and here

Click here to read Australian’s Investing in Women’s Guide to Gender-Wise Philanthropy.  

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