Part 2: A Reflection on Feminist Philanthropy

Par Manuel Litalien , Directeur Hub Ontario
28 janvier 2020

Feminist PhilanthropyThis is the second half of the editorial for PhiLab’s Feminist Philanthropy special edition.

Read the first part here.

The second portion of this editorial is an effort to further understand what constitutes feminist philanthropy (FP). One of my observations is that the historical roots of feminist philanthropy are not clearly defined nor identified. Typically, for example, the literature recognizes five forms of feminist interaction with development. Each has been associated with specific historical moments, as well as different areas of focus (welfare, equity, antipoverty, efficiency, empowerment, dependency, global capitalism, patriarchy, racism, rights, politics, representation, local knowledge, discourses, gendered knowledge, etc.). They are Women in Development (WID), Women and Development (WAD), Gender and Development (GAD), Women, Environment, and Development (WED), Postmodernism and Development (PAD). It is worth asking if a similar trend can be found for feminist philanthropy. For example, can these distinctions be applied to better understanding the development of feminist philanthropy in Canada, and abroad? The terminology would then somewhat mirror the ones listed above: Women and Philanthropy (WAP), Women in Philanthropy (WIP), Gender in Philanthropy (GIP) or Gender and Philanthropy (GAP). Overall, however, FP by essence fights entrenched gender-based injustice and social inequalities across time and location.

As was put forth by Lorinc in the Philanthropist (2019), the world of philanthropy has, without a doubt, a “transformational nature”, and has many tools at its disposal, whereby FP is understood as being one of its arsenals, one that is changing a sector that was previously dominated by male philanthropists. Alternatively, as written by Bosch and Bofu-Tawamba (2019), FP has now proven itself to be an object of study in its own right, and cannot be reduced to a simple tool in the philanthropic ecosystem.[1] Like the fields of gender and the welfare state, FP stands on its own as a rich evolving area of study, with specific sets of variables and variations across nations, provinces, local communities, political systems, spheres of inequalities, age, employment, and number of children.[2] FP is here to stay and is colouring the philanthropic landscape. It is certainly not just a trend, as it was once believed to be (Shaw-Hardy & Taylor 2010).

Although focused on the United States, the article published online by Forbes, “The Rise of Female Philanthropists”, gives a glimpse into the future philanthropic ecosystem of America, and the world, as women are continuously changing the sector in novel ways (Chiu 2018), namely, the near-parity between men and women at the Forbes Philanthropic Forum in 2018. She noted the growth of women’s private wealth from $34 trillion to $51 trillion between 2010 to 2015, “a 50% growth” in just five years. According to Forbes, the number of women billionaires globally is increasing, along with the fact that the future inheritance of the majority of private wealth “in the coming decades is likely to go to women.” In this environment, women are changing the acts of helping and donating, as they are more likely to engage in “prosocial behaviour,” when compared to men’s own voluntary behaviour. They give “almost twice as much of their wealth away as men (3.5% vs. 1.8%)” (Chiu 2018). Consequently, the funding of projects, as well as the number of projects to help women and girls are on the rise. Additionally, the future of women’s philanthropy, argues Chiu, is betting on three different ideas: 1) the sector may move “from an ego-system to an ecosystem;” 2) it is also capitalizing on the spirit of the SDG 5 (Gender Equality), where investing in women and girls will provide “one of the best social returns;” and 3) “philanthropy is not separate from investments.” That is, investments are not just for “financial returns, but for social or environmental goals” (Chiu 2018). The near future is predicted to be a “defining one for female philanthropists” (Chiu 2018). The author reports that the Women’s Collective Giving Network “now has 47 giving circles, with more than 10,000 women philanthropists.” FP is, therefore, well-positioned to advance women and girls for years to come.

In Canada, important national actors in FP include the Canadian Women’s Foundation, The Girls Action Foundation, The Equality Fund, Women’s Y Foundation, Catherine Donnelly Foundation, OXFAM, Girl Guides, and YWCA. It is, however, safe to argue that most foundations, regardless of their size, are committed to social actions, social justice, and capacity building in some form or other to advance the rights of marginalized and oppressed groups in society, which includes women. While these FP programs are active, FP progress is slow overall, as John Lorinc and Philanthropic Foundations Canada (PFC) argue that the non-profit sector is still dominated by men (Lorinc 2019; Glass 2019). Many charities, for example, have actually never had a female chair.

