For centuries, women have struggled against challenging social, political, and financial barriers. Forty years ago, statistics revealed that women and children disproportionately shouldered the burden of poverty yet received a surprisingly small percentage of traditional philanthropic dollars. Awareness of this statistic galvanized a small band of visionary women into action, catalyzing the emergence of institutions that fund women’s issues, which came to be known as “women’s funds.” The appearance of these financial institutions for women and girls helped give birth to the concept of women’s philanthropy. And while wealthy women rarely participated during the early decades of this emerging philanthropic movement, in the past few years the concept of “million-dollar donors to women and girls” has begun to develop traction.

What follows is a partial history of women’s giving, and an exploration of the synergetic empowerment found when women fund women. Institutions worldwide are waking up to the reality that empowering women is key to societal health. Women of wealth have an important role to play in this evolution, as evidenced by the Women Moving Millions initiative: a new and historically significant movement rising up within women’s philanthropy.

Where We’ve Been: The History of Women’s Funding

The Lack of Significant Funding for Women

While researching nineteenth-century feminism, I was astonished to learn that few women of wealth funded the woman suffrage movement. Deeply committed to the cause, women of lesser means gave blood, sweat, and tears: they petitioned, were dragged to prison, suffered hunger strikes, and were force-fed.1 Yet their courageous passion met with precious little funding. Many who had some or little gave what they could. But the checkbooks of those who could give the most remained closed to women’s causes. Suffragist Matilda Joslyn Gage was anguished: “Why is it every day I read in the newspaper of another woman making bequests to yet another museum … but women fail to understand the cause that underlies all others in importance, women’s rights?”2

In 1857, the suffrage movement was so financially pressed that the annual national convention was cancelled. “In this bleak moment,” wrote Gage, “not a single woman of wealth stepped forward, pocketbook in hand. … Is it not strange that women of wealth are constantly giving large sums of money to endow professorships and colleges for boys exclusively … and yet give no thought to their own sex—crushed in ignorance, poverty, and prostitution?”3

Historian Sally Roesch Wagner documents that the richest woman in America at the time, Hetty Green, contributed nearly $400,000 to construct a boys’ school. Another woman of wealth, Catharine Lorillard Wolfe, gave a million dollars to various causes, not one of which benefited women.3 As Kathleen McCarthy, a historian of philanthropy, writes, “Ironically, female donors often reserved their largest gifts for organizations headed by men, many of which discriminated against women.”4

After the turn of the twentieth century, this pattern began to change. Finally a donor appeared. In 1914, Mrs. Frank Leslie left a million dollars to Carrie Chapman Catt, president of the national American Woman Suffrage Association. The suffragists were elated, until Leslie’s son sued, whittling away roughly half of Leslie’s bequest.5 Still, the suffragists hoped Leslie’s gift would inspire other women of means to step forward.

Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. Even decades later, during the liberating days of the 1960s women’s movement, women of wealth still did not step in with funding. In the feminist social revolution, as many women broke the chains on their minds and bodies, women of wealth’s “golden handcuffs” remained firmly in place.

Naming a New Paradigm: Women Funding Women

In the 1980s, research findings catalyzed a sea change. While women and children bore the brunt of poverty, statistics showed that less than two percent of philanthropic dollars were earmarked for women and girls. In fact, philanthropic organizations in the United States had no designation for women’s causes. If a donor wanted to fund women’s advancement, the closest one could come was girls’ education.6 To redress this, second-wave feminists began to put funding front and center on their agenda. Doing so birthed a new category and model of philanthropic funding: the creation of women’s funds and women’s philanthropy.

