Published in Nonprofits

Philanthropy wrestles with solving gender bias in giving

BY Sunday, November 10, 2019 09:51am

Shortly after opening her philanthropic consulting firm in 2000, Christine Gavin got a firsthand look at the “unevenness” of philanthropy.

Gavin, the founder and CEO of Christine Gavin and Co., is a believer that corporate social investment begins from the top down. That’s important because statistics show women hold just 6.6 percent of all CEO positions with less than 1 percent of those seats occupied by women of color.

“It became clear to me that if I was in a room with male CEOs, they can raise $5 million or $10 million in one afternoon. If I was working with the Black Women’s Health Imperative, it may take 10 to 20 years to raise that kind of money,” Gavin said.

It came as no surprise to her that nonprofits focused on women’s and girls’ issues are the beneficiaries of 1.6 percent of all charitable giving, according to data cited in an October report in Fast Company

Well before these statistics were reported, Gavin was in the process of planning a one-day conference that will be held on Nov. 15 in Detroit to bring together leading corporate social responsibility and nonprofit executives, foundation leaders and philanthropists, as well as more than 100 high school and college students to discuss issues surrounding women, girls and philanthropy.

The gathering, titled “The Mission is Possible: A Conversation About Women, Girls & Philanthropy,” will include a keynote speech from Teresa Younger, the president and CEO of the Ms. Foundation for Women, which was founded in 1973 as the first women’s foundation in the United States. The foundation recently launched a new strategic plan that will be focused on women and girls of color and challenge the philanthropic sector around how they invest in those communities. 

“We are sorely underrepresented in philanthropic investment, with only 2% of that spending going to women and girls of color,” Younger said in a statement. “We are excited to discuss the challenges and opportunities for equality … as well as the understanding that this focus is not exclusionary, and in fact abides by the Ms. Foundation’s vision of creating a world in which the worth and dignity of every person are valued, and power and possibility are not limited by gender, race, class, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability or age.”

Gavin said there is work to be done on all sides given that about 11 percent of funding from women-led giving organizations is going to support women and women and girls of color.

“I think we need to look at all women collectively and what that means,” she said. “Women need to lean in on this work.”

In early October, Melinda Gates pledged to spend $1 billion over the next decade to help close the gender equality gap, citing that nonprofits battling women-specific issues are radically underfunded. Gates has identified specific ways in which she’ll use those funds, such as promoting professional advancement, pushing for more diversity in fields like technology and politics that are reshaping society, and encouraging others to use their own financial influence to the same end. 

Gavin said when people think about philanthropy and women’s issues, and when they talk about gender equity in philanthropy, they think about issues around reproductive health or issues of violence.

“All of our issues, whether it be education or dealing with poverty, are women’s issues,” Gavin said. “We need to look at charitable giving and social justice equity.”

It’s not that people don’t care, but rather it’s more about how the information is articulated, said Carolyn Cassin, president and CEO of Detroit-based Michigan Women Forward, a public, statewide foundation devoted to the economic and personal well-being of Michigan women and girls.

Cassin said her foundation has taken on some big overarching issues and some that look and feel like minutiae, but the end goal is making change that is sustainable and lasting. These efforts have included investment in women-owned businesses, speaking about gender and pay equity issues, and solving a statewide and nationwide crisis around women’s rape kits that weren’t being processed.

Formerly known as the Michigan Women’s Foundation, the organization was founded in the late 1980s. At that time, only 3 percent of philanthropic dollars went to programs for women and girls in the United States.

“This foundation was sort of a prototype of what was wrong with women and girls’ philanthropy and that’s why we made the shift to a different name and totally different approach,” Cassin said.

In the 10 years that Cassin has been leading the organization, the number of active donors increased from 500 to 5,000 people and its largest corporate gifts jumped from $50,000 to between $250,000 to $500,000. Cassin attributed the shift to the foundation’s ability to articulate that its work is “important to the future of your company.”

In addition, the foundation has recruited 57 women investors.

Referring to the Fast Company article, Cassin said: “It’s not just about philanthropy, it’s about all of the different kinds of capital you have to have.”

“We are shifting gears toward a different and broader view of access to capital. Conceptual things are hard for people to write checks to,” Cassin said. “I think we have to tackle this one issue and one program at a time. We spend a lot of time talking about women on boards and which specific companies in our community don’t have women on their boards. We focus on how can we solve this particular problem for you and with you.”

Change, Gavin said, will be driven by corporations.

“Every top 100 American brand is adding a chief diversity and inclusion officer. Right now, they’re housed in human resources and they’re dealing with issues like maternity and paternity and what’s the right thing to do and natural hair,” Gavin said. “But ultimately as that workforce continues to change and consumer power starts to change, that arm of the company will have to go across the aisle to corporate responsibility because what’s being given back to a community is imperative to the bottom line.”

This transformation is being led by Gen Xers and Millennials who typically are far more aggressive, outspoken and sure of themselves, Gavin said.

“We are building this platform to start to engage in an open way about how do we empower the evolution and process of social equity,” she said. “We have to have generational voices.”

Additionally, the need for change and the drive to get it right could not be more important, according to Cassin. 

“This is the issue of our generation,” Cassin said. “If we don’t solve this gender bias issue, the world won’t look very different 30 years from now.”

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