Women are Increasingly Powerful Philanthropists. But How Can They be Most Effective?

Women are transforming the philanthropic landscape. New data reveals that women now control 30% of the world’s wealth—up from 25% just five years ago. And as their wealth rises, they are giving away more of their money across all sectors including in the political arena. According to our research at the Women’s Philanthropy Institute, women are both more likely to donate to charity and more likely to give more of their income.

This begs the question: as women become increasingly powerful philanthropists, how can they be most effective in their philanthropy?

To start, one ought to examine the motivations underlying women’s giving. For while donating to charity is widely considered to be an act of altruism and generosity, men and women take quite different approaches to their philanthropy.

Men, on the one hand, tend to give larger amounts of money to fewer organizations. They are more inclined to donate when they see a direct benefit for themselves. Consider the names emblazoned on our hospitals, our libraries and university centers, and our museums – they’re often men.

Women, on the other hand, tend to be more empathetic and altruistic in their motivations to give. They spread out their philanthropy across causes, organizations and demographics. Women give less weight to earning “credit” for their acts of generosity, choosing instead to give based on personal experiences, both positive and negative.

Could it be that women – by not being “selfish” enough with their philanthropy – are actually dampening their impact?

Being “selfish” in a philanthropic context doesn’t mean hoarding one’s wealth or thinking only about oneself. It means narrowing the focus of your charitable giving so that it aligns with your passions. It means greater concentration and intentionality, bigger bets to fewer organizations.

In this way, women should be more selfish with their giving. Just as Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg urged women to “lean in” to advance professionally, women should “lean in” to their philanthropy. Doing so is not only good for the individual donor; it is beneficial for the organization receiving money, the cause the woman cares about, and the so-called return on one’s philanthropic investment.

Fortunately, many women and organizations are paving the way for this type of “selfish” giving. Take Barbra Streisand. Not only did she give $10 million to create the Cedars-Sinai Barbra Streisand Women’s Heart Center, but she became an advocate for heart health, enlisting support from many in her network, including Michael Bloomberg who gave a $1 million gift, to accelerate change and increase her impact.

This type of “selfishness” is not limited to society’s most powerful women or million dollar gifts; it extends equally to how and where women give. By treating their giving more like a financial investment and less like a charitable donation, women are more likely to support organizations that have the capacity to effect positive change. It increases the chances that women will rally their friends and networks to the cause, too. Research shows that the more involved women are with an organization — volunteering time or serving on the board, for example — the deeper their engagement is and the more money they tend to give over time.

Acting “selfishly” can be a communal effort, too. Women tend to be more collaborative in their philanthropy and participate in networks like women’s funds to gain connection, share knowledge, and increase impact. As Tiffany Dufu recently wrote, when women give to organizations that help women – whether through sponsoring STEM programs or mentoring girls from disadvantaged backgrounds – they offer a hand up to other women, in addition to supporting causes that are close to their hearts. It’s a case of the sum of the parts being greater than the whole.

As women continue to garner financial, political, and philanthropic clout, it is more important than ever that they align their charitable giving with their personal interests. Women may derive more joy from their giving when they are more intentional, deliberate, and strategic in their philanthropic decisions.

Ultimately, giving can be just as empowering for the benefactor as it is for the beneficiary. Being generous and being selfish do not have to be mutually exclusive.

In fact, they may be complementary.   

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