Laurie Burns McRobbie

Remarks at CASE Indiana: “Sparking Women’s Philanthropy”

Introduction

Thank you, Stephanie, for that kind introduction. I also want to thank President Manuel for being with us today and hosting this conference. It really is an honor to be invited to talk with all of you today about a powerful force in philanthropy: Women.

Women’s giving—of their time, talent, and treasure—is not just a trend; it is the essence of philanthropy itself. Philanthropy is inherently about change, about making the world a better place for future generations, about righting injustices, about creating access, and about being a citizen. And in the ways through which communities band together to improve our society, and in the ways individuals are called to take action, women have been, are today, and will continue to be the leaders and influencers. 

I will spend my time this morning talking about women’s philanthropy in action through the work that we’re doing at the Indiana University Foundation and our women’s philanthropy program. As President Manuel noted, we operate on a larger scale than some of the institutions represented here today, but I think our approach and what we’ve learned will be relevant regardless of size. I want start by setting our work in a larger context, in the history of women’s philanthropy, because we are truly standing on the shoulders of our foremothers; and in the ground-breaking research on women’s giving patterns, their motivations for giving, and their role in passing along philanthropic values to the next generation.

Without these two pillars—the history and the research—our program at Indiana University would be far less rich and I believe less sustainable into the future. And for me and others at IU, learning about the research on women’s philanthropy and the history of women’s giving at IU and elsewhere across the country helped us see the power and the potential in the alumnae community of Indiana University.

The History of Philanthropy is Women's History

I’ll start with the history, my first real academic interest, and give you a little more of my own story. Like some of you, I came of age during the second wave of feminism in the 1970s, which meant that as an undergraduate I was exposed to a lot of foundational scholarship in women’s studies, including women’s history. It gave me a way to consider the questions that were forming in my mind about why and how women’s roles had evolved over the centuries, and why we found ourselves, in the last several decades of the 20th century, still working to create a fair and equitable society.

This was the late 1970s and early 1980s, a time when academic job openings in history were virtually non-existent, and as a newly married and newly graduated young person, I needed a job. So I went to work for the state networking organization in Michigan, and in an illustration of the saying “timing is everything,” I did this at a point when computers and information technology were just breaking into general public awareness, and the idea of an “Internet”, or a network of networks, was just being developed along with early versions of online discussion forums and tools for information sharing. 

I was quickly swept up by this burst of creativity and innovation, and some 25 years later, I had pretty much given up on the idea of pursuing a graduate degree, until life events brought me to Indiana University and the study of philanthropy.

It’s really no surprise that it was on a university campus, and specifically an American one, that I began to fully understand the impact of philanthropy on organizations. We’re all well aware of the role philanthropy has played and plays today in American life; what I had not fully appreciated until, after being widowed in 2003, I met and married this exotic Australian named Michael McRobbie and had the incomparable opportunity to travel with him all over the world, that I came to understand how uniquely American philanthropy is, and especially how uniquely American it is for the U.S. system of higher education. 

The deep and abiding connections that alumni have for their alma maters, which often translate to philanthropic support, do not happen nearly to the same degree anywhere else in the world. As my husband often says, philanthropy is the “special ingredient” for excellence in American universities, the means by which new areas of research are supported, important scholarship is nourished, more young (and not-so-young) people get an education, and universities come to feel like they belong to us.

Far from being the study of how you part people from their money, I quickly understood that to study philanthropy is to study how people take action that leads to change. And turning my attention philanthropy as a discipline reawakened my interest in women’s history, because this history is so inseparably intertwined with the history of nonprofits in the U.S., with the evolution of volunteerism, political and societal reform movements, educational institutions, and the many organizations devoted to healthcare and to relieving human suffering.  

And from the founding days of our country, women were there, participating in the public sector through charitable work. Prevented from applying their intellectual and organizational capacities in the worlds of business and politics, women used voluntary associations to exercise public influence and to shape American concepts of community responsibility.

