Laurie Burns McRobbie

"Feminist Finance Symposium Presentation"


Good afternoon.  It’s great to be back on campus, and to be part of an event that I could only imagine would take place back in 1973 when Women’s Studies was officially launched.  I was a first-year undergraduate at the time, and I got involved in helping with the organizing work going on to create an official major in Women’s Studies.  40 years later, I am very proud to include this minor contribution in my official Indiana University bio! 

I remember that the first student to major in Women’s Studies, whose name I don’t recall, explained her decision by saying that she wanted to study something that would matter to her for the rest of her life, and she would always be a woman.  I think there was some of that in my own decision to major in history, concentrating on women’s history, because I wanted to understand 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. 

Today, I find myself interested in the exact same questions, as I have been throughout my professional life as an information technologist, mostly here at Michigan.  But recently, my interests in women’s roles and women’s history have converged through the study and practice of philanthropy.  

I do a lot of the latter in my current occupation, which I’ll say more about in a moment, and I do the former as a Master’s degree student at Indiana University in Philanthropic Studies.


What does it mean to “study philanthropy”? It’s really about the study of the nonprofit sector, in this country and around the world.  And what do I mean by the word “philanthropy”? You will all be forgiven if dollar signs are what come to mind when you hear the word– it’s about money, right? Big money.  But it’s critical that we also include gifts of time in our definition, because historically and still today, women’s volunteer work has played as foundational a role in societal change as have financial contributions, which women have also made. 

Throughout most of this country’s history, women, prevented from participating as equals in the worlds of business and politics by both laws and societal norms, used voluntary associations to exercise public influence and to shape American concepts of community responsibility.  The historian Kathleen McCarthy calls this a parallel power structure, and it is not a stretch to say that through both volunteer work and financial contributions, American women created the nonprofit sector in this country. 

Women were the founding forces behind organizations we take for granted in our lives today, such as the American Red Cross.  They have led the development of whole areas of human endeavor, such as the discipline and practice of social work.  They have been in the forefront of educational support. 

Those of us who came of age in the 1970s and 1980s tended to disparage certain forms of volunteer work; the priority was economic independence, and at least some volunteer activity had the tinge of copping out, something just for wealthy corporate wives with time on their hands.  But I have come to believe that this was mistaken then, and it’s mistaken now. 

Gifts of time and gifts of treasure are how women have made change in the world, and today, women control vastly more wealth than they ever have. 

Women of the baby boom generation in particular not only are still likely to inherit twice – from their parents and their spouses – but they also have their own money, and are finding socially responsible ways to use it.  We still work for a fair and equitable society because we haven’t had enough control of assets, enough education, and enough of a level playing field for long enough.  But the research shows that today, women are the leaders when it comes to acts of generosity, in both time and treasure.


My path into philanthropy came in a rather unusual way – I married a man who, in July of 2007, became president of Indiana University, which made me the first lady.  In that role, I am naturally pulled into alumni and donor relations, and I discovered very quickly that there were lots of IU alumnae and women donors who were not finding fully satisfying ways to engage with the university; as is true in most institutions of higher education, much of the work of development officers and institutional advancement people has been and to an extent still is focused on male donors, for reasons of tradition and who appears to have the money. 

But I began hearing from women who wanted more but didn’t know how to proceed.  And I also discovered that there was research going on at IU in philanthropy, and particularly in women’s giving. 

All of this coalesced pretty quickly into an agenda for me as first lady.  I began to understand philanthropy as a unique vector through which I could learn about how women have influenced society and especially education.  This afternoon, I want to share some of the research with you and what I believe the implications are. 


The research I’ll be sharing is from the work of Dr. Debra Mesch, who leads the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at the IU School of Philanthropy (we believe we have the world’s first school devoted to the academic study of philanthropy).  She has done a series of studies called “Women Give”, which is based on data from Michigan’s Panel Study of Income Dynamics datasets.  I’ll show you where you can get more information on these studies at the end of my talk.

(View presentation here.)

First and foremost, these studies are founded on recognizing differences in how women give.  This is not a judgment about women or men – why we give and how we give is just different.  But without understanding the ways in which women function differently, universities and nonprofits are missing out on a huge amount of voluntary support because they aren’t focusing on women as primary donors.  But why is this?

We’re still hampered by incorrect perceptions about women’s giving. 

Women are viewed as less philanthropic than men.  Not true. 

We don’t notice the collective impact of women’s giving because women tend to spread their contributions over a number of organizations and causes.  And particularly older women are more likely give anonymously.  

Women defer to their husbands in household charitable decision-making.  Not true. 

Women are more likely to seek a deeper connection with organizations and to demand accountability, which means they may take more time to decide where to give, and thus come across as indecisive.

Women do not make big gifts.  Not true. 

Women do tend towards collective giving, and to value the power of networks to amplify their individual contributions.  All of this masks what’s really going on.

The one category where men give more than women is widowed single males vs. widowed single females. And when only one spouse decides, the wife decides twice as often as the husband. This statistic came out of a specific study of high net worth individuals, so a smaller dataset.  Top motivations for men are organizational efficiency and seeing how their gift can make a difference.

Women are interested in results and outcomes, vs. straight organizational efficiency. This is more about frequency of giving, but boomer and older women in the top 25 percent of combined income and assets give 156% more to charity than men.

Women have real influence. And there is power in numbers.  These are examples of high-level giving groups, but they operate effectively at many levels.  I’m part of a giving group in Bloomington to which I contribute $500/year.  The group as a whole gives over $71,000 a year, to four local nonprofits each year that we select.  That’s almost $18,000 for each of them.

What is the number one reason why women don't give? They aren’t asked.

You can find more information at the Women’s Philanthropy Institute website, where a number of studies are posted.


I’d like to conclude by pointing out why this matters, beyond the importance of women exercising financial intelligence and autonomy.  We’re in an age of declining public support for lots of things, public higher education not the least among these.  Across the nonprofit sector, organizations are depending more and more on private support. 

Women, once again, can make a real and sustained difference in the health of communities and the ability of more vulnerable and often less visible members of those communities to get help. 

And we’re in a leadership crisis, in an era where women still make up appallingly small percentages of elected officials, corporate boards, and top income earners. 

Women’s philanthropy is about women’s leadership.  

Both are motivated by, and motivate others around, a vision for a better future. 

They are about change, impact, and progress. 

They are about individual passion and persistence, made public through large and small actions.

Women’s lives are inextricably entwined with the future – not just through motherhood but through the myriad ways we express our concern and compassion for others, for our communities, and for the institutions that guide and support us.   

So my advice is, don’t wait to be asked, and be as public about your giving of time and treasure as you’re comfortable with.  Examples matter, and remember that you have millions of your foremothers cheering you on!