By Donna P. Hall, MPH, MBA
It hasn't even been a century since American women won the right to vote, so we are still working toward full equality in many fields, including sports, employment, salaries and, yes, personal wealth. In fact, it's been only a few decades since the American woman was permitted a credit line of her own. As late as 1973, a married woman in Texas could not acquire a credit card without her husband's signature.
Despite the challenges women continue to face with regard to earning power (women still earn 25 percent less than men), it is women who control the household purse strings, decide most major purchases and hold the most consumer debt. And with education, experience and centuries of feminist prodding behind us, more women than ever before have control of significant assets.
The late 20th century saw a blizzard of new business start-ups, with women in 1990 starting companies at three times the rate as men. At the same time, the numbers of women entering college began to outpace male enrollments. As women assume greater roles in the business economy, their role in philanthropic enterprises has increased, as well.
Of the 3.3 million Americans with annual incomes greater than $550,000, women comprise 41.2 percent of the total, according to Learning to Give.
In the coming years, women's new found pull in the world of charitable and philanthropic giving promises to shape the mission of nonprofits in ways that male philanthropists never tried. As we celebrate Women's History Month, more women than ever see philanthropy as the means for making history today -- to leverage the work of today's ground-breaking women as they stand with the suffragists, abolitionists and liberationists of the past.
In a study by the Corporation for National and Community Service, women were found to be more likely to donate their time to nonprofit organizations than are men. That fact is similar to the findings by University of Pittsburgh's Lise Vesterlund that women appear to be more personally invested than their male counterparts in the work done by the organizations to which they give.
Today I am privileged to be part of a philanthropic landscape that includes a group of more than 160 wealthy women, all determined to make social and environmental change, who are leveraging our giving by pooling our resources, collectively making grants and gifts to nonprofits whose goals comport with ours. As members (some anonymous) of the Women Donors Network, my colleagues and I contributed, collectively and individually, more than $120 million last year in pursuit of a social agenda for America that is very different from the one most of us grew up with.
We're seeking out creative ideas to help make the U.S. a better place for all people. Women donors are supporting ways to reduce unintended pregnancy, promote healthy families, provide quality education and preserve our natural resources. We care about sustainable agriculture and food policy; we worry about the rise of regressive social and political forces and seek to bring women's voices to the fore in our national debates.
The women donors I know wrestle with difficult questions and look for new ways to create social change: What does the Middle East conundrum mean to a woman funder who is committed to peace? How can we help change the way disaster relief should work after what we learned about Hurricane Katrina?
For each of these questions, philanthropists, through the Women Donors Network, have funded initiatives designed to offer answers. As women philanthropists increasingly take their concerns and resources into the marketplace of ideas, they make their mark on the public debate.
Women who give are putting our money where our rhetoric is. We have an agenda. We have a vision of meaningful social change for America, and we're working to make it real.
Hall is the President and CEO of the Women Donors Network based in Meno Park, California.