An Entrepreneurial Approach to Growing Women’s Philanthropy

By Lauren Brathwaite   |   May 20, 2024

Jeannie Infante Sager, director of the Women’s Philanthropy Institute (WPI) situated within the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, brings a unique perspective as a seasoned frontline fundraiser and nonprofit leader. “What drew me to the institute was this entrepreneurial approach to improving behaviors in the (philanthropic) field and growing women’s philanthropy in a much more focused and intentional way,” says Sager. 

WPI, founded in 1991 as the National Network of Women as Philanthropists, conducts, curates, and disseminates in-depth research so that women’s philanthropy, and philanthropy dedicated to uplifting women and girls, can grow. 

WPI is part of the acclaimed Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, the world’s first school dedicated solely to the study and teaching of philanthropy. The Lilly Family School of Philanthropy is a treasure trove of philanthropic resources, research, and learning opportunities for those interested in pursuing a career in philanthropy. 

A Global Hub for Harnessing the Power of Women’s Philanthropy

Sager joined WPI in early 2020 amidst global health challenges. She immediately focused on enhancing WPI’s global standing as a hub for women’s philanthropy, study, and education. With an existing audience of fundraisers and wealth advisors, she aimed to expand the network of donors and women philanthropists, instilling confidence by showcasing their role in the research. Sager believes a philanthropist’s identity is reflected in how they give and express generosity.

“Where I hope the work of translational research impacts the practice is that more women continue to self-identify as philanthropists. And that they can confidently contribute new and expanded resources to and for the public good, and that they’re showing up in different ways,” says Sager.

While there is great enthusiasm surrounding the increased visibility of prominent women – such as MacKenzie Scott and Melinda French Gates – who openly express their philanthropic agency, to unlock the full potential of women’s philanthropy, WPI knows that we must understand how gender shapes giving. Their research seeks to answer why women give where they give.

Sager firmly believes the ongoing growth of women’s wealth will drive more philanthropy, an underpinning of WPI’s research. However, she expresses the importance of delving deeper into understanding how women make financial decisions, not just in their philanthropy but also in managing their other finances.

“Reports suggest that 90% of women say that they’re the chief financial officer of their households, so we want to continue to better understand why women seem more inclined than men to use their wealth for philanthropy,” says Sager.

She states that figures like French Gates stress that supporting women and girls translates to supporting communities and society, given that women often set goals considering both their families and the broader community.

Research Can Drive Transformative Philanthropy

WPI is the only academic institute committed to furthering understanding of gender and philanthropy through research, education, and data. WPI’s research can help fundraisers and donors understand context for giving and can provide evidence-based data to help both groups proceed with confidence. 

Among their stellar research is their signature series, Women Give, a compilation of yearly research reports that highlight vital factors that shape gender-based giving (such as age, religion, and income) to help to encourage transformative philanthropy. 

Sager believes that WPI’s research has the potential to uplift, amplify, and inspire more women to fully embrace and step into these influential roles.

Research Helping to Define Need

Another WPI flagship research project is the Women & Girls Index (WGI), which provides the only comprehensive data on organizations dedicated to women and girls and tracks the philanthropic support they receive. U.S. nonprofits focused on advancing these causes received $8.8 billion in philanthropic support in 2020. This amount constitutes just 1.81% of the total charitable giving landscape.

“What the fifth annual Women & Girls Index says about the current state of funding for women and girls is that there is huge room to grow,” says Sager. “We now have a benchmark to work towards. Thanks to the WGI, we’ve defined what a women’s and girls’ serving organization is here in the United States, which wasn’t defined before. We could put some parameters around this question about giving to women and girls and then create a data point around it. It has resonated for the sector that these women’s and girls’ organizations were excited to be recognized as such, to know that they’re part of this index, and to be able to use that data point as a call to action for support.”

Sager underscores the significance of the less than 2% figure for organizations ranging from well-known entities like Women Moving Millions to smaller grassroots organizations serving local communities. This figure has been instrumental in generating momentum for charitable contributions. However, she acknowledges that the sector has grappled with the stagnation of the percentage, as there hasn’t been any notable movement beyond the less than 2% threshold since WPI began tracking it.

Women Leading Change

Sager stresses that WPI works to translate research into practice. Given its location at a large state-sponsored research institution, WPI turns to its strategic partners and creative initiatives to advocate for increased philanthropy towards women and girls.

Sager also highlights a rising concern over heightened politicization of women’s issues. She reflects on her one-time mentor’s perspective, who framed it as part of the “moral imagination,” where philanthropy navigates a crossroads between diverse agendas. She acknowledges that both organizations that uplift women, like the Ms. Foundation for Women, and extremist groups that target women operate within their own “moral imagination.”

“We want to do research that shares answers to questions based on the facts and without preconceived agendas. Wherever those answers end up, we also know that we have a responsibility to give voice to these organizations that are doing well and to women donors who want to be more outspoken,” Sager says. 

Sager acknowledges a unique gap in dedicated giving communities for women and girls, unlike initiatives supporting causes like climate or animal welfare. To that end, WPI’s creation of Give to Women and Girls Day, supported by anchor partners like Pivotal Ventures, Women Moving Millions, and the National Women’s Hall of Fame, has been impactful. Aligned with the International Day of the Girl on October 11, it exemplifies a collaborative journey, and has been well-received but still has room for growth. Sager emphasizes the promotion of Give to Women and Girls Day through a gender lens, advocating for an abundance mindset.

“[Let’s] grow and not worry about the fact that the pie is somehow only going to be a certain size. Make a bigger pie! Give us a bigger slice! The more people who are talking about it, the better. And I think everybody understands that, and that’s why coalescing around Give to Women and Girls Day has been a really great collaboration,” she says.

Sager engages audiences in discussions about WPI’s research and finds it intriguing that, despite her familiarity with the data, many people approach her after presentations, having encountered the research for the first time. 

“It’s important to support women and girls. We need to move the needle on this less than 2% [statistic] because other research indicates that by supporting women and girls and all the different intersections of causes they operate in, we’ll get more impact for our investment,” says Sager. “The consequences of inaction in this field of work are there are less resources going to important missions. That’s the consequence.

“It is about changing donor behavior, and that’s hard. We must examine social norms and how we inspire people to operate differently and within their authenticity to allow them to live their values. Success for WPI continues to be more researchers looking at gender as a variable and an important concept in philanthropy and giving.”


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