As the historian Kathleen McCarthy said, “Female philanthropy has served … as the means through which American women … have made a lasting imprint on social and institutional reforms, professionalization, legislation, and even the Constitution itself.”

It’s not a stretch to say that through their application of time, talent and treasure, women created the nonprofit sector in this country, and thus, those of us in this room today are reaping the legacy of generations of women who have engaged in movements for progress, as leaders, advocates, supporters and workers, heroic in their persistence and in their unwillingness to give up until the change they knew was important had occurred.

Because our foremothers are so important to the progress we’ve made, I want to give you two Indiana-specific examples of women’s philanthropy in action. They both, appropriately enough, involve first ladies—of a kind.

Elinor Ostrom

IU Professor of Political Science Elinor Ostrom, who came to Indiana University in 1965 as the trailing spouse of her husband Vincent, and who was reluctantly hired by IU to teach a few introductory courses (the ones that met on Saturday morning), got her best revenge by winning the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009, the first woman to do so. Lin taught at IU and was completely devoted to her students for five decades until her death in 2012. 

Lin was one of Indiana University’s greatest treasures, and she was known throughout the world as a leading social scientist, gifted scholar, and creative mind. She and her husband, Vincent, founded the renowned Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis, now named for them. Lin was also the author of the landmark book, “Governing the Commons,” which turned on its head the conventional wisdom that resources open to all will be depleted—the so-called “Tragedy of the Commons” —and set forth important conceptual frameworks for how those shared resources are best managed. 

In many ways, Lin’s work fits very well with the academic study of philanthropy, because nearly all of her work revolved around efforts outside of government and the private sector. I’ve heard other scholars refer to her achievement as a kind of “Nobel Prize in Philanthropy.” 

She herself was also an extraordinary philanthropist. Time and again, when she and Vincent received a major award, they donated the financial component to the university. Their gifts to IU, which include Lin's Nobel Prize funds, total nearly $4 million.

Neither Lin nor Vincent, who died one month after Lin, sought accolades or attention for their gifts. They gave them to help future generations of talented students pursue a quality education that would set them toward realizing their grandest dreams and aspirations. And they gave them to ensure that future generations of scholars can build on the academic foundation they laid. 

Frances Morgan Swain

My second example is one of my predecessors as Indiana University First Lady, and is a particularly wonderful example of how women operated a century ago to garner philanthropic support for public higher education. 

Frances Morgan Swain, the wife of IU’s 9th president, Joseph Swain, served as university first lady from 1893 to 1902, and from that role she led the first building campaign in university history, a fairly unusual act for a woman of her time and an even more unusual act for a presidential spouse.

When Joseph Swain became president of Indiana University in 1893, women comprised around a third of the IU student body, most coming to be trained as schoolteachers. However, both President and Mrs. Swain were concerned that the inhospitable conditions of late 19th century Bloomington—a city that barely met the US Census Bureau’s definition of “urban”, with unpaved, muddy, and sidewalk-less streets and a shortage of boarding houses—along with a campus without residence halls, recreational facilities, or a student union—would dissuade parents from sending their daughters there to study. 

Both Swains focused their attention on ensuring that women would continue to matriculate. President Swain obtained approval from the Trustees to build the university’s first dormitory, for women, and in the spring of 1901, Frances Swain herself proposed to the IU Trustees that a Woman’s Building be built that would (and I quote) “contain the woman’s gymnasium, with all modern equipments, an auditorium, parlors, committee rooms, and greatly needed resting rooms.” As she stood before the Trustees, Mrs. Swain had already raised $6,000 (nearly $200,000 in today’s dollars), with the first gift coming from the Local Council of Women, one of thousands of women’s organizations that sprang up across the country in the last decades of the 19th century. Bloomington’s Local Council of Women still exists today, and counts as its primary achievement the creation and continued support of the Bloomington hospital.

