Distaff approach to philanthropy

Sun Journal

Women: Female corporate officers are acquiring enough wealth to be interested in giving it away, but traditional charities don't interest them.

February 25, 1999|By Trinity Hartman | Trinity Hartman,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

When Catherine Muther, 51, a powerful player in a Fortune 500 company, left the game and cashed in her stock options last year, she set aside $5 million to start her own foundation, the Three Guineas Fund.

Her money doesn't go to fund traditional charities. Instead, it funds minirevolts.

Muther is one of a growing number of successful corporate women who are rebelling against the conventional notions of philanthropy in America.

These pragmatic women have no interest in supporting ideology, giving to ivy-covered institutions or funding causes favored by men. Their goal is to energize women to be big winners in corporate and political cultures.

In San Francisco, Muther's Three Guineas Fund helped open the Women's Technology Cluster last month. The cluster helps female technological entrepreneurs by providing them with the capital to start their own businesses.

Across the country, Barbara Lee, a young Boston woman who helped start a successful leveraged-buyout company, gave $500,000 in 1997 to help start the White House Project, an effort to change how U.S. society perceives female leaders and to get female presidential nominees on both parties' ballots.

Lee decided she wanted to go beyond the "bricks and mortar" philanthropy she had been solicited for in the past. "I am interested in creating new models for change," she says.

Cleveland-based Hard Hatted Women also has found support from female business owners in its efforts to train low-income women to develop the skills necessary to pursue nontraditional career options, such as construction work or carpentry. Such careers typically offer better pay than those traditional for women.

Since 1992, the program has helped 2,500 low-income women each year.

"These young women are on the leading edge of philanthropy," says Tracy Gary, a longtime figure in the women's philanthropy movement.

This growing activism is fueled by the increasing economic power of women.

In this prosperous era, women's wealth is increasing faster than men's. Assets controlled by women increased 28 percent from 1992 to 1995, while men's wealth grew 25 percent, according to the Estate Tax Data Projections of the Internal Revenue Service.

And women are continuing to climb the corporate ladder. Last year, more than 60 women ranked among the five most highly compensated officers at their Fortune 500 companies. The percentage of women in such positions has more than doubled since 1995, according to Catalyst, a New York-based organization that recruits women for corporate positions.

But these thriving career women won't necessarily be a gold mine for many traditional women's groups that have long struggled for funding.

Six percent of the $6.3 billion in foundation money granted each year is earmarked for women, according to a recent report on women and philanthropy funded by the Kellogg Foundation.

And none of the women who gave more than a million dollars in 1997 donated it to women's organizations.

"If you have `woman' or `girl' in the title of an organization, it's the kiss of death for fund raising in a lot of ways," says Mary Ellen Capek, a women's-philanthropy researcher and author of the Kellogg Foundation study.

More traditional women's organizations have trouble raising money for an array of reasons, among them that:

Men, who have done most of the giving in the past, have never been particularly interested in supporting such groups.

Most older women with money aren't interested in giving to groups they perceive to be feminist.

Younger corporate women, while believers in equality for women, don't want to fund women's organizations with traditional goals.

Gary says corporate women fund things they know best, such as training other women in technology and leadership. "They are better at understanding the root causes of inequality and how to prevent them," she says.

If corporate women have their way, nontraditional women's groups will begin to play a leading role in changing the position of women in corporate America. Muther is optimistic that her Women's Technology Cluster will be one of many similar programs that help advance women.

"I like to think of myself as just a forward point on a growth curve," she says. She hopes the female entrepreneurs she is helping will become the leading philanthropists of tomorrow.

Muther believes that as women gain resources, they will give back to the community. To support that idea, each of the 20 to 25 businesses in the Women's Technology Cluster will place 2 percent of the value of the company into an equity reinvestment fund. When the fund gains value, the new female entrepreneurs will play a role in reinvesting the money.

"We're trying to give women the opportunity to participate in the wealth-creating process by building companies," Muther says. "But we're also trying to take the concept of wealth full circle."

Not every female philanthropist has the same goals.

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