Women’s funds sounded a wake-up call, explicitly inviting women to step up and write checks for the advancement of women everywhere. All were invited to become philanthropists at whatever level they could. Each dollar mattered. Women pooled their resources, reallocating them back into programming for women and girls. The Ms. Foundation for Women (Ms.), founded in 1972, was this country’s first—and for a decade the only—fund devoted exclusively to women.7 The oldest international women’s fund, Mama Cash, followed in 1983.8 Soon after, in 1987, Astraea—the LGBTI foundation committed to feminist principles, economic justice, and human rights—was born.9

These three organizations helped usher in a new model of philanthropy. Whereas board seats in traditional foundations were filled primarily by wealthy white men, the boards of women’s funds had cross-race, cross-class, and cross-socioeconomic representation. Frontline activists and donors sat side by side. This model is more common now, but forty years ago such diversity was rare in many sectors of society—especially philanthropy. Though it was a radical departure, the pairing of donors and activists proved exceedingly effective.


Schaaf Design for Women’s Funding Network and Richard Morin/Solutions
These graphs from the Women’s Funding Network’s 2009 annual report show the growth in women’s funds. Today there are more than 165 women’s funds in 27 countries.

Considered a “democratization of philanthropy,” these women’s funds began to multiply into a global network. Seven women’s funds were created between 1972 and 1980. Between 1981 and 1985 the number grew to 32. The Women’s Funding Network, originally called the National Network of Women’s Funds, emerged in 1985 to shepherd these fledgling foundations. By 1990, a total of 57 women’s funds dotted the landscape, a number that had grown to 97 by 1997.10 And today there are more than 165 women’s funds that have spread into 27 countries, spanning six continents.11 This spontaneous expansion clearly indicated a zeitgeist.

And yet, even with this growing global presence, women’s funds remained largely undercapitalized.

Women Wake up: Raising the Bar on Women’s Giving

By the 1990s, much had changed regarding the status of women in society and the presence of women in philanthropy. Yet one unfortunate statistic remained the same: women of wealth were still earmarking the majority of their funding for traditional institutions such as the ballet, their husband’s alma maters, and religious institutions. Wealthy women continued to sit on the sidelines of this emerging movement for global funding equality.

Cracking Open the Checkbook: A Quiet Revolution

I was 30 years old, on a quest to learn about philanthropy, when I came across a women’s fund annual report. Having read through many reports from other large foundations, this model was so inspiring it brought tears to my eyes. I began to work with Tracy Gary, who I consider to be the mother of the women’s funding movement, and with Becky Sykes, who became the first president of the Dallas Women’s Foundation. Soon after, I was asked to join the board of Ms., and I also helped found the New York Women’s Foundation and Women’s Funding Network, among others. Working alongside many inspiring women’s activists—such as Katherine Acey, executive director of the Astraea Foundation, and Kavita Ramdas, former president and CEO of the Global Fund for Women—we encouraged others who wanted to start women’s funds in their own communities.

As women’s philanthropy grew, women throughout the world who contributed to women and girls’ programming began to feel empowered through their check writing. Every woman who wrote a check to a woman’s fund—regardless of the amount—was regarded as a philanthropist: a feminist philanthropist. Though women of wealth occasionally signed on, they were few and their financial commitment was modest. To shed light on this fact, I began to speak as much as possible about the history of women funding (or, more accurately, not funding) women.

During one of these conversations, then president of the California Women’s Foundation Patti Chang told me that “only a handful of women have given to women’s funds at the $1 million level.” She was disappointed by the low number, but I was elated! Million-dollar gifts to women? This was astounding! I suddenly realized that I had been embedded in the midst of a quiet revolution in women’s consciousness—one provocative as well as heroic in its scope and impact.

Million-dollar donors to women’s funds! This should have been headline news. But no one was even sounding a trumpet.

The Birth of Women Moving Millions

Wealthy women had not funded the woman suffrage movement but were now funding women’s funds. This was history unfolding right before our eyes. Wanting to know “why now,” I started interviewing some of the million-dollar donors, compiling their stories in a booklet called The Trailblazers. Then one day my sister Swanee called.

