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Women & Philanthropy: How to Leave a Lasting Legacy on a Modest Budget

Photo of author, Kathleen McDermott.
Kathleen McDermott
Business Development Manager and Director of Nonprofit Advisory Services

Stories of women and philanthropy are common today – think about the impact Melinda Gates and Oprah Winfrey have made through their charitable efforts. However, this has only been the case in the last half-century.

The earliest information I could find about women’s philanthropy in the U.S. dates to 1643 when Harvard University created its first scholarship fund with a gift from Lady Anne Radcliffe Mowlson. She is remembered today in the name of Radcliffe College.

Then, starting late in the 18th century and growing in popularity through the 19th century, women were devoting more of their time to volunteering in religious and education efforts and for the needs of widows and children, especially the poor. However, women’s financial giving was usually tied to their husbands’ or family’s wealth.

So, why has women’s giving escalated in the last 50 years? While a wage gap persists today, Debra Mesch, Director of Women’s Philanthropy Institute claims the key variables that affect women’s philanthropy are education, income, and wealth. For example:

  • Women are the primary breadwinners in 40% of households and hold almost 52% of all management and professional level jobs.1
  • Women control 51%, or $14 trillion, of personal wealth in the U.S. With women outliving men by an average of six years, it is more likely they will be making decisions around the transfer of wealth and bequests to charity. 2
  • Women are increasingly higher educated and now earn more bachelor’s degrees and attend graduate school more often than men. In 2012, 57% of bachelor’s degrees were awarded to women and 63% of master’s degrees.3

While very few of us can give at the levels of Melinda or Oprah, women still have more financial resources to make a difference in their communities than they may realize. When considering your giving and legacy, here are some factors to consider:

Short-term Giving

  1. Make sure your giving is aligned with your financial resources. Are philanthropic contributions factored in your annual budget? If you need to make some adjustments, consider leveraging your giving through corporate matching programs, taking advantage of state offered tax-credits (where available), and asking charities about multi-year pledges.
  2. There may be other ways to give that would free up your cash. Talk to your financial advisor about donating appreciated securities. In addition to freeing up cash, a gift of appreciated securities may provide you with capital gains tax savings.
  3. According to Sondra Shaw Hardy and Martha Taylor (co-founders of the Women’s Philanthropy Institute), what drives women philanthropists is the desire to implement change and collaborate. If your level of giving is modest, consider joining a giving circle. In the Northern Panhandle of West Virginia, for example, we have a Women’s Giving Circle through our local Community Foundation. Our individual donations are pooled and together, through a grant-making process, we decide on the local projects we would like to fund. It’s exciting to see how a group of women can make a difference in the causes they care about simply by joining forces.

Long-term Giving

  1. To continue your legacy of giving to an organization(s) you care about, consider making a bequest in your will, or naming the charity as a beneficiary on a qualified retirement plan or insurance policy. You can name the charity as a full or partial beneficiary, and this designation can be changed at any time. Choosing this option may also offer attractive estate and tax benefits to you.
  2. If you are considering a more significant philanthropic legacy, consider establishing a private family foundation. A significant benefit of a family foundation is that, with proper oversight, your legacy can exist in perpetuity. Foundations are also good vehicles for supporting multiple charities beyond your lifetime. Lastly, with private foundations, you can involve your children and/or grandchildren in your philanthropic interests, thereby instilling important values and traditions as well as ensuring that your legacy endures.
  3. Creating a Charitable Remainder Trust or Charitable Lead Trust are two other options should you wish to establish a more significant philanthropic legacy. Trusts can help meet your charitable legacy while also providing income for your family. However be aware, trusts are often irrevocable and require careful legal and tax considerations.

While there are a variety of financials factors to consider in any legacy plan, the bottom-line is that women certainly play a powerful role in philanthropy and can make a significant impact on local causes and society at-large. Should you require additional information or assistance with these financial considerations, consider reaching out to a trusted advisor who can help you make the right choice for your unique situation.

“I don’t think you ever stop giving. I really don’t. I think it’s an on-going process.
And it’s not just about being able to write a check. It’s being able to touch somebody’s life.”
– Oprah Winfrey

1Bureau of Labor Statistics. Women in the Labor Force: A Databook. May 2014.
2O’Conner, Eileen, Family Wealth Advisors Council. Women of Wealth Study. 2012. U.S.
3Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. 2012.


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