Wealthy women who make large donations to causes that benefit women and girls have several characteristics in common, according to new research from the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at Indiana University.

The research showed that that high-net-worth women engaged in significant education and research before writing their checks; made strategic funding decisions focused on driving systemic change; and were willing to take risks with their philanthropy.

The study involved interviews with 23 high-net-worth women, all but one of whom was a current member of Women Moving Millions, an international philanthropic network of wealthy women established in 2007. Each participant in the qualitative study had given or pledged at least $1 million to causes for women and girls.

“Women can be powerful agents of change with their philanthropy, and their values and goals are often shaped by the societal experiences of being female,” lead researcher Elizabeth Dale, who teaches at Seattle University, said in a statement.

“Further, we find that contrary to conventional wisdom that says women are more risk-averse than men when considering their finances, these wealthy women are willing to experiment and to take considerable financial risks with their philanthropy in order to advance meaningful change.”

The report is the second in a series of studies, funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, that explore how and why individuals support women’s and girls’ causes.

Researchers grouped the women’s responses into broad themes. One was donors’ path to large-scale philanthropy. This involved five stages:

  • Learning philanthropic lessons in early life
  • Making small, but meaningful, gifts as an adult
  • Coming into wealth
  • Educating themselves about giving
  • Making million-dollar or “ultimate” gift commitments, i.e., the biggest gift of a donor will make in her lifetime

The study also looked at motivations for funding causes that benefit women and girls.

It found that many women were motivated and inspired by direct and indirect experiences of workplace discrimination and sexual harassment, issues related to reproductive health and access to abortion, past experience with barriers to education and leadership, and wanting to be part of the solution to gender inequality.

The research showed that women were strategic, risk-taking donors.

Some interviewees were strategic in that they funded nonprofits with new approaches or started organizations that focused on root causes of systemic problems women and girls face.

Among funding methods the women described were having a dedicated funding focus with strict parameters; funding deeper on an issue rather than more broadly; identifying and funding gaps in philanthropic giving; and making unrestricted gifts and multiyear commitments.

Many of the women in the studied said they were risk-takers or described actions that would be considered risky. A number of respondents had started their own businesses or enterprises.

Among the risks research participants assumed with their charitable giving included providing funding to emerging organizations and new programs rather than proven solutions, and funding entities and businesses in areas of the world where corruption was rife.

Inherent in these projects was the risk that the endeavor might not be successful or have the outcomes desired.

One donor went further, assuming personal risk to herself and her family, by working on organized sex trafficking.

“This new research is timely given the heightened interest across the government, business and nonprofit sectors in providing support for women and girls around the globe,” Women’s Philanthropy Institute director Debra Mesch, said in the statement.

“Our earlier research found that half of women donors and 40% of men donors said they give to these types of causes. The more we know about how and why donors give to this area, the better able organizations serving women and girls will be to engage more donors more effectively.”  

— Check out Women Drive Philanthropy in the US on ThinkAdvisor.