Frances Swain’s building was not completed until 1906, after they left IU when Joseph Swain become president of Swarthmore in 1902, but Frances remained involved. She raised a total of $50,000 (about $1.5 million today), and secured a matching commitment from John D. Rockefeller, Jr. It was Rockefeller who, in making his gift, stipulated an expansion of the building plans to include a wing for men. And thus, it was the Student Building that was dedicated in June of 1906, with a ceremony at which Frances Swain was the keynote speaker. That day, a plaque was presented to her, recognizing her preeminent role in the creation of the building.

This past September, 110 years later, we were able to do justice to the woman whose vision transformed the landscape of IU, by renaming the entire building in her honor. It is now the Frances Morgan Swain Student Building, and stands as the first of many memorial namings for women that we hope to accomplish by IU’s bicentennial in 2020. 

There are numerous other outstanding and inspiring examples of women’s philanthropy at IU, and it’s crucial that we call these out. The young women in this picture, one of whom is president of the student body and the other president of her sorority, were two of many undergraduate women who joined us for the renaming ceremony, and they told us how much it meant to them to see Frances Morgan Swain honored and how proud they were to be part of a university that made it a priority. 

Legacy matters to institutions of higher education. With the possible exception of the Catholic Church, universities are the oldest institutional form in human history. That tells us quite a lot about human curiosity, the quest for knowledge, and the transforming effects of education. 

It also tells us a lot about why people are drawn to supporting universities, not the least of whom are women, for whom education is one of the most frequent targets for their philanthropy. 

Women's Giving at IU

The history of women’s giving at IU, similar to other institutions of higher education both public and private, is one of numerous small, consistent contributions over a long period rather than headline making multi-million dollars gifts. It is difficult, however, to gather a detailed picture of women’s philanthropy over time; for much of the early decades of the IU Foundation’s existence, gifts from couples, even when the wife was the alumna, were recorded as his gift, a common practice in higher education and elsewhere (and one that still happens today, although not at IU any longer).

By the early 1980s, data on contributions began to reflect the impact of women’s giving to IU. Women’s philanthropy was starting to increase in all sectors, consistent with the entry of women into the workforce and the professions in historic numbers. 

By the 1990s, scores of million-dollar gifts to Indiana University from both single women—alumnae and non-alumnae—and alumnae married to non-IU alumni were being recorded. In 2005, the largest gift ever received from an alumna and the third largest gift in IU history, $40.6 million to name the School of Music, was made by Barbara Jacobs in honor of her son, David. Her gift joined several other multi-million dollar donations in the 2000s, including one from Gene and Marilyn Glick, who openly stated that it was her passion and her gift, regardless of it being in both their names. Most recently, as part of our Bicentennial Campaign, Indianapolis philanthropist Cindy Simon Skjodt gave $40 million to renovate Assembly Hall, now Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall. 

Today we’re very conscious of the impact of women’s gifts, but as we know from experience and especially from the research, there is still more potential to be tapped.

The Research on Women's Philanthropy and the WPI

The research into women’s philanthropy has been underway for the last decade or so, and discovering it was a catalytic moment for several of us who were looking for ways to respond to an active group of alumnae who were looking for more opportunities to engage with IU. This research, as I’m sure you know, is being done right here in Indiana, at the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at the IU Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.  

I’m sure many of you are aware of the high points, but let me run through a few findings that helped us paint a compelling picture for why we needed a program, and needed to change how we engaged alumnae and women donors. 

The first is the headline grabber, that across nearly all income groups, individual women and female-headed households give more and are more likely to give than are comparably-situated men. This always comes as a surprise to some, but there are reasons for this, and they lie in how women give, which can disguise their impact. Women are more likely to:

  • Give anonymously
  • Give smaller gifts to a greater number of organizations
  • Seek collective forms of giving to amplify their impact

Another important and more recent finding is that household decision-making is influenced by the spouse with higher levels of education and income, and women are increasingly in that position.

Coupled with this and relevant to those of us in this room, women tend to prioritize giving to education and health.

