Memo to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner: Next time you’re seeking a stimulus to jump-start the American economy, just look across the gender divide. Specifically, at sisters Swanee Hunt and Helen LaKelly Hunt, whose $10 million gift in 2006—a “spark” in philanthropy-speak—challenged other wealthy women to make their own million-dollar grants, totaling $150 million, for programs to improve the lives of girls and women. Three years later, they’ve beaten their own goal. On Wednesday, the sisters, inheritors of the gigantic oil fortune amassed by their father, Texan H.L. Hunt, announced that more than $176 million has been committed, striking evidence of the growing power of the female purse.
“I put in six, she put in four,” Swanee, former U.S. ambassador to Austria and founding director of Harvard’s Women and Public Policy Program, told the celebratory audience of donors and guests at the Brooklyn Museum, not needing to specify “million” for a group that has so many of them. “And we said, ‘Let’s get it matched.’” The campaign is called Women Moving Millions, a virtual initiative that is funneling its cash through the Women’s Funding Network to one or more of 145 women’s foundations around the globe. Of the 100 individual donors, most (90) come from the U.S.; the rest live in Australia, Canada, Germany, and South Africa. Two donors are men.
“What if it had been Lehman Sisters? I do believe that if 50 percent of the financial community had been female, the judgment would have been more solid.”
Which means 98 women are the stars of this galaxy. Among them: former television programmer Loreen Arbus; Atlanta philanthropist Kayrita Anderson; filmmaker and social activist Abigail Disney; New Yorker Barbara Dobkin, a longtime advocate for Jewish causes; Tracy Gary, a Pillsbury heiress who’s spent her life giving her fortune to feminist, environmental, and other causes; Canadian Body Shop co-owner Margot Franssen, whose donation went to the Canadian Women’s Fund. “It does operate with the efficiency of a business,” she says in a video posted on the charity’s Web site. “So that I know I’m getting my money’s worth out of my donation. But when it operates with the heart of a woman, I know that it takes my feelings into account as well.”
That gender distinction is echoed by many of the donors, including Jennifer Buffett, who, with her husband Peter—youngest son of Warren Buffett—runs NoVo, their own family foundation. “Women define wealth differently from men,” Buffett told me. “For women, it’s about the health of community, the health of the family, the quality of life. Women ask, ‘Do I have access to fresh food?’” And men? “For men it’s more of a competitive game,” she said. “More based on me, myself and I. It’s more materialistic: Am I getting the girl? Am I getting the job? Am I getting the stuff?”
“It’s about community,” added Swanee Hunt, whose own inheritance took a giant leap forward when she and her sister long ago challenged their brother’s command of the family fortune. After the wealth was, in a friend’s word, “readjusted,” Swanee and Helen found themselves very rich indeed, and started giving it away. Today, she says she’s doing it in part for other donors. “There’s a whole huge group of women who want to be part of this,” she explained to me. “But they didn’t want to be exposed. They don’t want to worry whether people are their true friends.” Or just after them for their money. “So by starting this fund, we’re making it safe for them. Basically what we say is, ‘Get over it.’”
The dedication of Women Moving Millions to changing the world through philanthropy (described by Gloria Steinem as "the world's second oldest profession") is palpable. “Instead of safety nets, we need trampolines,” exulted one of the donors at the Brooklyn celebration. “It’s about standing up for what we believe,” said another. “I’ve done a lot of amazing things,” announced one donor. “I have climbed mountains and dived ocean waters. But the very best thing I’ve done is to give this $1 million gift.”
So, I wondered, if women now have all this money, and are getting more comfortable about using it, could women actually be the ones to save our economy today?
“You mean, what if it had been Lehman Sisters?” Swanee Hunt asked me back. “I do believe that if 50 percent of the financial community had been female, the judgment would have been more solid.”
That faith in women’s financial abilities was also the topic for a different group of women at the Council on Foreign Relations on Monday, during the“Women Entrepreneurs Driving Global Economic Growth” panel. Dina Habib Powell, who runs Goldman Sachs’s 10,000 Women program, a global initiative to provide business-school training for women in the developing world, said that corporations now understand that funding women’s advancement “is just smart business.” She described the hunger for such education—600 Rwandan women applied for the first 60 slots there; 1,000 women applied in China—saying women just want the skills. Amanda Ellis, of the World Bank, pointed out that a study in 1999 “showed that a 1 percent increase in girls finishing secondary school fed through into a 0.3 percent increase in GDP.”
And when I asked the same question about solutions to our current financial crisis—can women do it?—Fortune magazine’s Pattie Sellers, who has spent a quarter-century chronicling the nation’s business leaders (starting with “white men—that was the world back then.”), and now runs Fortune’s famed Most Powerful Women Summit, didn’t hesitate.
“I think a lot of the classically female leadership traits—like flexibility and adaptability and our ability to juggle, and collaboration, and communication and empathy—are all the things you need today to manage and to lead,” she said, implying that she could have made that list of qualities much longer. “And so I think that gives women a certain advantage.” But maybe this crisis is just too big for any one group.
“I think to get out of this,” Sellers added, “we need both genders.”
Probably. Which makes it especially rewarding that both are now at the table.
Lynn Sherr is a former ABC News correspondent, author of Failure Is Impossible: Susan B. Anthony in Her Own Words and Tall Blondes, a book about giraffes. She is also co-editor of Peter Jennings: A Reporter's Life. Her most recent book, a memoir—Outside the Box: My Unscripted Life of Love, Loss and Television News—is out in paperback.