My dynamic sister Swanee works on the world stage, lifting up women’s voices in public policy, and cares deeply about women’s philanthropy as well. “Helen,” she began, “I’ve been revising my will and plan to leave you a tidy sum. I have a dream that you might use it to raise the bar of women’s giving. Yesterday it occurred to me that you could die first, completely ruining my surprise. Do you want it now?” I said “of course,” and added a financial pledge of my own. Predating the Buffett/Gates Giving Pledge by three years, in 2007 Women Moving Millions (WMM) was born.

I approached Chris Grumm, CEO and President of the Women’s Funding Network (WFN), feeling that this organization would partner wonderfully with the WMM vision. Swanee and I tossed around a variety of names, including “Women Funding Boldly” and “Women Making History.” We chose Women Moving Millions and in partnership set a campaign goal of $150 million over a two-year period—from May 2007 to May 2009. Donors were invited to pledge a million dollars or more within the 165-plus women’s funds that make up the WFN. Each new woman who joined Women Moving Millions received her own page in The Trailblazers booklet. Understanding the power in telling one’s story, we invited each WMM donor to step up and claim her own place in history.

Halfway to our goal, the country began to sink into what became a global financial crisis. Surprisingly, this did not slow WMM down. Instead, we surpassed our goal, raising a total of over $182 million. We were elated! With donors representing eight countries, we were well on our way to building a truly global network of million-dollar giving to women and girls. And by writing these checks, the donors were making history. The women of WMM were funding women at unprecedented levels.

Breaking the Golden Handcuffs

One might assume that all women of wealth have access to power: this is sadly untrue. As Gloria Steinem writes in her foreword for The Trailblazers booklet, “Wives and mothers within wealthy families are often expected, or even legally required, to cede power to family advisors and trusts, to allow brothers to run the family business, and even to support a husband’s college or charity rather than her own. Generation upon generation of this male privilege has helped to create the masculinization of wealth. It is so deeply ingrained, widespread, and as such taken for granted that it’s rarely even named as a major cause of the feminization of poverty.”12

My own experience, combined with hearing many of the stories of my donor-activist sisters, brought the issue of these golden handcuffs into sharp relief. As young women, my sisters and I had been groomed for marriage while our brother was taught to run our family business. Neither of my parents ever discussed family finances with me. Yet upon my engagement, my father invited my fiancé into his study to discuss my net worth with him. My mother’s aspirations for me never included learning about the family company or even working outside the home.

Acting against the wishes of my parents and husband, I took a teaching position on the “wrong side of the tracks” in Dallas. There I witnessed economic disparity firsthand. My students lacked even the basics available in the all-white public school where I’d done my student teaching. I knew I had to do something about the inequality I was witnessing. But before I could act, I had to find my voice.

I came to learn that I was not alone. So many of the million-dollar donors I interviewed also felt dislocated from their family’s finances. Joining the Women Moving Millions community invited us to become intentional and strategic in relation to our finances. Even those raised within families that encouraged philanthropy found new levels of strength by connecting with other women. I could now begin to put into language a remarkable synergy of empowerment that women’s funds offered: by working to empower women stuck in the cycle of poverty, donors were becoming empowered too.

The Synergy of Women’s Empowerment

This synergy—of women being empowered by the empowerment work they’re doing in the world—was not completely new. In the West, it was abolitionist women working to free the slaves that gave rise to the women’s rights movement. Advocating for the equality of others inspired women to work for their own.

Even a cursory look at history shows how deeply ingrained the idea of women’s inferiority has been. Columbia University professor Melinda Given Guttman writes that “Aristotle … codified women as being in all respects inferior to men, justifying the male as ruler over the female since she lacked reason. He taught that women only provided a material body for the embryo, while the semen from a man contained the ‘soul.’”13 History records the proliferation of European salons in the seventeenth century, where academics and the elite met to discuss the question of the day: are women human? In the 1880s, women’s biological inferiority became the reason to deny them formalized education. And the very foundation of our Western laws today are built upon Sir William Blackstone’s volumes, which include this legal opinion: “By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband; under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs everything.”14

Like many other women I knew, I experienced the “suspension” of certain aspects of my existence both within my family of origin and my first marriage. Feeling the loss of my voice compelled me to become involved in the women’s movement. The more involved I became, the more I wanted a relationship with our family’s wealth. And the more ownership I had of my resources, the more crucial it felt to support organizations that closely echoed my own ideals. By the time I turned 40, I was able to claim the work I was doing in women’s funds for what it truly was: social investing.

