Giving more than money: How women are changing philanthropy

Charitable giving

By embracing ‘philanthropist’ as a key part of their identity, women can not only redefine who people see as generous but can also push the conversation about what it means to be philanthropic.


Many women are philanthropists at heart—often giving their time, talents and resources to support the causes they care about. But the image of what a philanthropist looks like is ripe for transformation, with women gaining financial power and possessing giving habits that are more generous than those of their male peers.

“In a decade, the baby boomers are going to be in their retirement years, and many of them have more wealth than they’ll need to fund their lifestyles,” says Angie O’Leary, head of Wealth Planning at RBC Wealth Management–U.S. “This generation of women will have an unprecedented opportunity to make a long-term and substantive charitable impact.”

Women across income levels, race, ethnicities, and generations are more likely to give—and give more—according to research conducted by the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at IUPUI. The growing financial power of women presents an opportunity to harness the power in showing up and effecting change, says Jeannie Sager, the institute’s director.

“Giving for most people, men included, is a means by which to articulate your values, but it’s almost even more so for women, because so much of their giving is based on empathy for others and understanding outcomes,” Sager says. “[Historically], women haven’t been super public about their giving, and in some ways, it had a lot to do with their relationship with money.”

A plan for giving with focus and impact

Charitable giving is part of the wealth planning process at RBC Wealth Management–U.S., including the financial goals clients set, O’Leary says. “In the past, people would ‘sprinkle’ donations among multiple charities from their checking accounts, but the trend now, especially for women with wealth, is shifting toward making a larger impact,” she adds. “Planning focuses on the causes that are really important to clients and helping them understand where they can make the biggest impact.”

In addition to specifically directing their money to certain programs or branches of charitable organizations, those who give large gifts can request metrics so they can hold those groups accountable and see how their donations help bring change, O’Leary says.

Women seldom have to be encouraged to discuss their plans for charitable giving, says Liz Jacovino, a wealth strategist with RBC Wealth Management–U.S. Jacovino works with financial advisors to develop appropriate wealth management solutions for clients in charitable giving, as well as estate planning, retirement planning and wealth transfer.

“Many times, when people are beginning their philanthropic life, they’re more reactionary,” Jacovino says. “They’d like to donate, but they haven’t really thought too much about what they want that to look like.”

Jacovino says many women start by making smaller donations when they receive a charitable plea in the mail or participate in a fundraising event. RBC Wealth Management–U.S. works with clients to refine their plans for philanthropy. Conversations with clients help develop a giving effort focused on a small number of charities, rather than writing 20 checks for a smaller amount. “They see when they give with a plan how they can be more impactful,” she says.

Being a champion for charity

Some recent high-profile campaigns show the power women can wield in philanthropy. Dartmouth College, in Hanover, New Hampshire, for example, achieved its goal of getting 100 female alumni to give $1 million each to the school. And with the 50th anniversary of Title IX in 2022, women who once played college sports have donated millions to upgrade facilities and endow scholarships and coaching positions at their alma maters to give female athletes greater opportunities. Carol Roberts, former chief financial officer for International Paper, donated $4 million to help build a field house at Yale University, where she played field hockey and softball in the 1970s.

Jacovino says there are smaller ways that women can lead and step up for the causes closest to their hearts. “If you’re just somebody who invites people to your house, so your friends and work colleagues can hear about the wonderful work your charity is doing, you’re acting like a leader for that charity,” she says. “You don’t necessarily have to be on the board, but you’re putting yourself out there as a champion for the charities you feel are important.”

And women can do the same in building a legacy for philanthropy in their own families, Jacovino says. “There’s a way for these women to pass their values on to their family members,” she says. “A lot of times they’ll create a donor-advised fund that they then invite their children and their grandchildren to help them choose charities to receive donations.”

Helping women lean into their generosity

According to Sager, women aren’t always drawn to the more traditional image of philanthropy. But as more women give, it can help them reframe their identity and “lean into their generosity in a different way, because it’s not strictly about money,” Sager says. “It’s about talent and time and knowing your experience is important to informing systemic change.”

Joining a board is one way to step out from behind the scenes, but Sager says organizations seeking women for those roles need to make those opportunities accessible to women in “different seasons of life.”

“We ground ourselves in rules that really cater to working white men being able to be involved with nonprofit and for-profit boards,” Sager says. “What I think is going to be an enduring change that comes out of the pandemic is this idea that we can create space and do work virtually, which opens up greater access.”

Several years ago, O’Leary joined the board for Wayside Recovery Center, a treatment center for women and their families recovering from substance abuse, a cause she is passionate about. “I thought it was going to be an impossibility for me to even attend some of the meetings,” she says. “But with the support of RBC and some work flexibility, it has enabled me to be fully engaged. It’s been life changing.”

The growing power of women’s philanthropy

Even if they don’t make a public display of giving, women are beginning to see their wealth as a conduit for change. Twice as many younger high-net-worth women in the U.S. cite the ability to create change through charitable giving as a top definition of wealth, according to a survey by the Economist Intelligence Unit commissioned by RBC Wealth Management.

And women often give together, Sager says, citing the proliferation of giving circles and giving networks for women in the U.S. and around the world. The top three causes that women-dominant giving circles support are human services, women and girls, and education, according to research by the New York Women’s Foundation.

“Our research shows that women are increasingly stepping out from the shadows to claim their positions as influencers and leaders willing to be named and recognized for their giving,” says Sager. “By embracing ‘philanthropist’ as a key part of their identity, women can not only redefine who people see as generous but can also push the conversation about what it means to be philanthropic.”

< Return to Women and wealth

Originally written by Mpls.St.Paul Magazine in collaboration with RBC Wealth Management.

RBC Wealth Management, a division of RBC Capital Markets, LLC, registered investment adviser and Member NYSE/FINRA/SIPC.

Let’s connect

We want to talk about your financial future.

Related articles

How charitable donors can help alleviate student debt

Charitable giving 8 minute read
- How charitable donors can help alleviate student debt

Leaving a charitable legacy with donor-advised funds

Charitable giving 5 minute read
- Leaving a charitable legacy with donor-advised funds

Making an impact: How to put your charity dollars to work

Charitable giving 7 minute read
- Making an impact: How to put your charity dollars to work