Best Practices in Philanthropy: Focus on Women



by Dale McGowan

Executive Director, Foundation Beyond Belief

There’s a strong and growing consensus in philanthropy that aid directed to women, especially in developing countries, has a greater positive impact overall than aid directed to men. It’s no surprise, then, that three of our beneficiaries for the current quarter—Equality Now, Circle of Women, and the Haitian Health Foundation—have programs focused primarily or entirely on women and girls.


A little history

In the 1970s and ’80s, a “Women and Development” movement brought the issue of gender-specific aid to the forefront. But many women’s advocates and development experts felt that it was the right idea delivered in the wrong way—that in addition to being patronizing, it was often ineffective, since resources were too often simply poured into local communities with no attempt to address the larger systemic and cultural issues that put women in that position in the first place.

In the 1990s, the approach shifted. Instead of directing money at women as victims of poverty, development began to focus on empowering women as “agents of their own improvement” and of their families and communities through microfinance, education, and advocacy of better social policies. The consensus in the development community is that it works.

The reasoning behind the focus

  1. Women and girls suffer disproportionately from extreme poverty. Nearly seven in ten of the 1 billion people living on less than a dollar a day are female. 
  2. Women work two-thirds of the world’s working hours, produce half of the world’s food, yet earn only 10 percent of the world’s income and own less than 1 percent of the world’s property.
  3. Mothers with some education immunize their children 50 percent more often than mothers who are not educated, and HIV/AIDS spreads twice as quickly among uneducated girls as among girls with at least some education.
  4. Income in the hands of women contributes more to household food security and child nutrition than income controlled by men.
  5. Agricultural productivity increases dramatically when women get the same amount of resources as men, leading to better food and nutrition security for all.
  6. Women’s education and equitable status within the household have a strong positive correlation to the reduction of child malnutrition. The Food Policy Research Institute has estimated that if family decision making were equalized, nearly 2 million more children in Sub-Saharan Africa would be adequately nourished.
  7. An educated girl is likely to marry later, have fewer children, and watch those children escape the poverty cycle. She is more likely to have her own income and spend it on her children’s health. She will have better opportunities to improve her community, into which she is typically more socially integrated.

There is a temptation to say that aid should be gender-blind. But because cultural gender divisions tend to put men in positions of political and social authority, “gender-blind” aid ends up overwhelmingly benefiting men to the exclusion of women. Aid focused on improving the lives of women, on the other hand, tends to benefit both.

What are your thoughts on the role of gender in development and philanthropy?



United Nations Development Programme

International Food Policy Resource Institute

Mehrotra, Santosh, “Child Poverty.” In Elgar Companion to Development Studies, David Clark, ed. (Elgar, 2006)

Women and Anti-Poverty Efforts in Developing Countries,” World Savvy Monitor, Issue 9, May 2009.