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Less than 2% of philanthropic giving goes to women and girls. Can Melinda French Gates change that?

By THALIA BEATY, Associated Press
Published: June 2, 2024, 6:05am

Melinda French Gates ‘ has a long history of supporting the women’s movement, but it’s her new eye-popping funding commitments that could finally change women’s groups’ long-running lament that less than 2% of philanthropic giving in the United States directly benefits women and girls.

That 2% ceiling could be broken thanks to French Gates’ $1 billion commitment announced Tuesday and the momentum generated if others join her, said Jacqueline Ackerman, interim director of the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. The institute has researched giving to women and girls since 2019 and found that while the overall amount has increased over the years, it’s never exceeded 2% of overall charitable dollars. In 2020, the most recent year of WPI’s analysis, women and girls received $8.8 billion out of a total $471.4 billion given to charities overall.

“One donor does have the potential to make a difference,” Ackerman said. “But for that to be sustained long term, for that to change the numbers for more than just 1 or 2 years, you really do have to inspire others and be part of a movement.

French Gates has been a philanthropist for decades, as a co-founder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation twenty years ago and then, with the organization she founded in 2015, Pivotal Ventures. Ackerman said her philanthropy follows many trends of the way women give in that they are more likely to use all of their resources, including philanthropic giving, building a strong network, advocating for the causes they care about publicly, and, in French Gates’ case, for-profit investments.

“Melinda French Gates has used tools like collaborative giving in the past, has used her voice and her network, and her platform to advocate for women and girls,” Ackerman said. “And so, there’s every indication that she knows this and that she does intend to use her platform to spur more giving by others.”

Earlier this month, French Gates announced she would leave the Gates Foundation and as part of that departure, received $12 billion from Bill Gates, the billionaire co-founder of Microsoft and her ex-husband, for her philanthropy going forward.

The Associated Press receives financial support for news coverage in Africa from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and for news coverage of women in the workforce and state governments from Pivotal Ventures. The Gates Foundation also provides funding to the Women’s Philanthropy Institute.

French Gates’ latest pledge to spend $1 billion by the end of 2026 builds on previous major commitments and now years of funding organizations who work across a range of issues related to women and girls. French Gates has funded the organization Crystal Echo Hawk founded, IllumiNative, which supports the power of Native Americans through movement building and research.

Earlier this month, Echo Hawk said she received an email directly from French Gates asking her to be one of 12 people who receive $20 million and donate it however they choose.

As part of that, Echo Hawk will have the support of the National Philanthropic Trust, who will hold and disperse the funds, to research the landscape of opportunities to support Native women and girls. She sees that research as one of the critical and important outcomes of French Gates’ commitment, in addition to the direct financial support to her community.

“This is just such an important learning opportunity,” Echo Hawk said.. “It’s not just about money. It’s about building partnerships and understanding.”

French Gates has experience collaborating with other donors as she did in 2020 in a competition that gave away $40 million to four organizations to accelerate progress toward gender equality in the United States. That funding was pooled from author and billionaire MacKenzie Scott and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. She also committed more than $5 million to a matching program run by the organization, Women Moving Millions, to encourage its members to, again, give to advance women’s power and influence.

“What is different is the size of actually the amount of resources she’s talking about moving,” said Sarah Haacke Byrd, CEO of Women Moving Millions. She pointed to the small percentage of funding that goes towards women’s and girls as hampering the ability of organizations and the movement to respond quickly and to enact long term strategies.

Grantee organizations declined to disclose the size of the grants they received from French Gates. But across fields, from the National Domestic Workers Alliance to the Ms. Foundation for Women, the grantees described the funding as coming at a moment of great threat to the rights and power of women, but also, when activism, momentum and awareness for their movement is surging.

“In our fight to protect free and fair elections, we’re up against a well-funded, well-coordinated, anti-democracy machine that’s spewing disinformation and running dangerous candidates for office,” said Joanna Lydgate, co-founder and CEO of the States United Democracy Center, another recipient of new funding from Pivotal Ventures.

Ai-jen Poo president, National Domestic Workers Alliance, said she thinks it will be her generation that ushers in a new social safety net that provides paid leave to allow workers to take care of family members, creates affordable child care and pays domestic workers living wages. She sees French Gates’ commitment as a call to action and an inspiration for others to follow.

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“I would not be surprised, in fact I expect to see many, many more women come forward and in whatever capacity they have, rise to this moment courageously,” she said.

Associated Press coverage of philanthropy and nonprofits receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content. For all of AP’s philanthropy coverage, visit https://apnews.com/hub/philanthropy.