Bret Bicoy: How Gender Impacts Charitable Giving


Charities have long known that women are more likely to contribute than men, but new research has uncovered some remarkable differences when it comes to each gender’s approach to philanthropy. Where Do Men and Women Give? Gender Differences in the Motivations and Purposes for Charitable Giving is a new study that was released in September by Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.

Previous scholarly work has given us a few hints into some of those differences. For instance, we know that women are more likely to give when they have a personal connection to the organization. Women also tend to be motived by knowing how their philanthropy helps an individual person.

With men, on the other hand, social norms are a larger consideration. Religious duty or a moral obligation to one’s community are far greater drivers for men’s generosity. This new study delves more deeply into those differences than any other research to date.

The study grouped the world of charities into 11 different sectors, such as religion, basic needs, arts, broad-community organizations, and so forth. The research found that single women donate considerably more than single men by almost every measure. Women also tend to give to more charities and in larger aggregate amounts. In 10 of the 11 sectors, women typically give more than men. The one exception is giving to broad-community organizations. Single men are more likely to support these kinds of charities and with greater gifts.

Interestingly, single women are also far more likely to cite their political or philosophical beliefs as a significant driver of their philanthropic priorities. Women are more motivated than men by the knowledge that their contribution is honoring another person. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to give to the same organization year after year.

As you would expect, motivations and giving patterns are far more complex in married couples. The study divided charitable contributions from couples into four categories – separately deciding, female-deciding, male-deciding, and jointly deciding.

In separately deciding couples, each partner gives their own share of the family’s charitable budget to whomever they like, independent of the other. Hence, their giving patterns tend to reflect those of single men and women.

With female-deciding and male-deciding couples, the family’s charitable budget is allocated either by the husband or the wife. Similar to separately deciding couples, albeit to a lesser degree, the gender of the partner that is the primary decision maker for the couple’s charitable giving significantly impacts their preferences.

Male-deciding couples give greater support to religion, education, and so called “combination” organizations such as a United Way. Female-deciding couples are more likely to support charities involving human services and health. However, female-deciding couples do differ from single women by placing a greater emphasis on giving to youth and family organizations. This seems natural given that a married woman is more likely than a single woman to have children.

When it comes to jointly deciding couples, there is one very significant difference from how all other families approach philanthropy. Jointly deciding couples are considerably more likely to concentrate their charitable gifts. Rather than spread their money among many organizations, jointly deciding couples tend to donate significantly larger amounts to far fewer charities. While the research did not delve into the motivations behind this pattern, it seems reasonable to ascribe this trend to the strength of a decision that is reached by consensus. In other words, when both husband and wife jointly and genuinely agree that giving to a specific charity or cause is important, it becomes a far greater priority for both of them. Needless to say, this kind of couple can quickly become a charity’s most loyal friend and greatest champion.

Interestingly, the differences between the giving preferences of men and women tend to diminish dramatically at the highest levels of philanthropy. The patterns noted above apply to the population as a whole. However, when you focus only on the highest levels of giving, far few gender differences exist.

When examining gifts of $1 million or more to a single charity, the researchers looked for patterns as to how the donors describe their contribution. They identified “key words” and recorded the frequency with which they were mentioned. For million dollar donations from single women, single men, and couples of all types, the most commonly used key word is “endow.” Unlike more modest gifts which tend to support the annual operations of an organization, these truly transformational gifts of $1 million or more are most commonly associated with an endowment. This underlines the importance for every charity to create and build an endowment fund as a key tool for attracting the largest gifts.

Among single men, women, and couples, there is considerable overlap of most of the top 10 key words for all of the groups. This reaffirms the other findings of the study that there is great consensus in what motivates the most affluent donors. Interestingly, however, the word “unrestricted” only appears on the list for women.

For as much as high net worth men and women have in common, there remain two very significant disparities that are important to note. First, men are about 50 percent more likely to contribute to a foundation than women. While the study doesn’t examine the motivations for this difference, it is consistent with other research that shows men tend to view giving as a societal obligation and thus are more likely to contribute to “combination” organizations that impact a wide range of issues and charities.

The second significant disparity is that women who make million dollar gifts are an incredible 11 times more likely to donate to a human service organization. This aligns well with previous research showing that women have a strong desire to know how their giving helps an individual person. Among all kinds of charities, human service organizations are perhaps best suited to articulate a clear story about the direct impact of their charitable work.

Other than these two important exceptions, the giving patterns among America’s wealthiest men and women is remarkably more homogenous than the population as a whole even when you adjust for age and ethnic diversity. Why that is remains unclear and most certainly will be the subject of future research.

Bret Bicoy is president & CEO of the Door County Community Foundation. Contact him at [email protected].

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