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Australian women play a significant role in philanthropic decisions


12 June 2021 at 8:00 am
Nikki Stefanoff
A new report suggests it’s time to change the traditional view around what makes a philanthropist and who holds the purse strings. Clue: it’s not always the men.


Nikki Stefanoff | 12 June 2021 at 8:00 am


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Australian women play a significant role in philanthropic decisions
12 June 2021 at 8:00 am

A new report suggests it’s time to change the traditional view around what makes a philanthropist and who holds the purse strings. Clue: it’s not always the men.

When Kim Downes started her career as a fundraiser 32 years ago, she was taught to approach the man of the house because they were the decision-maker and the breadwinner.

Things are a little different these days, but the experience led Downes to research the role and influence of Australian women in philanthropy.

In her role as a philanthropy and fundraising strategist, Downes has spent the past 12 months independently researching the role and influence of Australian women in philanthropy. 

The inspiration for this research, to be released in July in partnership with JBWere, came from an “engaging women as donors” course she attended at the Indiana School of Philanthropy.

Downes told Pro Bono News the course was fascinating and blew all preconceived psychology behind fundraising out of the water. 

“In fundraising, we’re taught practices, which mainly involve approaching the man of the house because he is the decision-maker and the breadwinner. But that’s no longer true, and we haven’t changed with the times,” she said. 

“Since the ‘80s women have taken over the workforce, we’re earning our own money and have the power to decide where that money goes.” 

Downes is quick to point out that even if you look at a household through a non-philanthropic lens, it’s the women who are making the decisions.  

“It’s women who are deciding what car to buy, what household appliances they want, what school the kids go to and what neighbourhood they want to live in,” she said.

“So why wouldn’t they be driving philanthropic decisions, too?” 

Her research backs up this point. It found 77 per cent of women indicated that they model or guide their families philanthropic giving.

The generational shift

With the biggest ever generational wealth transfer on its way, Australia’s philanthropic sector will soon see a change in the makeup of who holds the money, something Downes acknowledges as being a potential gamechanger. 

“When you have women in their 70s or 80s you see that they have a different relationship with money because they didn’t earn it. When they inherit wealth they tend to feel like they have to give it away in the way their husband would’ve wanted,” she told Pro Bono News. 

“For those of us in our 40s and 50s, we’ve worked and equally contributed to the household. We have issues that are important to us and so that’s where we choose to put our money.” 

When the women were asked as part of Downes research, what motivates them to give, 50 per cent indicated that it had to be something they related to personally and 30 per cent indicated it had to be cause-related (most likely a crisis cause).

Women don’t relate to the word philanthropy

A key finding from Downes’ research was around women’s reactions to the words “philanthropy” and “philanthropist”. 

“No one seemed to relate to it. It’s like it comes from another era,” she said.  

“Australian women are quiet and humble with their giving and don’t see it as anything special… just something that should be done.”

Downes believes that feeling uncomfortable around the term is an Australian idiosyncrasy, as she’s found the opposite to be true in both the UK and the US. 

“I don’t know whether it’s a case of tall poppy syndrome but I think that Australian organisations really need to celebrate philanthropy more, they need to celebrate their volunteers and use the word philanthropy when they speak to people,” she said. 

“I was talking to one woman who told me that while her kids, who were in their 20s, were volunteering and on committees she felt like they couldn’t call themselves philanthropists because they were only donating $50 or less to organisations. 

“It made it clear that somehow we have got to educate people that if they donate their time, their money, their skills or all three then they are operating a true philanthropists. The amount given doesn’t matter.” 

The report found: 

  • Women want to give back and want to teach their children to be grateful for what they have.
  • 75 per cent of women want to understand the needs of the community and then do something about it.
  • 60 per cent of women were introduced to philanthropy by their family; 25 per cent by volunteering and only 1 per cent by giving circles.
  • 77 per cent of women indicated that they model or guide their families philanthropic giving.
  • Social responsibility and compassion were the two greatest things women want their families to learn.
  • Over 70 per cent of women indicated that they volunteer… but less than 40 per cent of them sit on a board.
  • When asked what motivates them to give, 50 per cent indicated that it had to be something they related to personally and 30 per cent indicated it had to be cause-related (most likely crisis cause).

Nikki Stefanoff  |  Journalist  |  @ProBonoNews

Nikki Stefanoff is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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