By David Callahan and Kiersten Marek (Inside Philanthropy) – Two years ago, we published a list of the 15 most powerful women in U.S. philanthropy. The idea for that article emerged because we were struck by how many women are involved in philanthropy at a high level—and equally struck by how little attention they tend to receive.
In particular, while the spouses of billionaires often play a lead role in charting a couple’s giving, the spotlight usually falls on their better-known husbands when major gifts are made. Not only is this unfair, but it misses the real story of how today’s big philanthropy is unfolding as new mega-donors enter the scene—with women in the lead.
The role of women in philanthropy is rising in other ways, too. More self-made women are emerging with their own resources for giving, which reflects the rising economic fortunes of women—a trend likely to accelerate in coming years. At the same time, more women leaders are reaching the pinnacle of the foundation world and now helm some of the biggest grantmaking operations in the U.S. Women are also taking the lead in building donor networks and donor-advised funds, which play a fast-growing role in tapping new sources of funding and aggregating resources for different causes. One tangible result of this leadership shift in philanthropy has been more attention and more money for gender equity and women’s empowerment issues in recent years.
Given all that’s happening, we created a new section of Inside Philanthropy last year devoted entirely to covering developments related to women and girls. That work has brought many new women leaders to our attention. So here, we present a greatly expanded list of the most powerful women in philanthropy. In addition to featuring many individual mega-donors, we look at top leaders of both private and corporate foundations and explore women who are making an impact by catalyzing giving, through funding intermediaries or other efforts.
To make the list, a person needs to have influence over how significant philanthropic resources are being deployed. Those resources may derive from a family fortune, a foundation endowment, or from many smaller funders working together through a donor network or a community of funders. We focus on raw giving capacity because it’s relatively easy to see and measure, whereas impact is far harder to assess. Thus, a list like this will inevitably fail to spotlight some people who are actively driving change, while perhaps assigning too much weight to people who simply control a lot of money. That said, a few women have made the list mainly because of their influence on the sector.
Which leads us to a broader caveat about this list: Don’t take it too seriously. We do not see this list as definitive, but as evolving, with important women continually crossing our radar. Our goal here is to offer a snapshot of the many impressive women we’re watching in the upper reaches of the philanthrosphere, while recognizing that judgments on these matters are subjective. Many readers will think of additional people who should be on this list, or question why particular women made the cut. One important point to note is that we haven’t included any women whose philanthropic activities are mainly focused locally or regionally.
With those thoughts in mind, let’s dig into the list, which we’ve organized into a few categories that capture the diverse roles that high-powered women now play in philanthropy. Click on the links along the way to see more IP coverage of the individuals and organizations discussed.
The great wealth boom of the past few decades is now fueling a super-charged era of big philanthropy, with many new, deep-pocketed donors emerging with ambitious plans. Women are at the forefront of this trend, often as spouses playing a hands-on role in family philanthropy that has included scaling up some of the largest foundations created in recent years.
Karen Ackman, Co-Founder, Pershing Square Foundation
Along with her hedge funder husband Bill Ackman, Karen Ackman oversees the Pershing Square Foundation, one of the more sophisticated funding operations to emerge from the finance world recently. With an eye on catalyzing systemic change, it’s been giving big for human rights, immigrant college students, criminal justice reform, global development, and more. A landscape architect, Karen sits on the board of New York’s High Line public park, which Ackman money helped build; and Human Rights Watch, which has received major gifts from the couple.