Have we truly harnessed women’s potential in the philanthropic sector?

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women's potential philanthropic sector

In 2017, following the activist sentiments of March 8th, a day that celebrated the economic, political and social accomplishments of women, PhiLab Quebec published their article “What role do women have in the grantmaking philanthropy sector of Canada and Quebec?”. Given the theme of this year’s December special edition, “Feminist Philanthropy”, the time has come to update the article, specifically by presenting information on the evolution of the number of great women donors, their interests, and their impact and on the philanthropic sector. women’s potential philanthropic sector

More female players at the philanthropists’ table

Traditionally, women have always been at the heart of poverty relief, family support, and all other activities related to the household (Cohen, 2010). Movements in favour of economic and social equality, along with the significant changes in the roles of men and women have allowed for the latter to become more involved in the philanthropic sector (Dale et al., 2015), while also becoming more active professionally. These changes, combined with higher education, were game-changers. Thanks to their professional activities, women are now just as likely as men to be philanthropists. women’s potential philanthropic sector

Up until the early 20th century, men were legally the main donors. Throughout the past century, this reality has been transformed. If we focus on the current situation, according to Statistics Canada, between 2004 and 2011, the total average income for women in Canada had increased by 16%, compared to a 6% increase for men. The predictions from now until 2026 lean in the same direction, estimating that 48% of all the wealth in Canada will be controlled by women. TD bank justifies this accumulation of wealth by the improvement in income equality and the fact that women have a tendency to inherit twice: from their family, but also from their spouse or partners (TD report, 2014).

Whatever the source of their fortune may be (inheritance, marriage or self-made), women represent a strong financial force that must be taken into account in the philanthropic sector, especially as they consider money as a means to change the world for the better (Shaw et Taylor, 1992). A study made in 2015 by the Women’s Philanthropy Institute (WPI) of the University of Indiana, shows that the inclination to donate is higher in women than in men among Millenials, seniors and singles. It also demonstrates how, when a woman’s income increases, she is more inclined to make a donation than a man in a similar situation. If this is all being confirmed in the United States, does the same apply in Canada and in Quebec?

In 2012, it was estimated that Canadian women gave 3.3 billion dollars to charity, compared to 1.1 billion in 2002 (Rapport TD, 2014).  This represents an increase in the average annual donation from 803$ in 2002 to 1 156$ in 2012. Otherwise, the Canadian Revenu Agency estimates that between 300 000 and 350 000 Canadian women have the financial capacity to make a major donation of 10 000$ or more to charity. In Quebec, according to recent surveys by Institut Mallet (2018; 2019), men and women have given equal amounts of time to causes in 2018 and while men gave more money than women (244$ against 155$), the latter have been giving more and more money and goods for a good three decades now.

The great fortunes: Only Melinda Gates and Priscilla Chan?

While Melinda Gates and Priscilla Chan are currently the most well-known female philanthropic figures, they are not the only ones. On the 2019 Forbes list of billionaires, there were 244 women out of a total of 2153 entries. Although this number remains relatively low, it is still a record high, with a collective value of over a trillion dollars. This list mostly includes women who inherited from or are married to wealthy men. However, a third category is starting to gain ground, notwithstanding a small decrease in 2019: self-made women philanthropists. This increase is to be taken seriously as this means that a larger number of women will take on the role of key philanthropic decision-makers: not to mention that within Forbes’ list, 80% of the American women have already created their own foundations. 

women's potential philanthropic sector

Source: Forbes 2019

In Africa, Asia and India, philanthropy stemming from women is emerging. Out of the 56 women mentioned by Forbes, 29 are from Pacific-Asia (China, Hong Kong, Vietnam and Japan). Let us take the example of Mrs. Zhonghui You. She is the founder of the educational software company Shenzhen Seaskyland Technologies, and a recent addition to the list of billionaires involved in the “Giving Pledge”, an initiative by Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet. This initiative encourages the more fortunate to dedicate more than half of their fortunes to philanthropic ends.

However, as Al-Saqqar (2016) laments for Women 4 Change, some women still don’t seem to grasp what the vocation of a professional philanthropist implies. This can partially be explained by the fact that, historically, women were mainly confined to fundraising roles.

The race for gender equality

The conclusions of three reports, the Women Give 2010 Causes Women Support (Women’s Philanthropy Institute, 2010), l’Étude sur les tendances en philanthropie au Québec en 2020 (Épisode, 2020) and La philanthropie au féminin (Institut Mallet) reinforce the general idea that gender plays an important role in philanthropy. The results show that women and men are involved in the community, without necessarily being sensitive to the same causes or prefering the same donation methods. In comparison to men, women seem to act more in line with their social capital such as their education, community and religious beliefs (Einolf, 2011 ; T.D. Report, 2014). Donations by women (amounts and causes supported) are less often subjected to the social norm established by their network than those of men, who refer to it more when determining their philanthropic practices (Meier, 2007). Women also see their participation in charities and donations as a means of gaining autonomy through the democratic decision-making process (Cox et Deck, 2006 ; T.D. Report, 2014 ; WPI, 2016). In their 2016 study, WPI highlighted that respondents were more likely to give to causes related to women and girls, such as: domestic violence; homosexual, bisexual and transgender rights; cancer research, diagnosis and support (of the breast, ovaries, etc.); and economic opportunities for women and girls. These trends are similar for donations made by Canadian women (Statistics Canada, 2012). 

In 2019, the Government of Canada announced the creation of the Equality Fund, a fund dedicated to better supporting Canadian and international organizations that intervene on women’s issues. The partners are varied (NGOs, philanthropic foundations, banks, venture capital managers). The fund puts forth varied partnerships and innovative financial models in order to mobilize funding from donor organizations, the philanthropic community, as well as investors. It’s objective is to fructify the 300 million $ starting amount from Global Affairs Canada, as well as collect 1 billion dollars within the next fifteen years to put towards favouring gender equality in Canada and abroad. This promising initiative is one to keep an eye on, as it combines different issues: women’s causes on the Canadian and international scales, as well as the role of private philanthropy regarding questions and issues of development. women’s potential philanthropic sector


Considering the growing financial power of women (Shaw et Taylor, 1995 and 2016), it goes without saying that their integration into the philanthropic sector is a significant issue. Their numbers will continue to grow and they will mobilize more and more financial resources. The female models of great philanthropic fortunes will also play a major influential role. In addition, their motivations and values are more in line with the philanthropic culture: women are more likely to consider money as a means of changing society for the better. These are interesting predictions for the philanthropic sector, on the condition that we first break away from the generic donor engagement profile, established by and for men, and secondly, focus more on research on women’s donations, as it remains overall behind compared to the current reality and practices around the world. women’s potential philanthropic sector

Translation by: Katherine Mac Donald

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