The Goldilocks Principle in philanthropy

What Matters

Consider two extreme views of philanthropy.

Philanthropy is easy. Everyone is a philanthropist. To be human is to be generous. Everyone can help and thrive by doing so. Just give and don’t worry. Every little gift matters. A smile can make someone’s day. Even if you fake a smile, the effort can make you feel better and make you want to smile for real.

Philanthropy is hard. How can you make a difference? How do you choose among so many causes, and how much can one contribution or one person really improve things? How do you gauge how much to accumulate and how much to give to others? And then some will criticize you no matter what. There is a reason for the saying, “No good deed goes unpunished.”

Somewhere between too easy and too hard, we have the space of Goldilocks philanthropy, where just like Goldilocks’s choice of porridge, one can find a Zen-like space, having made an informed decision that feels “just right.”

As you might imagine, there is a robust ecosystem of philanthropic advisors to foundations and affluent families, some with exclusive training programs that impart special private knowledge for those who have the resources to qualify. 

For the rest of us, Stanford scholar Lucy Bernholz (who joined us for a webinar last December) has written a fascinating book, How We Give Now, which depicts how regular folks from a wide variety of backgrounds give their money, time, and data. She cautions us to be more careful with the data we freely give to powerful tech companies who then monetize this resource for ends that we may not appreciate. Helpfully, she suggests alternatives.

Navigating seemingly irreconcilable extremes can be a fruitful way of making progress. Extremes can contain elements of truth, but it is not obvious how to bring them together since they reside in systems of thinking or communities that define themselves in opposition to each other.

When you encounter a Goldilocks Principle in the press or science, it usually conveys the successful reconciliation of strong opposing trends that tend to pull outcomes to the extremes. But sometimes, reconciliation is not feasible or desirable.

We would not want to split the difference with those advocating human bondage, Nazism, or other odious constructs. But even in the process of discerning that there are compromises that are worse than conflict, we clarify our values and remind ourselves what we stand for. 

For example, consider Professor Regina Rini’s Goldilocks perspective on the social justice tensions on our campuses:

Here are two thoughts we ought to be able to hold in our heads at the same time. First: Our institutions are still riven with centuries-old inequalities. Second: Sometimes well-intentioned people respond to this problem by overcorrecting and inflicting unfairness on others. Keeping both thoughts active at once is difficult. Finding actual solutions is even harder. But we make no progress by imaginatively exchanging real life for the superhero Götterdämmerung of Woke vs. anti-Woke. Fight scenes are entertaining; they don’t save the world.

Sometimes we need to fight to save the world, but such a fight should come with a very high degree of certainty that we exclude contrary positions because they are false and not just because they are contrary. 

Our daily lives and philanthropy are full of examples of balancing contrary positions.

We can see the Goldilocks Principle invoked as foundations seek to affect the policy process. A recent report by the Center for Effective Philanthropy depicts the delicate balancing act foundations engage as they try to bridge gaps and reconcile contradictions to inform and influence policies relevant to their missions without running afoul of the prohibition against lobbying by private foundations.

One foundation leader contends: “If foundations do not seek to influence public policy that furthers the goals of their grantmaking, they are undermining their own work.” Sometimes seeking the Goldilocks position is not an option, but an obligation one has to one’s purpose.

In the world of journalism, philanthropy is playing a more prominent role at a time when at least one scholar contends that the Goldilocks compromises of media neutrality and non-partisanship no longer hold because the extremes of our current media landscape have changed.

Professor Rosen argues that the extremes are no longer anchored by the left and the right as they were in the 20th century. He contends that the chasm is now between those who favor democracy and those against it. Whether or not you agree, if we search for Goldilocks compromises, we also need to make sure we describe the landscape correctly.

On this topic, you may like to join me on December 8 at noon U.S. Eastern time, when I speak with John Mutz, former head of Lilly Endowment Inc., and a keen commentator on the role of philanthropy in the future of journalism.

We are also entering the season of giving, which now includes Giving Tuesday. In whatever way you decide to be part of this “global generosity movement unleashing the power of radical generosity,” be it with your time, your donation, or your smile, it is hard not to be awed by the multitudes who will find a way to express their generosity that will be “just right.”

