Alisa Levin was busy — as an attorney, as a mother and as a volunteer. In addition to facilitating multimillion-dollar “workout” and bankruptcy deals, she chaired the board of the private school her two children attended in Park Slope, Brooklyn.
Though disinterested in mainstream Jewish philanthropy, several years ago she was asked to give a talk to the Women’s Executive Circle, a group within UJA-Federation of New York for female chief execs and managing directors, who give annual gifts of at least $6,000 in their own names.
“I did it because I thought it was good for business. I didn’t think I belonged in a pink ghetto,” said Levin, now a partner in a legal executive search firm. “But I came in and saw what was going on and I ‘drank the Kool Aid.’ ”
She quickly became involved, led the Women’s Executive Circle and today is the founding chair of a new subset within the Jewish federation, the Women’s Philanthropy group. The organization did away with its traditional Women’s Division designation earlier this year.
New York’s federation is reframing its efforts to attract female donors and volunteers, after engaging in an 18-month-long strategic planning process. And the reason is simple: women already control the majority of wealth in this country, and that share of the pie is only expected to grow. The Women’s Philanthropy group wants to bring women together from across its traditional women’s divisions and to sharpen its ability to raise money from them.
“The literature shows that by 2010 women will have 60 percent of the wealth in this country, because women live longer than men [and inherit family wealth],” said Passi Rosen-Bayewitz, associate executive director of UJA-Federation. “It made sense to do this now, to capture this moment in time.”
In fact, according to Manhattan-based philanthropy adviser Fern Portnoy, “sometime in the recent past, a tipping point was ever so quietly reached: half of this nation’s private wealth passed into the hands of women.”
On the blog PhilanTopic, she wrote, “It’s estimated that this percentage will rise to 60 percent by 2010 and possibly rise as high as 70 percent in the not too distant future.”
Along with this growing shift in the control of wealth, there is a cultural shift happening as well.
Women are taking a more active role in giving, said Mark Charendoff, president of the roughly 800-member Jewish Funders Network. He sees it particularly among women in their 30s and 40s, who may be giving in partnership with husbands, but taking a more vigorous role than in the past.
“Women have always been partners in family philanthropic decision making, but a lot of times it was the men taking a more public role,” Charendoff said. “There was a whole social network that might start in business and spread out to philanthropy. All that still happens, and more and more women are comfortable taking the lead in advancing their philanthropic interests and exploring how to make change.”
There is a shift beginning in the culture of organizations, as well, making some of them places where women may feel more comfortable than they did earlier. In the past, a woman on the board may have needed to be a pioneer. Today there are more — though often still few — women here with her.
“While in the past a woman might have been who got involved, might have been the only woman around the table, now they’re seeing a lot of their peers,” he said. Giving Along Gender Lines
Some, though not all, say that there is some fundamental difference between the ways in which women and men give and that, as a result, women need a specialized approach.
“Women need to be touched and to touch in order to write a check,” according to Judi Stecklow, campaign director for Women’s Philanthropy at the New York Jewish federation. “We know through research and stories that when women are involved they are giving more than when they aren’t.”
Ana Oliveira, president and chief executive officer of the New York Women’s Foundation, agrees. “Women are giving at higher levels than ever before, and they give to issues and causes that make a difference to women, inclusive of reproductive rights and childcare, but also beyond, including politics, education and poverty.
“As philanthropists, women tend to prefer to be closely involved with the issue or organization they are supporting. For many, philanthropy goes beyond writing a check; it also represents a connection to others. Therefore, as women increase their share of the wealth, we believe they will change the nature of philanthropy.”
But others see it differently.
Naomi Levine was the American Jewish Congress’ first (and only) female director, from 1971-1978. She subsequently ran fundraising for New York University, where in 25 years she brought in over $2.5 billion and currently leads the university’s Heyman Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising.
She views the idea that women and men are different in their philanthropy as unfounded stereotype.
“There’s very little difference” between the ways in which women and men are involved in being donors. “Men who make any sizeable gift also want to be involved, just as they want to be on the board and know how money is spent. Women want visibility? Of course they did. So do men.
“It’s an illusion to think that women will bring greater sensitivity and involvement than men. That image is largely stereotype and not backed up by fact,” said Levine.
There is the fact, however, of that transfer of wealth.
As a result, are nonprofit fundraising organizations widely re-considering their approach to female donors? Those interviewed say they haven’t noticed much of a change.
“There may be some groups that have rethought their approach about women around the transfer of wealth, but I am not aware of them,” said Holly Hall, a reporter who covers women and giving for the Chronicle of Philanthropy.
Nonprofits “would be foolish if they didn’t” change their approaches, said Charendoff of the Funders’ Network.
Then there’s the question of how — and if — women will use their growing philanthropic clout to change the organizations they get involved with.
“Women should see their money as leverage for change,” said Shifra Bronznick, president of Advancing Women Professionals and co-author of the new book “Leveling the Playing Field,” about women in Jewish communal organizations.
“People in these institutions really hesitate to become advocates for women,” she said. “They find themselves pigeonholed as opposed to being asked and invited into the center of leadership.
“There’s a big difference between saying that the purpose of women’s leadership is to inform general leadership, as opposed to giving women an arena in which to lead.” Advancing Women From Within
According to Bronznick, women “should use the opportunity not simply to put their money into initiatives that benefit women and girls, but also to seriously advocate within these institutions to advance women within the top ranks.
“The next frontier for these philanthropists is to use their philanthropy as leverage for rethinking priorities in policy, leadership and program.”
But, she said, “I don’t think women feel comfortable saying that ‘the price of my philanthropic involvement is a real say in the priorities of the institution overall.’ ”
When asked if their new Women’s Philanthropy initiative is, in part, an effort to buy more of a place at the leadership table, staffers point to the fact that the co-chair of the federation’s 2009 annual campaign is a woman, Linda Mirels, and the 2008 co-chair is Merryl Tisch.
But, said Bronznick, “I do notice that UJA-Federation has two male leaders at the top. The president and chair are both male. Having one be a woman would be invaluable for making sure women are at the heart of the priorities.”
A major goal of the new Women’s Philanthropy group is to bring women together from across the regional and professional subgroups through which they connect to the federation.
It kicked off its efforts at a dinner for nearly 700 on May 29 at Manhattan’s Grand Hyatt hotel. “When you walked into that room, you saw the power. You saw leadership from every single area of our federation — trades, traditional, regions, agencies and commissions,” said the federation’s Rosen-Bayewitz.
“We not only fundraise but we also allocate dollars and have women in our commissions,” she said. The federation has four commissions under which most projects fall. “We have women who sit on task forces and committees. Women on the boards of beneficiary agencies. The goal was to look to see how we could integrate through this collective action and harness the power of women.”
This way, “we think we can do even more” than we have been.
In the most recent UJA-Federation annual campaign, in their own names women donated $29 million of the $151 million raised overall. That is under 20 percent of what was raised, though in addition to family and corporate gifts of which they are a part.
“Ultimately we believe that we will be able to increase that $29 million,” said Levin, the Women’s Philanthropy chair. It will happen through “the number of people we will engage through more effective programming and through understanding what our donors want.” Raising the serious money from women in their own names is a key to putting women at the center of leadership, she said. “Unless we have that voice, talking to ourselves doesn’t matter. Dollars bring clout, and we’re raising those dollars.”