I now understand how inextricably linked voice and money can be, especially for those with wealth. As psychologist and best-selling author Carol Gilligan notes, “Voice without echo dies.”15 This phenomenon was confirmed for me by the sheer volume of requests we had from Women Moving Millions donors who wanted opportunities to meet each other. Ultimately, they were asking to be echoed, so that their voices could create a deeper resonance in the culture. Traditionally it is men’s influence that has been dominant. Women’s voices have been subordinated throughout millennia. Women’s funds—and now WMM—have become this much-needed echo chamber, one that is empowering women of high net worth to find their voice. Julie Fisher Cummings, founder of the Lovelight Foundation, emphasizes this point: “Women Moving Millions is about standing up for what we believe in and stating our truth.”16

On the other side of the world, deputy chair of the Australian Women Donors Network, Carol Schwartz, notes that “WMM is the perfect embodiment of women exercising financial power, which is very unique. Joining this initiative attached a rocket to my giving, providing me even more impetus to fund women and leadership in a more focused and strategic way.”16 WMM creates a community in which women can come together and share their stories, enabling donors to be echoed in ways that allow them to think, dream, and act big. A donor to the Ms. Foundation, Lynne Rosenthal, articulates a profound benefit to becoming more strategic: “Before making this gift, if you had asked me to define power, I wouldn’t have defined it in positive terms. Now I see power in a positive way—a way in which each person can make a valuable impact on those around them.”16 The impact inherent in these WMM gifts is further expressed by Jennifer Buffett, president of the NoVo Foundation: “The gifts we make are about funding—but also about catalyzing. WMM is about getting savvy and sophisticated in identifying levels of change, and helping to accelerate each other’s thinking and doing. It enables us to put our heads together and work on powerful social change issues. It’s time.”16

These women’s words begin to capture what makes WMM so unique. What began as an initiative has, through shared leadership by many of the donors involved, transformed into a movement. Collecting the stories of these donors helped me recognize that high-net-worth women are, for the first time in history, finding their voice. It is a process of ownership—of one’s self and one’s resources—that emboldens donors to act in more powerful and effective ways. Those involved in the WMM initiative feel a shared connection, hope, and gratitude for being able to give at the level they have—and to a movement and point in time that feels so ripe for making lasting worldwide change. “In the future,” writes Trish Houck, who serves on the board and advisory council of the Dallas Women’s Foundation, “we will be remembered as those who had the courage and foresight those many years ago to take such a bold step.”16

Women Making Significant Change

The Global Impact of Funding Women

Women Moving Millions has already made history. In 2009, Phase I of WMM brought in over 182 million new dollars, catapulting the combined assets of women’s funds worldwide to over a billion dollars. “Until recently,” writes Kathleen McCarthy, “there was no community of women of wealth giving million dollar donations to women’s issues and organizations in their own name in significant numbers.”17 Given this, McCarthy cites WMM as “the emergence of a new culture of large scale feminist giving.”17 And we’ve only just begun. Currently WMM donors are joining hands across eight countries: Australia, Canada, England, Germany, Mexico, the Netherlands, South Africa, and the United States. In Phase II, gifts to organizations, programs, and initiatives targeted to change women’s lives outside of women’s funds will also qualify. The obvious question at this point, however, is what kind of change will this create?