Dean Amir Pasic

Amir Pasic
Eugene R. Tempel Dean

Inside the donor mind: Giving to women’s and girls’ causes

women's and girls' causes

By Jeannie Infante Sager, director, Women’s Philanthropy Institute

Each year, when the Women’s Philanthropy Institute (WPI) releases its Women & Girls Index (WGI), we wait to see how far the needle has moved on giving to women’s and girls’ organizations.

In this year’s report, we saw some progress in terms of year-over-year growth. Yet support for women’s and girls’ organizations still remains a small subset of total philanthropy in the U.S.: 1.9 percent. 

The newest findings unleash a sense of urgency for giving to women’s and girls’ causes. They are also a reminder that donors to women’s and girls’ causes must continue to grow in terms of number and scale. And as giving to this subsector continues to expand, we are learning more about the patterns that unite donors. Aided by WPI’s body of research and personal anecdotes, below is a roadmap that helps peel back the curtain on characteristics of and future directions for donors to women’s and girls’ causes.

Why choose women’s and girls’ causes?

Donors who support women’s and girls’ causes expressed motivations in terms of their personal experiences—driven in part by their own history with gender discrimination, pay inequality, and more. Many donors are also united by the belief that funding women’s and girls’ initiatives leads to societal progress. As famed donor Melinda French Gates shares: “When we invest in women and girls, we are investing in the people who invest in everyone else.”

High-net-worth women donors echo sentiments about personal experiences and a belief that funding women is a “nexus for many other issues, including poverty, climate change and wealth inequality.” These donors are also interested in taking risks to bet big on women and girls. They have a preference for going upstream—funding systemic change rather than direct service.

Beyond writing a check

There are numerous ways that donors are creatively supporting women and girls. Research on women’s fund and foundation donors reminds us that many donors want to do more than simply write a check. Participating in activities that enable more engagement is an important aspect of advancing women’s and girls’ causes.

From serving on a nonprofit board to volunteering to simply sitting down and talking with a friend about why this kind of giving matters, this group of donors has adopted a holistic, engaged approach to supporting women and girls.

The value in shedding “anonymous”

Choosing to give anonymously is a personal decision for donors to any cause. But social norms research underscores the potential impact that visibility may bring to this subsector. Messages about rising levels of giving to women’s and girls’ causes resonate with all donors—both men and women. In other words, when you talk about your investments in women and girls, you may inspire someone else to follow suit.

Today, there are more ways than ever for donors to be “visible” with their giving. Sharing on social media, speaking at a conference or dinner, and asking nonprofits how you can champion their causes all can help inspire others to contribute.

Moreover, the type of message a donor relays matters. Focusing on the rising popularity of women’s and girls’ causes (for example, “Philanthropic support for women’s and girls’ organizations surpassed $8 billion in 2018”) increases people’s intentions to donate to those causes, compared to focusing on current levels of giving (for example, “Philanthropic support for women’s and girls’ organizations represents a small share of overall charitable giving: 1.9 percent”). This tactic is equally effective for women and men donors.

At the end of the day: give

Raising the 1.9 percent of charitable giving that goes to women and girls can feel like a massive summit to scale. Changing that number will not happen overnight, but will only shift when we are inspired and motivated to create real change around gender equity.

My advice for donors? Follow what excites you, wrestle with the entrenched challenges of our time, and reflect on your own desires for the world you want to see. Donors to women’s and girls’ causes have laid the foundation for a highly engaged form of giving. Continue to lead by example. 

Measuring giving to women and girls

Women & Girls Index 2021 report cover

By the Women's Philanthropy Institute

Since its inception, the Women’s Philanthropy Institute (WPI) has conducted, curated, and disseminated research on how and why women give to charity. In the last few years, we have also responded to the growing interest in gender equity by adding a research focus on women as the beneficiaries of philanthropy. 

Organizations that serve women and girls appear in every nonprofit sector, from education to health to the environment and more. Events like the Women’s March and the #MeToo movement have drawn a spotlight on gender-related issues such as reproductive rights and sexual harassment and abuse. 

More recently, the COVID-19 pandemic, racial justice movement, and climate crisis have highlighted inequities—including gender disparities—in the United States and around the world. 

WPI responded to this surge in interest by developing the Women & Girls Index (WGI), a tool to measure giving to women’s and girls’ causes. The first WGI was published in 2019, and we continue to update the Index annually. 

