Women’s Role in Philanthropy

women in phil

Women are changing the face of philanthropy. Their status doesn’t matter, but their work does. Women now control about half the investment wealth in the U.S. Their philanthropic leadership and roles have increased accordingly during the last 40 years. Historically women have been major donors to their favorite causes; during the 1970s, however, women began exploring their philanthropic potential en masse. Advances were made during the 1980s as women-focused foundations began to emerge, including the Chicago Foundation for Women.

Given women’s long history with philanthropy, today, women are seeking ways to maximize the impact of their actions and energy. As Christine O’Reilly, executive director of the Chicago White Sox Charities and senior director of Community Relations for the White Sox, points out, “philanthropy” has implications beyond giving of money.

“Philanthropy is about having a passionate interest to make a difference for others,” Ms. O’Reilly says. “It’s about being generous, but not always in a monetary sense. Philanthropy – giving of oneself for the sake of those less fortunate – also is the most rewarding opportunity we can seize. There’s not a better feeling than knowing you touched someone, that you made a real difference for a person, a community or our world.”

Take, for example, Margot Pritzker. “Through my efforts, I try to level the playing field a bit, pushing women to the next level,” she explains. As a long-time volunteer and donor, she was inspired to found WomenOnCall.org when she realized that most nonprofits were able to secure traditional volunteers (i.e., staffing the gala committee, working registration or reception), but were in need of high-caliber volunteers with professional skills. “Being a woman makes me more aware of issues affecting women,” she adds. “Giving to and becoming involved with women’s issues is very natural.”

As increased numbers of women excel in the corporate sector, this widens the pool of women who can transition their c-suite experience to nonprofits. Maria Wynne worked for tech giants including Xerox and Microsoft before becoming CEO of the Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago and Northwest Indiana, whose annual budget exceeds $30 million. The worlds may not be that different. “I didn’t leave corporate America,” Ms. Wynne points out. “I work for a corporation that happens to have a nonprofit status.”

Vicki Escarra worked for Delta Airlines for 30 years and was chief customer service officer and chief marketing officer when she left to become CEO of Feeding America. She credits her family with teaching her how to give back and igniting that commitment to philanthropy. “Even though we had little to give, my parents taught me the value of volunteerism and the importance of giving back to our community,” she says. “I’ve held on to that value throughout my life, and shared it with my own children. I like to think that my grandchildren will pass on the legacy of service for generations to come.”

For other women, it’s the environments in which they were raised that inspire their work. Women such as Ann Alvarez, president and CEO of Casa Central, and Lanetta Haynes Turner, executive director of CASA of Cook County, have dedicated their lives to giving back to communities that helped them. Ms. Alvarez leads one of the largest social service agencies in the Midwest serving primarily Hispanics. “As a society, we have a responsibility to care for the least fortunate of us,” she says. “My personal mission is to facilitate care and offer hope to those in need. Acting together, we create solutions which change lives and transform the world.”

Ms. Haynes Turner, an attorney who grew up in foster care, now works to help children in that system. “Women in general are taught to be the caregivers and philanthropy naturally fits into what we’re ‘supposed’ to do,” she theorizes. “Philanthropy doesn’t frustrate us because we realize that though we may never solve the problem, we are helping people.”


About Lisa Dietlin

Lisa Dietlin is president/CEO of Lisa M. Dietlin and Associates, Inc. Ms. Dietlin serves her clients as a philanthropic agent, assisting entrepreneurial individuals and non-profit organizations in developing transformational philanthropic strategies. Ms. Dietlin is a much sought after guest for many television and radio programs. Ms. Dietlin is the author of two books, Transformational Philanthropy: Entrepreneurs and Nonprofits and Making A Difference: 365 Tips, Ideas and Stories to Change Your World.