There are two other findings that are influencing our program, the first of which is fundamental to everything we do, and that is that women tend to seek deep engagement with their areas of passion and interest. We are building engagement opportunities into everything we do, and we see this characteristic playing out all the time.

And finally, we know that women are the primary transmitters of philanthropic values within the family, and for us this translates to how we bring students into our events and programs, and how we cultivate the next generation of donors.

At the IU Foundation, we feel an enormous debt to the WPI’s original founders at the University of Wisconsin, Madison—Martha Taylor and Sondra Shaw Hardy—and to the current WPI director, Debra Mesch, and her colleagues, for giving us the facts to back up our intuition that we should be thinking very differently about how we engage and steward alumnae and women donors generally.

The Colloquium for Women

I want to backtrack for a minute to bring in some additional background, because even before we fully understood the research, the IU Foundation had already starting breaking away from decades of mostly male-focused development efforts in 1995, with the establishment of the Bloomington Colloquium for Women. It was several activist female members of the IU Foundation Board (one, Gayle Cook, is shown here) supported by another of my predecessors, Peg Brand, who made it happen. 

The Colloquium, which started as an annual program and now is a biennial event, brings over 100 women to the Bloomington campus in the fall for a weekend of learning and networking. The program introduces them to distinguished faculty, alumnae, students, and speakers of national and international renown; in 2010, we were honored to feature Meryl Streep. Many Colloquium attendees come every time, and ten years into the program, they were ready for more. 

With a few nascent ideas for a women’s philanthropy program in our minds, a group of us attended the WPI Symposium in 2008 here in Indianapolis, and the light bulb went off. We invited Debra Mesch to present her research to the IU Foundation Board in June of 2009, and more light bulbs went off.

By that fall, we had developed our first strategic plan, which had as its principal action the establishment of a high-level Council to guide overall Foundation strategy for engaging alumnae and women donors to Indiana University.

We spent the several months in late 2009 and early 2010 reaching out to every female member of the Foundation Board and to two men who had expressed interest, and to many prominent alumnae and women donors as well. And in June of 2010, the Women’s Philanthropy Council of Indiana University was officially convened.  

In 2015, the Council voted to change its name to the Women’s Philanthropy Leadership Council, or WPLC. The Council has matured into a real leadership group for what has become an expanding set of opportunities to engage, connect, and give, and we wanted our name to better reflect this. 

Women's Philanthropy at IU

In 2010, we formulated our vision, and we begin every Council meeting with it in front of us:

Women’s Philanthropy at Indiana University brings women leaders together—providing connections, learning experiences, and opportunities to give back to Indiana University in meaningful ways that reflect their presence in the alumni community. In so doing, IU will become a national exemplar for its programs that engage women in supporting its research, teaching and philanthropic missions.

The Women’s Philanthropy Leadership Council exists to educate, through outreach and example, alumnae and women friends of IU about their own capacity to make a difference in the future of Indiana University, and by extension the state of Indiana and beyond. We’re guided by four core principles:

  • To provide opportunities for women to learn about different programs at Indiana University so they can make gifts to areas where they are passionate and experience the impact of their giving.
  • To connect donors with Indiana University, its leaders and others who share their passion for giving.
  • To educate women about their untapped economic and philanthropic power- the power to make a difference for students, faculty, and research initiatives, while advancing the mission of Indiana University, and
  • To inspire each other by telling stories about the women who support Indiana University and celebrating their giving.

Structure of the Program

My wonderful colleague Michele Boillotat, director of Women’s Philanthropy at IU, will tell you more about the extent of our program and its focus on engagement, but I want to give you a quick sketch of the Council’s structure.

First of all, the Council functions as an engagement group of the IU Foundation Board, and is semi-autonomous; we operate under the Board’s bylaws but the larger Board has no role in choosing the Council’s chair or its members. 

It can have between 30 and 45 members, and men are invited as well. We currently have 35 women and one man on the Council, each serving a renewable, 3-year term. 

