Joanna K Drakos/shutterstock
Joanna K Drakos/shutterstock

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” wrote Charles Dickens in “A Tale of Two Cities” about the years leading up to the French Revolution. It may also be a good description of how fundraising by organizations serving women and girls has fared in the coronavirus era, another time of great disruption.

In 2020, a pandemic, political anxiety and a historic protest movement for racial justice are pulling donors’ attention in different directions. That dynamic, combined with related economic uncertainty, has meant that some organizations are experiencing a windfall, while others are struggling to get by, depending on their funding sources and niche within the arena.

Seven months into the health crisis that started shutting the world down in March, organizations like all-women’s Smith College are thriving financially. In its 2020 fiscal year, which ended June 30, Smith raised $63 million, an increase over 2019. Applications are up 17% since President Kathleen McCartney, the first in her family to attend college, joined Smith in 2013. And just this month, the college announced a new $50 million gift from an anonymous alumna, the largest donation in Smith’s nearly 150-year history.

Similarly, at the League of Women Voters of the United States, 2020 is shaping up to be a banner fundraising year. In celebration of the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, the league has been holding a “Women Power the Vote” campaign to encourage people to cast ballots in the upcoming presidential election.

The organization’s tax-exempt charitable arm, the League of Women Voters Education Fund, raised $5.5 million by the close of its fiscal year on June 30, up from $3.3 million in 2019. The amount of money raised from foundation grants grew by more than 80% between September 2018 and the same month this year. And thanks to, a website designed to provide nonpartisan information to voters in every state, the League of Women Voters has attracted new corporate donors.

“We have developed a lot of partnerships with companies concerned about democracy,” says Cecilia Calvo, the league’s chief development officer. With, she adds, the league “offered corporations a chance to co-brand [with the League of Women Voters], and they have taken to this readily for both their employees and customers.”

But not all organizations in this space are faring so well. YWCA USA is having one of its worst years. It started an emergency fundraising campaign in April to raise $25 million to help its 204 local YWCAs, many of which are struggling to stay afloat, says Development Director Katie Brennan. “A lot of their revenue comes from providing services like childcare, and they rely on state funding, also,” she says. “As these resources have dried up, a lot of locals have closed or scaled back. They are basically experiencing a crisis.”

The Women’s Funding Network, which represents some 120 women’s funds and foundations, started a similar emergency campaign to stabilize its financially threatened members. The Response, Recovery, and Resilience Collaborative Fund, created with a $1 million initial gift from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and other donors, is working toward a goal of raising $5 million in the next few months, says Elizabeth Barajas-Roman, the network’s chief executive.

Fundraising by and for charities that serve women and girls has been growing since the 1970s, but there are also signs of financial fragility among these organizations. The Women’s Philanthropy Institute at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy released a new Women & Girls Index for the first time last year. It found that more than 45,000 organizations dedicated to women and girls received $6.3 billion in contributions in 2016. That was only 1.6% of all contributions made to charity that year. The research showed that nonprofits serving women and girls are substantially smaller than other charities, with fewer employees. They also spend less on pay and benefits.

Some women’s organizations that focus on racial equity have been able to benefit this year from a shift among grantmakers toward promoting equality. “There are new foundations coming into the women and girls space because we deal with racial and gender equity,” says Ruth McFarlane, vice president of advancement at the Ms. Foundation for Women. “We have raised more than $4 million in contributions, nearly half of our goal for the year, and we just finished the first quarter.”

That’s welcome news, considering one of the most prominent funders in this space, the NoVo Foundation, backed away from its formerly celebrated commitment to women and girls’ issues, announcing in May that it would be ending multi-year funding, putting all grants under review, and letting go an entire program team.

While that move sparked significant backlash, many funders have taken steps to make life easier on grantees. Female-led charities applaud a trend this year among foundations that other types of nonprofits have noticed, as well. “It was heartening to see traditional foundations relax requirements, converting grants to unrestricted support, relaxing deadlines,” says Barajas-Roman at the Women’s Funding Network. At YWCA USA, says Brennan, grantmakers allowed her organization to shift dollars earmarked for programs to its new emergency fund to support beleaguered local YWCAs.

Many charities that serve women and girls report that their fundraising returns from corporations have declined this year. Mothers Against Drunk Driving is one example: “MADD pre-COVID was on a trajectory to have the best sponsorship revenues in a decade” from companies, says Chief Executive Adam Vanek. “Then COVID happened, and companies couldn’t commit.” Starting last month, he says, “companies could see where they were and began to call me back about 2021. Almost all have come back to renew their partnership or even upgrade for 2021.”

“There has definitely been a slowdown in corporate support,” says Barajas-Roman at the Women’s Funding Network. Some network members “tell us they have been able to keep support from corporations, but at a reduced level,” she says. “Or there was a rolling back of corporate pledges.”

Barajas-Roman says that some women’s organizations may be able to take advantage of virtual events, many of which have attracted new and larger audiences, including some people from other countries. “They can tell corporations that a global network is tuning in,” she says. “That gives you extra leverage for corporate support.”

Many charities serving women and girls have been successful in maintaining or even increasing donations this year from individual donors and families who make large gifts. The Ms. Foundation was the recipient of a summer contribution of $3 million from Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s chief executive, who has been on a giving spree this year. “He attached very few strings to the gift,” says fundraiser McFarlane. “His interest is around women of color and the COVID crisis.”

At MADD, Vanek is pleased by donations this year from affluent supporters who give $10,000 or more. “We have seen unshakeable commitment to still cut the checks,” he says. “Major donors rose to the occasion, some made their donation early. They have been very generous.”

As for more modest gifts to MADD made through direct mail or online, Vanek is relieved that those have held up for the most part this year. “There has been no decline in direct mail, though we were worried about this,” he says. “Online giving is maintaining, we are only about 5% behind there.”

Probably because it’s an election year, the League of Women Voters is beating its own fundraising projections for both direct mail and online gifts. Online donations alone have increased by 77% since 2018. “Regular mail is doing well also, says Rose Simmons, the league’s direct marketing director. “We didn’t see any falloff.”

Even as they continue raising money from their existing donors, some organizations for women and girls say it’s been harder this year to recruit new donors. “Our long-term donors are stepping up, but fewer new donors are coming in,”  says Janelle Cavanagh, vice president of strategic partnerships at the Global Fund for Women, a San Francisco charity that supports women’s rights initiatives around the world. The fund raised $29.5 million this fiscal year, which ended June 30, up from $18.9 million in 2019.

When it comes to raising money by holding events, charities serving women and girls have seen mixed results. Some organizations like MADD have tried to switch live fundraising events to a virtual format, only to see returns drop. Returns from the charity’s Walk Like MADD online event are down 40% from last year’s in-person walkathon.

The Ms. Foundation had a better experience when it replaced its sit-down May gala, which typically lasts about four hours, with a virtual one-hour “Feminist Block Party.” The online event drew 2,000 people and hundreds of new donors,” says McFarlane. The virtual party, she adds, “netted more than the live event. We will hold this again, regardless of whether we go back to a live gala.” Another benefit: The virtual party “got lots and lots of attention from women under 50, which has been really exciting at a time when the foundation has been challenged to recruit younger donors,” McFarlane says.

The Magee-Womens Research Institute & Foundation at the University of Pittsburgh got a record response when it decided to push ahead with two fundraising events that are held outdoors. Its fly fishing competition raised $64,000 for women’s cancer research, while a golf outing raised another $37,000. Says Janice Devine, the organization’s executive director of development: “Both of these live events raised more than they ever had before.”