Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Philanthropy, Feminism and the Ford Foundation

A month or so ago I mentioned meeting a wonderful young woman who was writing her thesis on "Philanthropy as an Expression of Feminism" for Hood College in Maryland.  Yesterday I heard from Betsy Diehl that her thesis had not only been accepted but she had received an A from her graduate school committee.  I asked Betsy to write a summary of her thesis and I am proud to include it in this blog.  Should you want to contact Betsy directly, her email address is and I know she would be delighted to share the entire thesis with you.  It is a very different twist on women and philanthropy and quite frankly, one I had never considered.  I'm sure you will find it extremely interesting as well.
From Betsy:
"My research arose from what I have observed over the years as a professional college fundraiser – the fact that some people, particularly women, do not give simply because they do not consider themselves to be philanthropists. I began to suspect that people who felt this way were basing their views on a stereotypical image of philanthropy that has persisted since the days of Andrew Carnegie and John Rockefeller; i.e., that philanthropy is a masculine pursuit associated with power, money and ego. For those who identify with feminist values, such an interpretation renders philanthropy to be problematic. As a result, those who might otherwise be involved in efforts towards social reform and community uplift choose not to participate in what they perceive to be an oppressive, power-based practice.

Through extensive research, however, I discovered a provocative truth: that philanthropy and feminism are not only aligned, but that philanthropy, in its purest form, may in fact be considered a powerful expression of feminism.

To come to this revelation, I eradicated the stereotypes and whittled down philanthropy and feminism to their cores. In doing so, three key congruent features were revealed. First is the shared desire for social reform. In addition, both recognize the need to challenge and change the existing system in order to fix problems. Finally, there is the overarching requirement of inclusive collaboration between those who are involved in the funding, designing and implementing social reform activities along with those who are directly affected by those efforts.

To test this thesis, I conducted a case study of one of the largest philanthropic foundations in the world, the Ford Foundation. This study reveals some significant, and perhaps surprising, truths about using philanthropy to promote feminist objectives. While the Ford Foundation since its inception has been committed to upholding “democratic” values, it has, probably unintentionally, gravitated towards a feminist approach to fulfilling its mission, particularly since the 1970s.

This paper illuminates the fact that understanding philanthropy as a vehicle for expressing feminist objectives has important implications. First, fundraisers may have greater success attracting female donors to their causes if women are comfortable identifying with philanthropy. Additionally, women may have increased opportunities to exercise greater influence on the areas of society that are touched and shaped by philanthropy. Finally, viewing philanthropy as a means to achieve feminist objectives is likely to resonate with the next generation who seek to “be part of something” in order to make a difference in society and the world a better place for all."

Betsy Diehl
Director of Annual Giving
Hood College
Frederick, MD 

1 comment:

  1. I love Betsy's premise! I've already emailed her requesting a copy of her paper, because I too am writing my master's thesis about feminism and philanthropy. Mine, however, is focused on generational leadership transitions and whether the generally accepted differences between second and third wave feminists will have any measurable effect on the work of women's funds, specifically those which were started by second wave women with explicitly feminist ideals. My project does not include original research, so I have been relying heavily on your scholarship, Sondra. (By the way Sondra, I was honored to meet you briefly at WFN11 a couple of weeks ago, at the lunch table on Friday. I mentioned to you then that I had just bought your new book on my kindle. Suffice it to say, I've already devoured it!)
    Thank you to you both, not only for your work but for your intellectual curiosity about women's philanthropy, which has inspired my own research and exploration.
    Carolynn L. Sween
    Waterloo, Iowa