Every member makes a $15,000 gift to IU at the start of her or his term to any area of Indiana University, and they are encouraged to put half of that gift, $7,500, into the WPLC Fund, which is under the direct control of the Council. 

The Fund is in many ways the beating heart not only of the Council but our program more generally, allowing us to put our values into action and serving as an inspiring means of connecting members and others to their areas of interest and passion at the University. 

Each Council member serves on one of three working groups:

  • Membership, which oversees the annual process of selecting new members and generally ensures the health of our membership processes and activities;
  • Programming and Engagement, which oversees the planning and execution of a range of programs at IU and around the state and the country where we have large concentrations of alumnae; and
  • Grants, which oversees the review of grant applications and recommendation to the whole Council of that year’s recipients for funding. 

Active Prgorams and Projects

The Council oversees numerous events and programs, including the biennial Colloquium for Women, the IU Indianapolis Women’s Philanthropy Conference that occurs on alternating years with the Bloomington Colloquium, an annual luncheon on one of IU’s six regional campuses around the state that honors women student volunteers, and many other lunchtime and evening programs hosted by alumnae in cities around the country.

Many of these programs are now flourishing under the banner of our Women’s Philanthropy bicentennial campaign. IU will celebrate 200 years of existence in 2020 (on January 20, in fact), and the university Bicentennial Campaign is in full swing and tracking toward the goal of 2.5 billion dollars to provide new opportunities and enhance the IU experience “For All”—the official name of the campaign. Women’s Philanthropy has identified three key areas to help us expand our offerings, broaden our reach, and elevate the visibility of IU’s women leaders who have come before us.

Our first goal is to double the WPLC fund and award more than $200,000 in grants each year; we’ve been awarding closer to $100,000 annually. Every year we come in contact with faculty, staff, students and programs we didn’t know about or that are trying to get off the ground, and the more of these we can learn about, the more opportunities there are for alumnae to connect.

In line with our grant-funding initiatives, we strive to connect women with their philanthropic passions that fall within four key areas of IU strength: public health, including medical and allied health programs; supporting global experiences; increasing women in STEM fields; and increasing and supporting diversity at IU. We believe everyone from every background should have the chance to lead and thrive.

Finally, women represent more than half of IU’s student body and more than half of the alumni community. Yet when it comes to memorializing their contributions to IU, women are vastly underrepresented: only about a quarter of the buildings, statues, and memorials to IU are named for women. So, we hope to celebrate the legacies of women who have gone unsung through named professorships, programs, buildings and other tributes at IU. Renaming the Frances Morgan Swain Student Building in her honor was only the beginning of what we hope to accomplish by 2020.

Challenges

In any enterprise there are both challenges and successes, and we’ve been exceptionally fortunate in having more of the latter than the former. But part of continuing to be successful is anticipating problems, and we are keeping our eye on several potential challenges.

One is maintaining a high level of engagement. It’s energizing to start something new, and it’s natural for that energy to wane a bit as founding members rotate off. For the first several years, we were reaping the benefits of having finally released years of pent-up interest on the part of individuals who had been looking for leadership opportunities in this area for some time. But we’ve put a lot of effort into recruiting new women to the table and to giving them opportunities to lead. As time and resource-intensive as our efforts have been, I have to say that it is worth every bit of that effort, as we’re seeing renewed and increasing enthusiasm as our program grows. But this has to be an area of intentional activity.

Another challenge is finding a common set of goals to focus on. The Council is composed of strong-minded, passionate INDIVIDUALS, each of whom brings her (or his) own causes and issues to the table. So far we have found a wide path through these interests in a way that allows all of our members to feel part of a collective while still doing their own thing, but it takes careful attention to ensure that we don’t leave people behind. This challenge was particularly felt as we developed our campaign goals, and the breadth of areas that are covered is a reflection of intentionally creating a big tent.

