New Metrics Sought During #WomenLeading Philanthropy Symposium

April 3, 2014       Sharon Burns      

Current and empirical research regarding the impact of women in philanthropy is limited. The research available is generally focused on gender balance at all levels in the workforce and the gender wage gap.

While these two important economic issues create the social problems that are at the core of most women philanthropy discussions, leaders of the #WomenLeading Philanthropy Symposium that kicked off yesterday in Chicago challenged the attendees to think beyond these two metrics.

The #WomenLeading Philanthropy Symposium was developed by the Women’s Philanthropy Institute (WPI), one of three academic and research programs at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy in Indianapolis, Ind. The 300 attendees heard from internationally known thinkers on the topic, including Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel who proclaimed the week of March 31-April 4 as Women’s Philanthropy Week.

Conference leaders said that attendance was capped at a lower level to provide and an intimate convening for sharing of knowledge and discussion of trends in the broad topic of women’s philanthropy among leaders in industry and the social sector. The challenge is to broadly envision new research and appropriate measurement tools that can assess women’s significant contributions to the workforce and raise awareness about women’s substantial influences in the philanthropic sector.

So, while the empirical research on women leading philanthropy is not available today, the conversation has started.

The symposium opened with a spirited panel discussion on the topic of “Leading by Leaning On,” a takeoff on the best-selling book, “Lean In” by Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg. The panelists agreed that often “Leaning In” is not enough to change cultural and social dynamics. It was suggested, instead, that “Leaning On” major corporations, through personal investment practices, consumer purchasing power, voting and contributions to political candidates could be very effective. And, with social media, all consumer voices can be heard.

Trisa Thompson, vice president of corporate responsibility for Dell, spoke during the “Lean On” panel. Responsible for global philanthropy and sustainability and advancing diversity at the computer and technology vendor, Thompson said: “While the correlation between successful companies, and companies with woman [on boards] is strong, the research to develop the metrics on direct causation still needs work. We still lack the quantifiable research that says women on boards add definitely value to the bottom line.”

Also on the panel were Joe Keefe, president and CEO, Pax World Funds and Ellen Remmer, senior partner, The Philanthropic Initiative. It was moderated by Avis Jones-DeWeever, Host, Focus Point with Avis Jones-DeWeever on National Public Radio.

In spite of this lack of evidence, a core theme of the conference, Dell has invested in focused research in the communities in which the firm operates globally, to better understand areas where they can provide support, particularly in the area of women’s entrepreneurship.

This research is the first index that measures and ranks conditions for high potential female entrepreneurship development in 17 countries. It demonstrates that the determinants of success for female entrepreneurship are not just personal strengths and aspirations, but a result of the environment in which they operate. By providing a cross-country comparison, the index helps countries identify where they can improve conditions to encourage and support entrepreneurial success among women.

Gender balanced leadership requires a pipeline of educated girls with developed leadership skills and this new research helps develop that pipeline, according to the research results. Additionally, the index highlights critical gaps in the current understanding of female entrepreneurship and might provide the building blocks for future research.

The “Lean On” panel discussion highlighted the control consumers have to choose the corporate culture or government structure they support by using their purchasing power and their votes. Stakeholders, including investors, consumers and voters can push organizations and corporations who do not support gender balance. The panel discussed the disconnect many consumers have between their social values and their investment practices and how in addition to voting at the ballot box and voting with contributions to nonprofits, voting with investment dollars is critical to create change happen across all sectors.

Keefe said that pressure could be brought on firms. “Who elects boards? We do, we own the stocks in our IRA, endowment. Voting Proxies can be used. Do not support a proposed board slate that is all male,” he said. “Statistically, it is economically stupid, to have an all white male board. Make a shareholder resolution. There’s no compelling arguments against this now.”

In the corporate sector, Keefe does not accept the premise that there are not enough women in the pipeline. Keefe said the leaders must “change the behavior of investors.”

The success of the “Lean On” framework relies on an informed public that values gender diversity and is supported by comprehensive and transparent reporting for all corporate, nonprofit and government institutions. Gender imbalance in the C-suite of any institution should concern all stakeholders, consumers, voters and investors alike, according to the panelists.

When these stakeholders are informed and engaged, they can influence any institution and demand change. While the benefit of board quotas continues to be argued, we can set audacious goals and develop the pipeline of qualified women to meet those goals.

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Sharon Burns is a freelance writer for The Nonprofit Times and is CEO at Critical Blink, Inc., an executive consulting company with a focus on strategic technology planning. Her connect is @SharonBurns or CriticalBlink@gmail.com