The WGI provides those who study and practice philanthropy, as well as policy makers and the general public, with a better understanding of the landscape of women’s and girls’ organizations, especially the amount of charitable donations they receive. 

Developing the Women & Girls Index (WGI) 

Our team’s first challenge in seeking to measure giving to women and girls was to define women’s and girls’ organizations. To be included in the Index, organizations had to meet one of the following criteria: 

  • The organization is dedicated to serving primarily women and girls (for example, Planned Parenthood or Girls Inc.)
  • The organization is a collective of women and girls that serves general philanthropic purposes (for example, Junior Leagues or women’s auxiliaries)

Measuring giving to women and girls is challenging because many organizations have multiple programs that serve different populations. To examine organizations through a gender lens, we developed a list of more than 100 different words and phrases to look for within nonprofits’ names and mission statements on their IRS Form 990s and other forms nonprofits file. 

We then searched the full population of charitable organizations—more than 1.3 million registered 501(c)(3)s—for those terms. We also spent a lot of time hand-checking organizations to confirm the accuracy of our methods. Overall, we have verified more than 90 percent of total WGI revenue and assets. 

Groundbreaking information on WGI organizations 

Thanks to the Women & Girls Index, today we know more than ever about organizations serving women and girls. Some highlights from the 2021 WGI update include: 

  1. Philanthropic support for women’s and girls’ organizations surpassed $8 billion in 2018, and represents a small but growing share of overall charitable giving (1.9 percent).
  2. Women’s and girls’ organizations are growing faster than other charitable organizations along financial measures like revenue and expenses, indicating they are maturing as a subsector.
  3. While philanthropic support for women’s and girls’ organizations increased across the board, particular types of organizations within this subsector—such as those focused on the environment (37.1 percent) and civil rights and advocacy (32.3 percent)—experienced especially strong year-over-year growth from 2017 to 2018.

These findings highlight both gaps and growth in philanthropic support for women and girls. Philanthropic support for WGI organizations continues to represent a small share of overall charitable giving. 

As conversations around sexual harassment, pay equity, the “She-cession” and more gain attention from the public and the media, the WGI reveals an imbalance between that attention and philanthropic support for these organizations. 

Despite this disparity, there is also notable growth. In 2018, more than 47,000 charitable organizations received donations totaling $8.2 billion, growing year-over-year with a particularly strong increase from 2017 to 2018. 

Women’s and girls’ organizations are also maturing as a subsector in recent years, growing faster than other charitable organizations along financial measures like revenue and expenses. And the growth experienced by certain types of WGI organizations (like those focused on the environment and civil rights and advocacy) suggests that donors may increasingly see an intersection between gender equality and other pressing topics, including climate change and racial equity. 

How you can use the Women & Girls Index 

At the Women’s Philanthropy Institute, we make sure all of our research has practical applications for donors and fundraisers alike. As a free, publicly available resource, the Women & Girls Index embodies that goal. 

For fundraising professionals and nonprofit leaders at women’s and girls’ organizations, the WGI provides a strong case for support. By emphasizing how investing in women and girls lifts entire communities, WGI organizations can leverage the current spotlight on gender equality. The WGI can also be used to benchmark organizations alongside others, and to help set fundraising goals. 

Donors can use the WGI data to identify gaps in resources and tailor their giving to the distinct needs and characteristics of women’s and girls’ organizations. The WGI demonstrates that organizations dedicated to women and girls appear in every nonprofit subsector, spanning causes such as education, health, the environment, and the arts. This offers donors the opportunity to integrate giving to women and girls into their existing funding priorities. 

They can also advance gender equality by encouraging other organizations they support to consider equity issues such as the gender composition of their board and staff and employee compensation. These strategies can complement one another as part of a holistic approach to supporting women and girls. 

Finally, we created the Women & Girls Index to be a resource for our fellow researchers who want to incorporate a gender lens into their work. The data has been available since the WGI was created in 2019, but this year we have made it more accessible by creating a user-friendly website, Using this site, anyone can download the full list of WGI organizations, as well as search for organizations based on criteria like focus area, size, and geographic location. 

We hope you’ll glance through the 2021 WGI report and infographic summary, and then head over to the WGI website. Please let us know what you think, and how the WGI helps you to focus your giving on women’s and girls’ causes, or shape your fundraising messages to appeal to new donors!