Women and the Alms RaceBeth Breeze, Centre for Philanthropy, Humanitarianism and Social Justice, University of Kent
The average Jo/Joe on the street would probably be hard pushed to name any notable philanthropist. But of those that can, I’d bet the fee for this article that they’d name either modern business titans like Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Richard Branson or historic figures such as Andrew Carnegie and John D Rockefeller. Apart from being fabulously wealthy and rather generous, can you spot the common denominator? That’s right, they’re all men. Which begs many questions about gender and giving: Are there female philanthropists? And, if so, do women give to different causes and in different ways to men?
The most honest answers a researcher can give are ‘yes’ and ‘possibly’ because there is so little decent data available on giving, especially in the UK, that people who write about philanthropy tend to rely on a handful of good studies and a whole lot of anecdotes.
But, in the spirit of stimulating debate, I will argue that the traditional social roles assigned to women and their general lack of economic and political power does affect some aspects of their charitable giving and their public image as givers.
What is philanthropy?
Philanthropic action, defined broadly as the giving of money and time for the benefit of others, is found in every historic era, in every country of the world and is encouraged by every major religion. Unsurprisingly then, philanthropy is also practiced by both genders. Men and women can display generosity and mean-ness (often both at different stages of their life) and no empirical evidence links the propensity to give or size of gifts to the presence or absence of an extra X chromosome.
So how can we reconcile the common-sense knowledge that women are philanthropic with the low profile of female givers? Examining the ‘why’, the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of women’s philanthropy may provide some clues.
The ‘Why’ of women’s philanthropy
People - male and female - give for a variety of complex and inter-related reasons: because they are passionate about a cause, have been affected by personal experience, are motivated by religious belief and/or guilt, feel a sense of obligation to ‘give back’ and so on. But philanthropy is also widely understood as a way of ‘getting on’, entering elite circles and being accepted within establishments.
Historians have noted that barriers faced by women in their lives and careers have been surmounted in some cases by philanthropic activity. Frank Prochaska’s superb study of the Victorian era argues that, “philanthropy was the taproot of female emancipation in the nineteenth century”. In particular, for richer women in that era, living a life of enforced domesticity and idleness, philanthropic work “represented deliverance from the stitch-stitch-church-stitch routine of female existence”. Through philanthropic efforts, women proved their ability to work diligently and effectively, to manage organisations and people and to hold their own with powerful figures such as politicians. The myth of the ‘weaker sex’ was fatally undermined by women such as Octavia Hill, founder of the National Trust, social reformer Eleanor Rathbone and Angela Burdett-Coutts whose prolific philanthropic career included support for prostitutes, establishing soup kitchens and ragged schools, housing schemes for the poor and help for Turkish refugees.
Since women’s rightful place in the workplace and boardroom has been recognised, one unintended consequence (pointed out with tongue firmly in cheek by a charity having trouble recruiting suitable volunteers) is that “the women’s movement has played hell with philanthropy”.
The ‘What’ of women’s philanthropy
Whilst male and female motives may become less differentiated as their social and economic power edges towards equality, there is some evidence that the genders lean towards supporting different types of causes and beneficiaries. Prochaska argues that Victorian female philanthropists redirected the nation’s charitable energies to fit their perception of society’s needs, notably the welfare of women and children. An earlier study of gifts left in the wills of 14th and 15th century nobility claimed that women “were somewhat more likely than were their husbands to offer money for the relief and release of prisoners, the marriage of poor but virtuous girls and the support of anchorites and hermits”. And recent research by New Philanthropy Capital, a donor-support organisation, finds that gender continues to affect the destination of gifts; the top causes targeted by their female clients are refugees, mental health and domestic violence whilst male clients favour support for cancer, truancy and exclusion.
To take two, slightly arbitrary examples: the famous Kinsey Report into human sexual behaviour was funded by John D Rockefeller Jr who explained his support for the research by saying, “I have five sons to bring up and a man ought to know something about the subject, but no one can know less than I do”.
Meanwhile Oprah Winfrey’s decision to support girls education in southern Africa was because, "I really became frustrated with the fact that all I did was write check after check to this or that charity without really feeling like it was a part of me”.
There may, therefore, be some basis for arguing that men like to fund projects that are measurable and immediately ‘useful’ whilst women have been more willing to support people they empathise with and efforts they believe could eventually lead to systemic change.
The ‘How’ of women’s philanthropy
The ‘male’ image of philanthropy, referred to at the outset of this article, may be due to men’s greater willingness to go public about their gifts. It is perfectly possible that the world is awash with female philanthropists who simply don’t believe in wallet-waving in the style of Bill Gates and his male counterparts.
By definition, the act of anonymous giving is a tricky issue to study, but anecdotal and incidental insights offer a glimpse of a gender difference in how publicly people give.
Firstly, the poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson, perhaps referring to his fellow men, said “Take ego out and you would castrate the benefactor”, and many charities hold the view that praise for named donors is a price worth paying to encourage the pursuit of public benefit through private wealth.
Secondly, an anonymous female donor explains she chooses this method of giving because, “I give you something, and you say thank you. You’re indebted to me. I can’t bear that relationship. That is a dreadful relationship to me; I don’t want to be superior to you.”
This potential difference is reinforced by the fact that there are currently three British men who are perfectly open about their desire to be the first Brit to give away a billion pounds; David Sainsbury, Tom Hunter and Richard Branson have all expressed this goal. Perhaps a woman will refrain from joining this alms race but beat them to this noble ambition!
What, if anything, does this all mean for female philanthropists' support for microfinance projects in the developing world? Trying the same ‘thought experiment’ of asking the person on the Clapham omnibus to name a leading figure in the world of microfinance, the extremely small percentage who could do so would be highly likely to name Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank.
Given the different ways that women and men have acted throughout history in pursuit of philanthropic endeavours, I suspect there may be many women out there who deserve, but don't attract, the same attention as men - much like as in every other area of life!
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