Philanthropy knows no gender, but historically, it has been the male-dominated titans of industry and their subsequent accumulation of family wealth over generations that has meant it is mostly the men of great charity whose names the history books record. The first and second industrial revolutions spawned the Rockefellers, Morgans, Venderbilts and Girards. Perhaps most famous, is Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish-American steel baron, who gave away more than $350 million during the latter part of his life in the early 20th century. In today’s dollars, that equates to nearly $6.5 billion.
But, given the topic of this month’s issue of Polo Lifestyles, we are focusing on women in philanthropy. Despite great struggle, there has thankfully been a growth in women’s equality over the 20th century. Many women now rank among the wealthiest and most charitable individuals in the world.
However, before we get into that, some additional context may be helpful. Philanthropy itself was set on its head when, in 1889, Carnegie authored the essay “Gospel of Wealth.” In it, Carnegie laid out his vision for how those self-made rich, might “responsibly” have their surplus wealth administered for the betterment of addressing wealth inequality, which had exploded under the transformation of society by the industrial revolutions. Of course, in sharing his views, Carnegie hoped his vision might be adopted by his peers. It was, and contemporary philanthropy came into being.
Today a new generation of philanthropists are seeking to make their mark on the world and in not too dissimilar a fashion as the generation that proceeded them. Only this time, women are at the forefront.
The modern-day equivalent of the “Gospel of Wealth” is “The Giving Pledge.” Launched in 2010 by Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet, The Giving Pledge requests commitments from the world’s billionaires (or would-be billionaires if it were not for significant philanthropic investments) to philanthropically give away the majority of their wealth. Like Carnegie several generations before, The Giving Pledge is a clarion call among the ultra-wealthy to adhere to, in the words of the organization itself, “a new standard of generosity.” Today, more than 204 of the world’s wealthiest families representing 23 countries have signed the pledge.
Among the many women who’ve signed the pledge is MacKenzie Bezos, who with her now ex-husband Jeff Bezos, shepherded Amazon from its beginnings into the world’s largest retailer. Bezos is now reportedly the third wealthiest woman in the world with an estimated fortune of $36 billion. Signing onto the pledge in May of this year, Bezos’ words on why she is giving are clear. “We each come by the gifts we have to offer by an infinite series of influences and lucky breaks we can never fully understand. In addition to whatever assets life has nurtured in me, I have a disproportionate amount of money to share...And I will keep at it until the safe is empty.” Though not yet fully defined, Bezos said her philanthropy will focus on the need to “help address society’s most pressing problems.” Another signer of the Giving Pledge is Dame Ann Gloag DBE, a Scottish-born entrepreneur who started the transportation-related Stagecoach Group in 1980 with her brother. Considered one of the UK’s leading businesswomen and Scotland’s wealthiest woman with an estimated net worth in excess of ₤1 billion, Dame Ann Gloag’s philanthropy remains true to her early 20-year professional career as a nurse. She founded and supports the internationally focused NGO Freedom from Fistula Foundation, as well as numerous healthcare related organizations in Africa including the charity, Mercy Ships. The Gloag Foundation is established as a UK charitable trust and “supports projects that prevent or relieve poverty and encourage the advancement of education, health, and religion in the UK and overseas.” Indian billionaire Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw signed The Giving Pledge in 2015 with her estimated $3.2 billion in wealth as founder and chairperson of the bio-pharmaceutical company Biocon. Through both the corporate responsibility arm of Biocon and through the Mazumdar-Shaw Medical Foundation, both of which she established, her philanthropy has been focused on supporting access to affordable and high-quality healthcare for those in the developing world. “I was brought up by my parents to believe that wealth creation is about making a difference in society,” said Mazumdar-Shaw about her commitment to the Giving Pledge. CEO and founder of the U.S.-based medical records software company, Epic, Judy Faulkner, was named 4th on the Forbes’ list of “America’s Most Successful Women Entrepreneurs” in 2019. Signing the Giving Pledge in 2015 and having an estimated worth of $3.9 billion, Faulkner has promised to give away 99% of her assets to philanthropy for what she calls “roots and wings.” “My goal…is to help others with roots – food, warmth, shelter, healthcare, education – so they too can have wings.” Of course, those women who’ve signed The Giving Pledge aren’t the only ones engaged in philanthropy, but signing the pledge provides a network of support (provided by staff at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) and collegiality among like-minded peers to bring that philanthropy to fruition. For certain, it is a work in progress, and the June 2019 issue of The Chronicle of Philanthropy casts much skepticism that the Giving Pledge has had much of an impact on actual giving. One prominent figure who was present at the meeting where the Giving Pledge was created but has not yet signed it, is Oprah Winfrey. With an estimated wealth of $2.6 billion in 2019, Winfrey’s philanthropic energies are well documented. In 1998, she launched Oprah’s Angel Network, and by 2010, the organization had raised and eventually given away more than $80 million; with at least $10 million from Winfrey herself. The Oprah Winfrey Charitable Foundation, established in 2011, has taken over much of the Angel Network’s activity and added to it. Nearly $240 million in assets are endowed at Oprah’s Charitable Foundation. What all these philanthropic leaders have in common is not just a sense of altruism, but a desire to model for others the need to give back. Creating a culture of philanthropy is what remains paramount, and many other examples of this culture thrive. For example, there are also “women’s foundations” long established in many geographies to help build a culture of female-focused philanthropy. The Global Fund for Women, founded in 1987, including one of my dear friends and long-time mentors Frances Kissling, has become an international focal point for philanthropy that supports human rights for all women and girls. In 2018, they directly provided 302 grants to over 70 countries worth nearly $8 million. Through a partnership with two other foundations, another ₤42 million was provided through 212 grants to 35 countries. Many more such examples exist in more local geographies. In the U.S., for example, according to research from GuideStar, women’s foundations exist in 44 states and the District of Columbia. Hundreds of women’s “giving circles” – where women contribute a fixed amount per member and conduct grantmaking together – also exist within community foundations across the globe The power of women in philanthropy is strong and only growing. So too do the needs in our communities and indeed, across the globe. There is cause in giving back and diving in for every philanthropist. As philanthropist Lynn Schusterman reflected in her statement on why she decided to join The Giving Pledge, and in referencing the Jewish sage, Hillel, “If I am not for myself, who is for me? If I care only for myself, what am I? If not now, when.”