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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

The power of the purse

More and more, it's women who control the charity

By Tamala M. Edwards

May 10, 1999
Web posted at: 10:12 a.m. EDT (1412 GMT)

TIME magazine

She was born to a baked-goods fortune and never thought she would be concerned with getting or giving money. "I liked to be taken care of," says Sara Lee Schupf, 58, the namesake of the famous frozen pies. Then in the early '80s, after a devastating divorce, she had to learn to take care of herself and others. She had no work experience and no clue about managing money. With four kids to look after and educate, she imagined her savings dwindling rapidly and, she says, "spent many days in tears."

But when her father died in 1988, leaving her a comfortable inheritance and naming her the sole executor of his will, Schupf began to evolve into a different woman. She returned to college and earned a B.A. in women's studies. And in 1992 she started a family foundation with a multimillion-dollar endowment. She wanted the foundation to encourage women in science but was told by research institutions that the more important work was being done by men. Schupf persisted, contributing $1.5 million for a female science professor's post at Skidmore College in New York State and funding a lecture series and prize for women at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. The institute wants to build a women's health center. "Now they want to know who I know," she says, laughing, "because they know it'll be women who fund it."

These days, in the major leagues of philanthropy, nobody doesn't like Sara Lee. And charitable fund raisers are learning that nobody can afford to overlook the rising influence of women. Some, like Schupf, inherited their money, and a growing number earned it. But women in both camps are demanding more attention to their favorite causes and more influence over exactly how their donations are spent. Gone are the days when women's philanthropy referred only to sweet dears who ran the school auction or gussied up for the charity ball.

One sign of change is the growth of "women's funds," in which money is raised and given out by women, often to causes that benefit women. In 1979 there were only five women's funds; today there are 95. Last year the 250 members of the Washington Women's Foundation each gave $2,000 to fund grants of $50,000 and $100,000 to causes like nature conservation and children's medical research.

Other funds highlight the power of one woman. Catherine Muther, 52, of San Francisco, earned lucrative stock options as an executive at the tech firms 3Com and Cisco Systems. In 1994 she pulled $5 million from her purse to create a fund that supports everything from female entrepreneurs to girl athletes.

At the same time, old-line philanthropic institutions are being feminized. In 1982 about a quarter of foundations were run by women; today more than half are, including such giants as the MacArthur Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trust. But there's a hot debate over what that change should mean. Only 5.7% of foundation budgets went to causes earmarked for women and girls last year. "Why are women keeping museums in grand style rather than supporting women and girls?" asks philanthropy consultant Mary Ellen Capek. But Boston College charity expert Paul Schervish argues that women are properly making a mark in all areas of giving.

And their gifts are getting bigger. Last summer jaws dropped as $19 million poured into Harvard, all from women graduates who had been challenged to give $25,000 or more. Bigger gifts from women appear to track bigger earnings by women, who now own a third of all privately held businesses (their numbers grew 90% in the past decade), employing more people than the FORTUNE 500 companies combined. Tanny Crane, 42, grew up watching her industrialist father giving money to charity while her housewife mother gave time. But now Crane is chief executive of the family's $150 million-a-year plastics company in Columbus, Ohio, and gives more than $50,000 a year to her favorite charities, like a local children's advocacy group. "I earned the money," she says. "I've never had any discomfort writing a check."

Last week the PBS talk show To the Contrary broadcast results of a new study it had commissioned from a New York University economist: he claims that women now control a majority--51.3%--of U.S. household wealth. Other economists challenge the report's methodology, especially its apportioning of wealth evenly between husbands and wives. Yet even the critics believe women's influence over wealth is growing, if only because wives outlive their husbands by an average of seven years and usually inherit most of their assets.

For all these reasons fund raisers are learning the delicate art of going through a woman's purse. Some experts maintain that women are more interested in promoting causes, like literacy or women's health, than in having their names on buildings; that they want to see exactly how their money is used; and prefer collaborative rather than competitive fund-raising approaches. And there may be a bonus for learning to do things the feminine way. Predicts Capek: "They're going to raise more money from men."


Cover Date: May 17, 1999

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