Ruling Our Experiences (ROX)
Kierstin Montaño gives a lesson on team building to eighth graders at Linden McKinley STEM Academy in Columbus, Ohio. The lesson was developed by Ruling Our Experiences (or ROX), a program funded by the Women’s Fund of Central Ohio as part of its One Girl Initiative.

Collectively, women’s funds give away $70 million in grants each year—an amount that is steadily on the rise.10 Currently, over 80 percent of women’s funds’ investments go to women living in poverty or those most affected by issues such as homelessness, violence, and human rights abuses. And the money raised by WMM is having a far-reaching impact.18 The Women’s Fund of Greater Birmingham saw a ten percent reduction in domestic violence from 2008 to 2009. The Women’s Fund of Central Ohio’s One Girl initiative, which identifies best practices in increasing girls’ self-confidence and self-esteem, has thus far involved 200,000 girls. A Future. Not a Past, launched by the Atlanta Women’s Foundation, is a campaign to stop domestic child trafficking. Results of this groundbreaking campaign include the creation of the Georgia Care Connection, designed to “throw prostituted girls a lifeline instead of into a jail cell;” an increase in the prosecution of perpetrators; policy changes; and the end to the adult services category on Craigslist, which has decreased revenue from internet demand for the trafficking of minors by nearly 50 percent. Finally, the Dallas Women’s Foundation, due to million-dollar donors stepping up over the last three years, has more than doubled its grant making from $1 million to $2.5 million annually.19-24

And these are just some of the measurable social change impacts that WMM capital has helped to achieve. The Women’s Fund of Minnesota endowment took a 22 percent hit during the recession, but WMM gifts enabled the organization to maintain a consistent level of grant making. In fact, most women’s funds indicate that WMM gifts have been critical, especially given the current challenging economic climate. The Women’s Funding Alliance and the Canadian Women’s Foundation were able to start endowments, thus ensuring the long-term sustainability of both organizations. And the Chester County Fund for Women and Girls was able to triple its grant making.

Further, while it has been clear that WMM is having an impact on donors’ strategic thinking, it is also increasing the effectiveness and scope of the strategies women’s funds employ to serve women and girls. One example of this is the Canadian Women’s Fund, which recently established the Canadian Center for Women’s Economic Development. Focused on shifting economic policy at an institutional level, this initiative will grant $3.8 million over five years. And the Ms. Foundation for Women used its combined WMM gifts to focus on economic security and education by helping pass legislation for paid sick leave in two states and Washington, DC, through the 14-state coalition Family Values@Work.

This is the kind of impact that Pulitzer Prize–winning authors Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn encourage in their book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. Their rationale is as follows: “In the 19th century, the central moral challenge was slavery. In the 20th century, it was the battle against totalitarianism. We believe that in this century the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle for gender equality around the world.”25 UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stated that “equality for women and girls is … a social and economic imperative. Where women are educated and empowered, economies are more productive and strong. Where women are fully represented, societies are more peaceful and stable.”26 And a report from the World Bank focusing on the economic and social implications of gender equality proclaimed, “Gender equality … strengthens countries’ ability to grow, to reduce poverty, and to govern effectively.”27

Empowering women globally also influences our security. Kristof and WuDunn write “that the countries that nurture terrorists are disproportionately those where women are marginalized.… As the Pentagon gained a deeper understanding of counterterrorism, and as it found that dropping bombs often didn’t do much to help, it became increasingly interested in grassroots projects such as girls’ education. Empowering girls, some in the military argued, would disempower terrorists.”25

The Potential of Women Moving Millions

Become Part of the Solution

From volunteering time to writing checks at any level, there are many ways to support the empowerment of women and girls on a global scale. Women’s funds have done their homework, uncovering the most pressing challenges facing their communities. Then, hand-in-hand with their grantee partners, they research and support the programs that are most effective in combating those issues.

To find a women’s fund in your community and/or one focused on issues that are particularly important to you, search the Women’s Funding Network’s member directory at

To learn more about the issues facing women and girls in developing countries, the programs that are most helpful, and for a glossary of ways you can become involved in shifting the tide to empower women and girls worldwide, read Nicholas D. Kristof’s and Sheryl WuDunn’s book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.

