MacKenzie Scott, ex-wife of Amazon boss Jeff Bezos, has been praised recently for her great generosity – the New York Times cited more than US$6 billion (£4.3 billion) in charitable donations.
Yet, as Rob Reich, a professor of political science at Stanford University and an expert on philanthropy, pointed out on Twitter, while Scott’s donations in 2020 were 15 times greater than those of the largest US foundations (the Ford Foundation distributed US$350 million in 2020), we know little about her philanthropy. Paradoxically, women’s philanthropy has long been invisible, even though it dates back centuries and has always been important.
A lack of research
There is a lack of research on the topic, but historians show that women of power already provided patronage in the middle ages and the Renaissance (think Isabeau de Bavière, Catherine de Médicis and others). In the 17th and 18th centuries, nuns (or “daughters of charity”) offered help where needed, and women philanthropists were operating in the 19th and early 20th centuries. These philanthropic roles have allowed women to operate in the public sphere, even at times when they were largely confined to private life and excluded from political arenas.
Some research emphasises the emancipatory power of these activities, particularly at a time when the development of reform philanthropy was concomitant with that of the feminist movements. Others, however, consider philanthropy, which is marked by paternalism, to be a hindrance to the emancipation of women.
Even the way we think about women’s philanthropy contributes to its lack of visibility. We compare the way women give to the way men give rather than analysing their activities in their own right. We know, for example, that “women give time, men give money”. Women give to a wider variety of organisations, whereas men’s philanthropy is more concentrated, and women tend to be more involved in collective forms of giving, such as giving circles, than men.
These patterns tend to make us believe that women’s generosity is homogeneous. It hides the diversity of situations, essentialising the very category of women’s philanthropy. However, numerous studies have confirmed the major role women play in voluntary activities – free and invisible work.
Women’s philanthropy is also hidden by the fact that the philanthropic field is, like wider society, strongly structured around couples. In the top 50 donors for 2018, there are 22 couples, 27 single men, one family and zero single women. A large number of foundations are set up by couples but it is often the man who is in the spotlight, especially in the media – one thinks of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation or the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.
Nor do we often know how spouses divide up their roles. Sometimes decisions will be made jointly but also separately, like Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, who created MoMA, while her husband, who “hated modern art”, preferred to invest in the Cloisters, the Met’s medieval collection. This makes it difficult to analyse women’s philanthropy.
Moreover, for a long time, women’s philanthropy was heavily dependent on men’s wealth, as women could not earn or spend their own money without a man’s permission. While women’s work contributes to the production and reproduction of family wealth, capital in the 21st century remains resolutely male.
Philanthropy is dependent on this state of affairs. Some great philanthropists are part of this tradition, such as Liliane Bettencourt a few years ago (heir to the fortune of her father Eugène Schueller, founder of L'Oréal), Laurene Powell Jobs (heir to her husband Steve Jobs, founder of Apple), Alice Walton (fortune inherited from her father, founder of Walmart supermarkets). But today there are more and more women who have built their own fortunes through their work. They are developing their own philanthropy, regardless of their marital status – for example Sheryl Sandberg (chief operating officer of Facebook), Oprah Winfrey (presenter and producer) or Sara Blakely (founder of Spanx).
An opportunity for the philanthropic sector?
Today, women’s philanthropy is gaining visibility and offering a transformative opportunity for the sector.
By shifting towards philanthropy that centres around providing financial support and is independent of men, women are more free to take up their own causes. That sometimes means using philanthropy to address the consequences of gender dominance, such as the fact that women have less access to health or education. It sometimes take a more political avenue, working upstream and using “feminist philanthropy” to support efforts to defend women’s rights.
This is all the more important because it’s a relatively little-supported cause in general. In 2017, only 7% of French foundations described themselves as acting to support women and girls, and in the United States only 1.6% of total donations go to this cause.
Meanwhile, women’s philanthropy is attracting greater media coverage and is being taken more seriously. Networks of women philanthropists are being formed, particularly in the United States, to exchange ideas and support each other. Figures such as Melinda Gates are speaking out. Gates operated in her husband’s shadow for a long time but now publicly talks about the work she had to do within their foundation to be heard.
These developments are leading to the emergence of new practical guides for professionals hoping to raise funds from women – who are a seen as a new “market” to target, especially since women’s fortunes are growing rapidly. In 2019, the ranking of the world’s wealthiest people included a record number of 244 women.
And by practising philanthropy differently, women are said by some to be transforming the philanthropic sector itself. Scott’s spending is revealing in this sense. She went against the grain of her husband, who was long considered ungenerous – even “stingy”. And, unlike the great philanthropists who often give to prestigious institutions, such as their university or a major museum, Scott gave to modest institutions in real need. Crucially, she also made unrestricted gifts – a rare occurrence in the field – allowing recipients to decide how to use the funds.
What emerges is a challenge to traditional elite philanthropy – that of white men over 50, seeking recognition and power, who often focus on their own desires rather than the needs of recipients. In line with what some professionals are calling for, the new women’s philanthropy marks a real paradigm shift, questioning power relations and making it more committed to social justice.
The gender lens
The emergence of a new generation of high-profile women philanthropists is not only helping us understand the power relations that are specific to philanthropy, as well as the way women’s work is made invisible, but also showing, in the way women philanthropists spend, that the emancipation and affirmation of women contributes to building a more just and egalitarian society.
Viewing philanthropy through a gender lens also means thinking about philanthropy beyond that of the great billionaires. It is to take an interest in those who contribute, often in the shadows, to helping others in different ways, to give a voice to these invisible people in philanthropy – invisible donors, professionals but also recipients – to change our perspective to see philanthropy in its diversity and complexity.