There is also a lack of coordination between all levels of government and the philanthropic sector concerning affordable housing and access to a judicial system, which directly impacts women’s and girls’ quality of life. John Lorinc argues that nearly two million Canadian women are low-income earners, and “34% of indigenous women and children” are living in poverty. According to PFC, in order to achieve gender equality in Canada, the following inequities should be addressed: “Women earn 28% less than men. Women are much more likely to live below the poverty line. Sexual assault is the only violent crime in Canada that is not declining” (PFC 2019).[3] The challenges at home are daunting, but not impossible. For example, the Gender Equality Network Canada (GENC), by the Canadian Women’s Foundation, works to “build national collaboration for action on systemic issues that affect women’s equality”.

Collaboration with the Government is also possible, as indicated by a $400 million initiative launched in June 2019 between the Equality Fund and Global Affairs Canada that looks at guaranteeing sustained funding for women’s organizations and movements in developing countries (Lorinc 2019). This initiative is in line with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of gender equality through women’s and girls’ empowerment. Lessons learned from women’s empowerment projects, however, as Françoise Girard discusses, include instrumentalist approaches to women’s empowerment that are to be avoided. Simply placing money entirely in the hands of women is not the solution, as funding needs to be long-term, and flexible because social change takes time. Creating and funding spaces for women to collaborate and identify core issues is key to building solidarity across diverse movements. In the United States, funding for grassroots organizations barely reaches 5% and women’s and girls’ groups receive only 1.6% of charitable giving. Women-led grassroots and advocacy organizations receive only a small portion of gender-equity grants.

Globally, women’s organizations’ median annual income is roughly USD $20,000 (Glass, 2019). The challenge is diverse on many fronts, as in 2019, the philanthropic context is marked by a decreased support of women’s rights organizations, according to Girard. Funding that allowed for more solidarity is in decline. In Canada, over the past 15 years, women’s movements have felt the funding cuts made by the government, and its impact on organizational capacity (Glass, 2019). Another part of the current problem is that the philanthropic community is more in favour of short-term funding that guarantees quick results, and easy measurable outcomes. Girard advocates reversing this trend in grantmaking agencies, as recommended by the Whitman Institute’s trust-based philanthropy model. It has delivered promising results in achieving women’s rights. Overall, time-bound project funding is counterproductive in fighting against gender inequality, and there is an alarming decrease in the number of broad-based groups advocating for gender equality.

At this point, a distinction should be made between the concept of charity and philanthropy. Although I am afraid the distinction between the two may be blurry at times. Philanthropy is essentially understood as a sister concept of charity, but they are not synonyms and should not be confused with each other (Sheffield 2011). According to Bedford (2019), “charity has been seen as something you do for and to others, while philanthropy can be understood as something you do with and by others.” The former is believed to be a more short-term and immediate response to rescue and relief, while the latter may be understood as long-term, focused on planning, rebuilding, and the interconnectedness of the problems, according to Steve Gunderson from the Council on Foundations.[4] In theory, not all charities are considered philanthropic organizations or vice versa, but they do overlap. Although this is an ongoing debate, the Canadian Revenue Agency has very specific designations for registered charities, which fall into three categories: charitable organizations, public foundations, and private foundations.[5] The ambiguity between the two concepts may persist within this legal framework. For example, the Canadian Women’s Foundation is identified by the CRA as a charity. Simply put, all foundations are registered as charities in Canada.[6] Therefore, feminist philanthropist foundations and feminist philanthropist charities are hereby legally the same in Canada. Both organizations are engaged with power relations and are understood as carrying out acts of power built on solidarity, which are aimed at the emancipation of individuals (Bosch & Bofu-Tawamba citing Fondo Centroamericano de Mujeres).[7] In a Canadian context, a “charitable act” is equally political. For example, Canadian charitable organizations focusing on women are changemakers, such as Women Shelters Canada or the Native Women’s Association of Canada. They should be equally regarded as feminist philanthropists, as they both address power structures that enable and sustain gender inequalities.