Our third challenge is particularly crucial:  developing measurable goals by which our success—financial and engagement-related—will be judged. I’m certain you all can relate to this. Again, Michele will speak to this in more detail, as well as how we align our work with that of other development officers around the university. And she has some pretty great numbers to share!  I will add, though, that as proud as we are of the success we’ve seen to date, we know there is more potential out there. At the end of the day, our job is to increase support for the many excellent programs at Indiana University, and women are still a relatively untapped resource.

A Successful and Sustainable Program

In closing, I want to lay out several points to help explain why we got off to such a great start, and why we’ve been able to keep our momentum and build on it. 

The first reason for our success is that we grounded ourselves in the research. It is extensive and solid, and the data are extremely useful for arguing that there is opportunity in the institution’s alumnae community, and that it only stands to reason that the institution should capitalize on this opportunity. If you haven’t mined the riches of the Women Give series, available on the WPI website, I strongly encourage you to do so. Women Give 2016 has just been released (or is about to be). 

The second reason is that we designated the first two years of the program’s existence as a founding period, which meant that the inaugural cohort of members were in charge of working out the Council’s structure and organization as well as the program’s overall strategic goals. Because of this, they not only created something that they knew would draw them in, but more importantly, they were invested in it. It felt like THEIR Council and THEIR program from the start.

Third, we focused—and still do—on finding leadership opportunities for the members; in fact, we see the Council as part of a larger “leadership ladder.” Indiana University and the Foundation, despite having more women than men in its alumni community, has some gaps to close on the Board of Trustees and the IU Foundation Board. Among IU Trustees at the moment, only three of the nine members are women, and one of these is our student Trustee who serves a shorter term than the others. 

On the IU Foundation Board, women comprise roughly a third of the membership. The Council has no official role in selecting members for the Foundation Board of Directors, but four female Council members have been invited to join, so far, and the Foundation Board’s committee on directors knows that they can look to our membership for future recruitment. The most recent appointee to the IU Board of Trustees is a member of the Colloquium Steering Committee, and the other, who was elected by IU alumni, was a founding member of the Council. The leadership opportunities through Council membership are also ends in themselves, of course—whether our members join the Foundation Board or become university Trustees, the Council is a place where women’s leadership flourishes.

The fourth reason for our success is that we chose to focus on women’s giving, not women’s causes. This was crucial to ensuring we stayed open to women of every background, perspective, and age, as well as to having men as members. The Council’s mission is focused on boosting the number of women engaged with Indiana University, and increasing their giving to IU, not to just to improving the climate for women at IU (although that is where a lot of our attention and grant-making naturally goes.

Fifth, we are putting our values into action with the WPLC Fund and the grants process that supports its disbursement. Working through the process of selecting recipients for funding is possibly the single most powerful unifying activity of the Council, the one that gives each of us a very deep sense of purpose. For this reason, we make sure that every Council member has an opportunity to serve on the Grants working group at least once during their term. 

Sixth, we created opportunities for our members to make common cause with each other, through events that they host and we support. The research shows that women are drawn to efforts that allow them to get inspiration and energy from working together. Bringing women together also creates a community that can embrace new members; particularly where they are the spouses of alumni who would otherwise not have a connection to the institution, welcoming them as legitimate members can not only secure their support but the increased support of their alumni spouses.

Conclusion

And finally, we are reclaiming our history. It is easy for us to feel as though we have done something new and transformative, but in fact we are, continuing a tradition as old as American higher education, albeit in a bold new way. Every American college and university has benefitted from the contributions of women, whether or not the contributions of most have made it into the history books. (Of course, we’re trying to rewrite those too!)

Although they may have been invisible to the record-keepers, women have been constant, stalwart sustainers of educational enterprises, whether through their time, talent, or treasure. And so it is appropriate that we reach back in time to recognize those unsung heroines of the past and in so doing, reclaim our own history. 

In the 21st century, we bring our founding mothers along with us as we move ahead in seeking transformative change for the future of our institutions and the world in which we live.

Thank you.