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Effective Philanthropy for Half of Humanity

Nonprofits serving women and girls survive on a pittance, so donations have an outsized impact

By Ellen Ryan

Maybe you're getting a tax refund this spring. If you can spare the cash, how about investing at least some of it in an underserved population where your dollars could do a lot of good? Girls' and women's nonprofits receive only 1.8% of overall charitable giving. How much more could they do with real funding?

Two women working on a sustainable agriculture farm. Next Avenue, charities that support women and girls
"Giving women the resources and tools to succeed makes a huge difference in their families and their communities."  |  Credit: Getty

"Investing in girls and women is a lever for economic progress here and around the world," says Una Osili, associate dean for research at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. "By improving women's economic security, we invest in stability for the entire community."

"Investing in girls and women is a lever for economic progress here and around the world."

A small endowment this tax season is an investment in the next generation of creators, scientists, nurturers and community builders.

A Little Charity Goes a Long Way

As a few examples, these nonprofits focus on girls and women and have earned top-tier scores from the donor watchdog group Charity Navigator:

• Pink Ribbon Good gives practical support to women battling breast or gynecological cancer. A $50 contribution provides transportation to and from one cancer treatment session.

• Girlstart empowers girls in grades 4 through 8 through fun, informal STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education programs. A $100 donation supplies materials for a week's after-school program.

• Women, Food and Agriculture Network trains leaders, builds networks and offers education to women in sustainable food-systems development. A $150 gift supports a soil health and water quality workshop at a Women Caring for the Land event.

• The National Domestic Violence Hotline is the only 24/7 national, anonymous and confidential hotline for people affected by relationship abuse. Every $200 that is raised is enough to connect, on average, four survivors with a live advocate via phone, chat or text.

• Girls Who Invest diversifies an industry by offering Gen-Zers education, mentoring and internships in investment management; 69% are women of color. A contribution of $250 provides a week's meals during the Summer Intensive Program.

'A Gender Lens'

Giving USA, the publisher of an authoritative annual report on philanthropic fundraising and spending, doesn't break out donations to charities specifically for women and girls. But most nonprofits in the categories it does have, such as "religion," "human services," "education" and "health," serve girls and women generally already. You may ask why we need charities specifically for women and girls.

Osili, a Harvard graduate who earned a Ph.D. from Northwestern, says that "bringing a gender lens helps show disparities and specific barriers more clearly.

"Take education: Around the world, girls and young women often have no access to schools; opening classrooms to girls enables them to contribute more to society, so opportunity accelerates progress," Osili says.

"Opportunity accelerates progress."

In the United States, the lens might focus more on childcare. What most helps a low-income mother achieve a higher-paying job? Affordable, quality childcare so she can go back to school, Osili says. "But without a gender lens on the subject, we may be missing out on ways to accelerate solutions to the problems for which donors are giving."

Top philanthropists are thinking this way already. In 2007, through her charitable foundation, Oprah Winfrey made a point of creating the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa, which continues to serve girls of poverty and promise. She calls it "my greatest legacy."

In 2015, Melinda Gates committed $1 billion to expanding women's power and influence in the U.S. and wrote a book, "The Moment of Lift," about "how empowering women changes the world."

Growing Funding Grows Girls

Take a look at just one part of the world: Los Angeles, where a group called the Los Angeles Women's Giving Circle has worked for years to research nonprofits and decide where to donate its members' pool of funds. An early choice was Motivating Our Students Through Experience, (MOSTe) which mentors girls from underserved neighborhoods to and through college.

Since 2007, the giving circle has donated tens of thousands of dollars to MOSTe, says Bonnie Davidoff, one of the group's founders. "Why? Because with double even a small income, a worthy nonprofit can pay staff better, so the staff stay on longer and hire a grant writer to bring in longer-term support for their work," she explains. Before such early infusions, MOSTe was all volunteer; now it has an executive director and three other paid staff.


With a growing number of donations of $100 to $150, says Amy Ludwig, who was MOSTe's executive director until February, MOSTe has been able to offer college visits, communication workshops (complete with instruction on how to give effective "elevator speeches") and career fairs to a growing number of recipients in 6th through 12th grade. There are 110 at present.

Altogether, the nonprofit has helped more than 2,000 girls and young women; 60 are currently in college. "Compared with peers of similar demographics — first-generation students of color from low-income backgrounds — our students graduate college at vastly higher rates," Ludwig says proudly.

"Once I've settled into my career, I hope to be a mentor for MOSTe," a young woman who signed on with the nonprofit as a seventh grader wrote late last year. Having made it successfully through high school and college, she is now teaching fifth grade at a Title I school in Los Angeles.

"Empowering women changes the world."

'Donors Can Make a Big Difference'

There is little research on "women's causes" and their big donors. The Lilly Family School Women's Philanthropy Institute (WPI) is one entity studying how gender shapes donor behavior. It has learned from fundraisers, donors and advisers as well as nonprofits' mission statements and programs about what they do and whom they serve.

Last October, WPI produced "The Women & Girls Index 2023: Measuring Giving to Women's and Girls' Organizations," the latest edition of data on charitable organizations dedicated to women and girls. It found that as of 2020, these nonprofits received only 1.8% of overall charitable giving, a figure that has barely budged. The good news? That total in dollars was up just over 9% from the year before.

"Issues affecting women and girls (for example, the gender pay gap, sexual harassment and assault) have received increased attention in recent years, but charitable giving to organizations addressing these issues lags behind," the report says.

'Individuals Can Make a Big Difference'

"While the state of funding for women and girls is dismal," it adds, "this also means that individual donors can make a big difference" for members of the Women and Girls Index (WGI), the only comprehensive analysis of charitable giving to organizations dedicated to women and girls in the United States.

WGI nonprofits tend to be smaller than average, both in funding and in staff, the report notes — and this offers an opportunity for small donors. "A lot of small organizations are trying to make a difference, and we can help them become more sustainable and increase their capacity," explains Dawna Cobb, a longtime Baltimore backer of nonprofits that support women and families. "Giving women the resources and tools to succeed makes a huge difference in their families and their communities."

"When I think of how I want to leave the world better for my daughter and grandchildren to come, it means — from a financial perspective — I'm helping countless people I do not know," says Texas-based philanthropy consultant Fayruz Benyousef, a longtime donor to and board member of the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

"When you think about your purpose, when you think of someone who helped you in a time of great need, you know that a gift to any organization that's helping women is a seed planted to improve lives forever."

Ellen Ryan is an award-winning writer and editor. She is the former managing editor of The Washingtonian. Read More
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