Providing an accurate description of FP is not an easy task, as it covers a wide variety of topics, variables, projects, opinions, social networks, legislation, and research. Nonetheless, while philanthropic activities change over time, what remains constant is the sense of urgency to create a space that further supports women’s solidarity and empowerment. In Diane Alalouf-Halls’ blog post (2017), she reminds us that Canadian women possess close to half of the country’s estate, as is the case in the United States. Indeed, in the decade 2012-2022, Canadian women (wives or daughters) are predicted to inherit 600 billion dollars.[8] Women also continue to create their own wealth and establish their own foundations. FP is thus a force that stands against patriarchal institutions and is working for equality between sexes across political, economic, personal, and social spheres (Bedford 2019). Here, maintaining a commitment to uphold a complimentary, and cooperative position is crucial for feminist philanthropic organizations, as the world of Canadian philanthropy is moving forward, changing, adapting to new demands and becoming more crowded.

FP made history in the summer of 2012 when the Canadian Women’s Foundation received a $14 million legacy gift from Ann Southam, a music composer and an Order of Canada member. At the time, this was reported to be the largest, “single donation a Canadian women’s organization ever received from an individual.”[9] This led to the creation of the Ann Southam Empowerment Fund, contributing to its foundation as a permanent actor in the Canadian philanthropic ecosystem, and a boost to the foundation’s programs, such as its Girls’ Fund Network.[10] The Foundation is identified by Canada as one of the largest women’s foundations in the world and holds a record of funding 1,900 programs across Canada.[11] Moreover, the $15 million donation from Concordia University Alumna Gina Cody to its engineering faculty, now named the Gina Cody School of Engineering and Computer Science, the country’s first engineering faculty to be named after a woman, cannot be regarded as a donation that would produce only a marginal impact on Concordia’s community.[12] As it stands, Cody’s donation is the largest personal donation in the history of the University. The objective is to break gender barriers and create equity, diversity and inclusion by inspiring the future generations of women’s engineering. These examples prove that Canadian women philanthropists are social entrepreneurs, as they give time and money to the advancement of a social cause.

Furthermore, in June 2019, the Canadian government signalled that it would work with Equality Fund members[13] to establish new partnerships. [14] It seeks to mobilize the “philanthropic community, community investing, the private sector, and civil society in partnerships to support women’s movements and organizations at home and abroad[15] through the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.[16]

In conclusion, the future of philanthropy is female, as 73% of donors worldwide are women.[17] FP typically stands alongside the people whom they seek to help and moves away from a top-down approach to giving. It confronts power dynamics head-on and closely monitors the gender impacts of its initiatives. FP is about solidarity and collective responsibility against gender inequality.[18] Let me end this editorial on the optimistic words of Kristen Corning Bedford: “Philanthropy was never meant to be an elite activity. It is an opportunity for all of us to connect to the deepest part of our legacies” and promote welfare for everyone (2019). Hence, if “we are the system”, it is up to us to change it, and make this a better world. Feminist philanthropy is addressing the challenges and issues arising from ongoing social transitions in our societies, whether they are developed or developing, urban or rural. It observes a “horizontal model of social relations to improve the well-being of women and their communities.”[19] Overall, philanthropy, and therefore FP, is contributing to building new narratives, culture, and practices based on common space and a shared vision of the future of humanity (Fontan, Elson & Lefèvre 2017). Like the idea of “democracy”, “progress” or “development,” FP, together with its goal of gender equality, will be here to stay so long as we continue working on it. Applying a gender-lens to the granting cycle, as proposed by PFC, is but one promising way to achieve and maintain equity across the sector (Glass, 2019).

Read the first part of the editorial here

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Notes de bas de page



[2] For an overview of these variables, see the monthly Philab Bulletin titled “Women’s Philanthropic Engagement”, produce by David Grant-Poitras (March 2017).

[3] PFC continues by adding the following: “Half of all women in Canada have experienced at least one incident of physical or sexual violence since the age of 16. As Canadian girls approach adolescence, they experience a sharp decline in mental health and confidence as well as many forms of violence and negative stereotyping” (PFC 2019).










[13] The list of Equality Fund members are: MATCH International Women’s Fund, African Women’s Development Fund, Toronto Foundation, Royal Bank of Canada, Philanthropy Advancing Women’s Rights (PAWHR), Community Foundations Canada, Canadian Women’s Foundation, Calvert Impact Capital, World University Service Canada, Oxfam Canada, and Yaletown Partners.