To learn more about and/or to join the Women Moving Millions movement, visit Women Moving Millions itself is not a grant-making organization, so if you are seeking a grant for work involving women and girls, direct your inquiries to women’s funds and other nonprofit foundations in your area.

In Ralph Nader’s recently published Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!, he suggests that governments are broke, most nations are in debt, the middle class is dwindling, and those most disenfranchised are getting poorer.28 Elizabeth Warren, chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel charged with monitoring the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), reports that “one in five Americans is unemployed, underemployed or just plain out of work. One in nine families can’t make the minimum payment on their credit cards. One in eight mortgages is in default or foreclosure. One in eight Americans is on food stamps. More than 120,000 families are filing for bankruptcy every month. The economic crisis has wiped more than $5 trillion from pensions and savings.”29

So who is left to lift up the world? Wealthy families. What if, as Nader posits, “a cadre of superrich individuals tried to become a driving force in America to organize and institutionalize the interests of the citizens of this troubled nation?”30

I respond with the mission of the Women Moving Millions donors: to create a collaborative and strategic network of giving with the goal of lifting up new values and vision for the world. High-net-worth women have the potential to make this kind of far-reaching difference. According to statistics compiled by the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, 43 percent of the nation’s top wealth holders, with combined assets of $4.6 trillion, are women. This represents 41.8 percent of the total wealth in this category. Further, the Center for Women’s Business Research estimates that roughly ten million privately held women-owned firms in the United States generate $1.9 trillion in annual sales and employ 13 million people nationwide.31 And the amount of wealth women will control is only on the rise: “Because women live longer than men by an average of 5.2 years, they will end up in charge of much of the anticipated intergenerational transfer of wealth expected over the next fifty years,” according to the Center on Philanthropy.31 Despite our current financial crisis, this figure is estimated to be at least $41 trillion.32

Women also give more and give differently than men, further substantiating women’s unique role in creating social change. Women Give 2010, a report from the Center on Philanthropy, found that in many cases women gave almost twice as much as their male counterparts. This report also noted that “women are more inclined to help in a relational manner, placing greater emphasis on relationships and on care of the individual.”33 More likely to see philanthropy as “a way to express their moral beliefs,” women, according to another of the center’s reports, “felt a strong responsibility to help those who have less.”34 Finally, the center found that “women who participate in donor education programs are more likely to give larger gifts, to give unrestricted gifts, to develop a long-term giving plan, and to hold leadership roles on non-profit boards.”31

You can believe, as I do, that women have a complex understanding of relationality—one that will serve the healing of our society well. Or you can recognize that women are fast becoming the controllers of the majority of wealth in the United States. Either way, the reality is that women hold the key to our future—and wealthy women in particular have a crucial role to play.

Suffragist Matilda Joslyn Gage—who was ahead of her time in so many ways—understood this decades ago: “From those women who have money, much is expected, for in their hands lies the power to make the dumb speak; the power to make the silent pen use its magic force; the power to scatter far and wide the knowledge of our demands; the power to bring together the eloquent voice and the listening ear; the reading eye and the written word. From those women to whom much has been given, much is expected.”35

She was right. In order to address the issues affecting our planet, much is riding on the agency of women. But while some of us with means have broken free of our golden handcuffs, far too many of us are still living in isolation. The goal of Women Moving Millions is to break through the isolation to unite those working on behalf of social justice across gender, class, and race. It is this vision, ultimately, that has the potential to heal the planet. WMM has catapulted women’s funding into the stratosphere. For the first time in history, the only thing that can truly limit women is our imaginations.


Helen LaKelly Hunt

In 2006, Helen LaKelly Hunt cofounded Women Moving Millions, an initiative that raised over $180 million for women’s funds in the Women’s Funding Network in just two years. She is also founder and...

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