Chris Grumm

(WOMENSENEWS)–As 282 female philanthropists from around the world gathered in Dallas last week for the 19th annual conference of the Women’s Funding Network, they faced a slumping economy, an increasingly violent world and a less favorable political climate. But they remained steadfast in their commitment to uplift women and girls.

“I’m a preacher’s kid and I know there’s always money,” says Chris Grumm, the executive director of the network, an umbrella organization of women’s foundations across the United States and abroad. “The good news is women’s funds really are moving forward. I think more and more women are interested in how they can help support their communities.”

The number of foundations in the funding network has grown from 69 in 2000 to 96 today. In the last 15 years, the network has raised more than $400 million and given away about half that amount in grants. In 2001 alone, the network’s foundations raised $79 million and gave away $30 million–nearly a third more than in 1999.

“This is history-making,” says Helen LaKelly Hunt, a founder of two of the oldest women’s foundations, “that women are stepping up to the plate, even though women have not been trained to use money to shape community.”

Female Funding Followed Equal-Pay Push

Historically women did not give money to women’s causes even when some had control over their own funds. Men funded the women’s suffrage movement, according to Hunt, who studied 19th century feminism at Union Theological Seminary in New York, while women gave their money to museums and their husband’s alma maters. Women’s foundations grew out of the women’s movement in the 1970s, when women were demanding equal pay, more opportunities to create their own wealth and greater decision-making power over money.

“We had a lot of great ideas, but the resources were missing,” says the funding network’s Grumm.

Principals in Ms. Magazine, Patricia T. Carbine, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Gloria Steinem, and Marlo Thomas, took the lead in 1972 when they started the Ms. Foundation for Women, based in New York. “Women were giving time, tears, aspirations and hopes toward strengthening women,” Hunt says, “but not yet giving their money. Women at Ms. had this epiphany: Let’s give money and let’s give a lot of it. That was a modeling for all of us.”

By the 1980s, women’s foundations were gaining momentum, with over 60 nationwide. The Women’s Funding Network was formed in San Francisco in 1985 to help support and bring together the various foundations and become the leader of what was soon being referred to as the “women’s funding movement.”

“It is a movement and it’s a quiet movement,” Hunt says. “We see ourselves as the quiet underpinning of the women’s movement. We are funding the activists that are doing the actual work.”

Today, women’s foundations fund programs to help women acquire job skills, start businesses, leave violent homes, gain access to health care and raise their self-esteem. They also support groups that advocate reproductive rights and public policy favorable to women.

Women’s Funding Resisted Sept. 11 Downturn

While many philanthropic groups reacted to the Sept. 11 terrorist strikes, the stock market’s decline and the ensuing drop in value of their endowments by reducing the number of grants they awarded, women’s foundations have maintained their level of funding, and, in some cases, given away more.

One reason is most women’s foundations do not depend on their endowments for making grants, according to Grumm. Instead, they raise funds annually. They also draw from a broad base of support, accepting donations as little as $25 and as large as $1 million.

“Women’s funds have always promoted the issue that every woman can be a philanthropist,” Grumm says. “In the women’s funding movement, everybody has something to bring to the table . . . ideas, skills, the understanding of the community. We see it in a much more holistic way–money being just one of them.”

Grumm adds that women’s funds, which individually, give away from $100,000 to $5 million a year, are not nearly the size of a Ford or Rockefeller Foundation. And their small size allows them to be more flexible and change with the changing times.

“We are thinking outside the box,” says Karin Anderson, the executive director of the Maine Women’s Fund, a statewide public foundation. “When private foundations are playing Chicken Little, saying ‘We have to pull back,’ the Maine Women’s Fund is giving away more money than ever. Grant-making is the first priority.”

Faced with a shrinking endowment, Anderson asked her board in January to cut back on several things but not grants. The board agreed to pay for its own retreat and eliminate a staff position. As a result, the Maine Women’s Fund was able to give away $125,000 in grants.

That is a significant amount for a state considered the second least charitable in the country and in which 75 percent of the 1.2 million residents live in rural areas.

“I would say it speaks to women’s resourcefulness,” Anderson says.

Shalala Gave Nudge to The New York Women’s Foundation

It is that same resourcefulness that led Hunt to set up The New York Women’s Foundation along with two city activists. In 1986, Hunt, along with Gloria Milliken and Joan Melber Warburg, sought advice from Donna Shalala, the former Clinton administration health and human services secretary who was then president of Hunter College in New York City. After listening to them with a scowl on her face, Shalala told them that the city was already saturated with fund-raising events and that setting up a new philanthropic organization would be costly and complex.

“Then she took off her glasses and said, ‘But do it anyway,'” Hunt recalls. “That was the spirit of everyone in New York. It just had to happen.”

Within a few years, the group had raised over $2 million and since its inception has given away $8 million.

With the Ms. Foundation celebrating its 30th anniversary next month and a new group of teen to 20-something female philanthropists called the Third Wave Foundation based in New York taking off, Hunt expresses confidence about the future of women funding women.

“We’re now three generations,” she says.

But Grumm, the network’s director, says that today’s political climate, with a male-dominated administration and reproductive rights increasingly under threat, should keep women philanthropists from becoming complacent, especially since just 7 percent of all philanthropic dollars fund programs for women and girls.

“I think we’re at an interesting time in the women’s funding movement,” she says, “where our voices are really needed.”

Luchina Fisher is a freelance writer and producer living in the New York area.

For more information:

Women’s Funding Network:

The Sister Fund:

Ms. Foundation for Women: