Strategic philanthropyHow women in philanthropy are making an impact

Key things to know

  • Women have long engaged in nonprofit work, and as women’s financial power grows, so does their ability to make more decisions around how they put their money to work.

  • Women are reshaping philanthropy by centering their giving around lived experiences, collaborating at all levels, offering support beyond the check, and intentionally passing down the legacy of giving.

Women have long made their mark on their communities through a powerful vehicle for change: philanthropic giving.

The women’s philanthropy movement began in the 1800s as women started to align their philanthropy with volunteering. Through their generosity, women forged new paths for improving the quality of life, paving the way for today’s women in philanthropy who continue their legacy. The social movements in the 1960s and 1970s, gave women more visibility in the workplace and women began to center their philanthropy around their lived experiences, a trend that persists today.


“While there’s been a long history of women influencing philanthropy, more women now have more money to give and they’re reshaping philanthropy for current and future generations.”

- Ashlee Woods, managing director of philanthropic impact for Ascent Private Capital Management of U.S. Bank


It’s estimated that roughly $84 trillion will change hands in the U.S. by 2045,1 a figure referred to as the great wealth transfer. While much of the wealth may be transferred to younger generations, women are also set to inherit a large portion of it. And as women acquire more wealth, their financial influence grows within their family’s finances and within the world of philanthropy.

“While there’s been a long history of women influencing philanthropy, more women now have more money to give and they’re reshaping philanthropy for current and future generations,” says Ashlee Woods, managing director of philanthropic impact for Ascent Private Capital Management of U.S. Bank.

As a philanthropic advisor, Woods has paid attention to women’s growing influence in money matters. Here, she talks about the history of women in philanthropy, the momentum she’s seeing now and her outlook on the future.

Q: Can you talk about the trends that have contributed to the growth in women’s financial influence and, as a result, their impact on philanthropy?

Women’s financial influence has increased in the past 10 years. It’s partly due to wealth transfers from previous generations, but also because of the many decades of change leading up to the past 10 years. These changes have created a structural, legal, cultural, and social environment that increased women’s access to money and having a seat at the table for making decisions about what do with their money.

Q: How do you see women’s growing influence show up in the work you do with families?

The biggest trend is that women tend to be the decision-makers in their family philanthropy. This applies to both individual and foundation giving. Another trend is that women define philanthropic success in new ways—if their work aligns with their values, if it creates meaningful change, and if it can be done in a collaborative and inclusive way.

Q: What causes do women tend to gravitate to?

Women focus their giving on lived experiences, so oftentimes their giving is community and place-based. As an example, as women gain more control of financial resources and decision making, we are seeing their giving is connected to their businesses. So, their philanthropic dollars will often be dedicated to the communities that are tied to their businesses.

Women are also more participatory in their giving. They approach the grantor-grantee relationship with a desire to learn about the cause and organizations that they support. They also tend to offer support beyond the check by volunteering or advocacy. Mackenzie Scott emphasized that ANYONE can be a philanthropist because there are so many ways to show your love of humanity.

Q: And what about the way women give? Do they approach it differently from men?

MacKenzie Scott is actually a great example of how women approach philanthropy in new ways. Her giving, like many female philanthropists, deviates from traditional grantmaking practices and took on a more effective and impactful approach.

For example, her gifting was done without burdensome grant applications and reporting that burdens nonprofit organizations’ time and prevents them from mission-focused work. Her gifting was more trust based; trusting the organizations to reach solutions to use the funds for their highest and best needs.

Q: With so many causes to choose from, how can women make decisions about where/how to give?

Here again, Mackenzie Scott is a great role model. It’s important to note that Scott’s philanthropic work is done in tandem with professional advisors who research the causes she cares about and organizations that align with her values before she makes these generous donations.

We see this on a smaller scale with giving circles, where women pool their funds together and jointly research organizations and causes prior to giving. This collective giving provides women an opportunity to volunteer and learn together. Women may begin by simply writing checks or making grant recommendations from their donor advised fund. Then, over time, they want to be more organized, disciplined, and strategic.

There are many steps you can take to operationalize philanthropy for women in multiple generations of a family. At Ascent, we integrate philanthropic advising into our service model so that our clients have the benefit of working with a philanthropic advisor. Working in tandem with their investment and wealth strategy advisors, we help clients identify funding focus areas, leverage strategic partnerships, improve operational efficiencies, and maintain focus.

Q: What does all of this mean for the future of women’s influence on philanthropy?

What is most exciting, at least to me, is that philanthropy is now growing as a result of new spheres of influence. There are more intergenerational transfers of generosity by means of teaching, modeling and engagement. There’s a new push for impactful giving as women philanthropists seek an understanding of the work being done through lenses of inclusivity and innovation.

For many women of wealth, philanthropy is part of their identity; as they continue to accumulate wealth at a faster pace, it stands to reason that women’s influence and control over the philanthropic world is going to increase as well.

Learn how Ascent Private Capital Management can help you make an impact with your wealth across generations.

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