The report characterizes women’s attention to immediate needs like hunger as a “heart-focused approach.” Photo: Vic Hinterlang/shutterstock
The report characterizes women’s attention to immediate needs like hunger as a “heart-focused approach.” Photo: Vic Hinterlang/shutterstock

Fidelity Charitable’s recently released Women and Giving report for 2021 comes with a lot of solid information on a range of issues, from the impact of the COVID-19 on individual giving to data that illuminate generational and some gender differences in both how and why people give.

Sadly, coupled with those facts is framing around women’s reasons for giving that reads a bit like the character Barclay’s holodeck fantasy about Counselor Troi in “Star Trek: Next Generation.

But before discussing Fidelity’s slight “Men are From Mars, Women Are From Venus” complex, let’s take a look at the numbers, which are derived from an initial and follow-up survey of “charitable individuals”—defined as people who are both able to give and do so.

COVID closed a gender gap

Before the pandemic, Fidelity reports, women were more likely than men to say that giving was a “significant part” of their lives. In 2021, though, 81% of men said giving was that important, just 3% lower than the number of women who reported that belief.

Millennial women surveyed were also deeply impacted by the pandemic. Half said that the pandemic had shifted the importance of giving in their lives versus 31% of Gen X and 25% of baby boomer women, whose giving patterns may be better established, or who may have had more time to get used to life-changing events.

But even as charitable giving took on a new significance for donors, only a significant minority reported giving “notably more” in 2020. In 2020, 43% of men and 34% of women said they gave “notably more,” versus higher percentages, 48% and 54% respectively, who said they gave about the same. A true minority, 9% of men and 12% of women, said they gave “notably less.”

This disparity between how donors rated the importance of giving and how many actually gave more could have many causes, chief among them the many economic disruptions caused by the pandemic. At the same time, these findings suggest approaches for fundraising professionals to make their organizations feel personally fulfilling to donors for whom giving has become a central feature of their identity—particularly if this shift lasts as the economy recovers. Asks and giving campaigns that focus on a donor’s impact and appeal to the donor’s sense of identity as someone who makes a difference may be particularly effective.

Another key insight is the fact that the majority of both men and women (72% and 81% respectively) say they are “passionate about social change” and wish they could do more to create positive changes.

Giving across generations

Many of the generational differences cited in the report will sound familiar to seasoned fundraising professionals. Fidelity reports that millennials—both men and women—are more likely to give online than older generations. However, more millennial women than men use online platforms and social media to give.

In addition to online giving, Fidelity did a “deep dive” into other ways that millennial men and women share their money. Substantially more women than men reported making non-financial gifts and volunteering (a trait shared by women across generations). But both millennial men and women engaged in point-of-sale giving and chose to purchase products made by socially responsible businesses at relatively similar rates. Millennial men were slightly more inclined to use both point-of-sale giving and to purchase products from socially responsible businesses, by 3% and 5% respectively.

Rather than separating the figures by generations, Fidelity instead shares the aggregate numbers of people across generations who reported giving in different ways before focusing its deep dive on the younger set. Still, the aggregate figures show clear trends, both in online giving and accessing other ways to give.

For example, less than a third of women and men give via social media overall, while closer to half of millennials move money that way. Online giving platforms are also preferred more by younger people. More than half of millennial men and women used online giving platforms. In the aggregate, those figures fall to 34% and 43%. Likewise, half of women of all ages and 44% of men of all ages bought products from socially responsible businesses; those same figures for millennials alone rise sharply, to 62% for men and 59% for women.

One method for moving money is used nearly equally by donors of all ages and by millennials alone: point-of-sale giving. But more women as a whole reported making donations this way versus both men across all generations and millennial women.

The charitable investments gender gap

The report also highlights disparities between men and women (both across the board and within the millennial generation alone) when it comes to melding the worlds of charitable giving and finance. Men overall, and millennial men specifically, are either somewhat or significantly more likely to fund microloans, make impact investments, or otherwise use the tools of capitalism in their efforts to create positive social change.

But while that gender gap is real, it’s also important to note that fewer than a third of men and women overall had either made an impact investment or contributed to a business venture “without expectation of repayment.” When it comes to funding microloans, that percentage is barely into two figures for both men and women. And, yes, only 14% of women reported consulting a financial advisor about charitable giving—but only 20% of men had done so.

Zooming in on the rising generation, though, shows a different picture. While the gender gap is still present, millennial men are definitely taking more advantage of financial services and other market-driven modes of giving than are women. Half of millennial men had made an impact investment; 46% gave money to a business venture without an expectation of getting it back; just under 40% had funded microloans.

Those figures for millennial women were 36%, 37% and 29% respectively. And while more millennial women than women in aggregate had consulted a financial advisor (19% versus 14%), a full third of millennial men had done so.

When it comes to knowledge of using charitable giving for tax advantages, the gender gap is even more stark. More than half of men overall are aware that their publicly held stocks can be donated; less than half of women share that knowledge. Less than half of men and women realize that privately held stocks and bonds can be donated, but 5% fewer women know this than do men. When it comes to privately or publicly held assets as a whole, more than a third of women “are not aware” these can be donated versus just 21% of men.

The Fidelity report doesn’t explore why these gaps exist. But others have: Stanford University, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and Lindsey Taylor Wood, the founder of an investment capital firm focused on women-founded companies, are among many commentators who have explored why women tend to have less of a financial education and less confidence in dealing with finances than men. As Lindsey Taylor Wood said in her piece, finance may be one of feminism’s final frontiers.

The disparity is also a bit ironic, considering findings from another branch of Fidelity that when women do invest, we’re marginally better at it than men.

No, Fidelity, women aren’t from Venus

Finally, we come to some of the lovely gender essentialist framing that makes the Fidelity report less valuable than it otherwise could have been.

First, the report fails to mention any outreach to gender non-conforming, transmasculine or transfeminine individuals. Yes, these populations make up a fraction of a percentage of the population, but there are still an estimated 1.4 million transgender people alone in the United States.

It’s evident from this report’s respondents, at least, that cis men and women choose to give for different reasons. And the report’s authors do tone down the sexism by hedging that some of the differences in motivation “could indicate a higher likelihood that men take a head-based approach to philanthropy, while women focus more fully on heart-based reasons for giving.” (Emphasis mine.)

But the authors really step in the gender essentialist mud when they write, “women’s heart-focused approach to giving is reflected in their priorities,” as they point out that women are more likely to prioritize immediate human needs like hunger and shelter, while men expressed a preference for funding economic development and cures for disease.

Yes, feeding people and making sure they have a roof over their heads can be seen as causes that tug on the heartstrings. But it is at least equally true that these are practical, logical issues to prioritize. A cure for the most devastating disease is going to mean little to someone who’s starving, and economic development doesn’t necessarily benefit homeless people who frequently lack the basic necessities to apply for a job in the first place.

It would be just as valid, then—though also sexist—to conclude that women are just plain better at assessing situations holistically and tackling society’s underlying illnesses in practical ways, while men are more myopically focused on single issues and fixing singular symptoms.

And, to be fair, the report is also sexist toward men when it assumes that their greater tendency to consider tax implications in their giving is motivated by self-interest. Given that we still live in a patriarchal system where men are often considered the primary breadwinners, one could also say that these men are taking a “heart-focused approach” by maximizing their income for the family members who depend on it.

Rather than assuming that women care about these things because we’re such emotional creatures, the study’s authors would have done well to stick with the facts—or at least do further research before drawing these kinds of conclusions from them.