Five Women Whose Money Matters

The value of women’s money is difficult to ignore, although it is often overlooked when institutions are seeking major funding. There is the assumption that the wealth is in the hands of men and men only. Professional fundraisers first tend to look to corporate leaders as major gift prospects and then to the widows of wealthy men. While widows do indeed hold great philanthropic power, quite often the distribution of their estates already has been determined by the time they are noticed

Here are five profiles of philanthropic women who have transformed lives. They include those who inherited their wealth as well as those who are professionals, teachers, librarians, investors and more. The last was as laundress who frugally saved her money and used it to provide for others so they could have an opportunity she could not.

• Mary Lyon was educated Troy Female Seminary (now the Emma Willard School,) an institution which has had a long tradition of influencing young women to become philanthropic leaders. She became a teacher and never married. She raised the funds for the first women’s college, Mount Holyoke Seminary in 1837 (later Mt. Holyoke College), from donations. Mt. Holyoke was intended to provide an education equal to that available to men in that it included studies in mathematics and the sciences along with those domestic skills by which a woman could become self-sufficient.

• In 1871 Sophia Smith bequeathed $393,105 to create Smith College in Massachusetts. Her will called for “the establishment and maintenance of an institution for the higher education of young women, with the design to furnish for my own sex means and facilities for the education equal to those which are afforded now in our colleges to young men.”

• Mary Elizabeth Garrett played a major role in the establishment of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine with her personal gift of $350,000 in 1889. Garrett used her gift to leverage three conditions that led to historic changes in medical education. The first condition of the gift was that women be admitted to the school on equal terms as men. The second condition stipulated that the Medical School should be exclusively a graduate school and that its four-year program lead to the degree of Doctor of Medicine. Finally Garrett stipulated that requirements for admission specify that applicants have a bachelor’s degree and proof that they have satisfactorily completed courses in physics, chemistry and biology, and have a “good reading knowledge of French and German.” Initially, the trustees turned down Garrett’s gift,but when they were unable to raise the amount needed to open the school they reluctantly accepted the funds.

• Dora Donner Ide, San Francisco steel heiress and collector who died in December 1998 at the age of 82, left more than $111 million to two dozen local and national charities. According to nonprofit experts, the bequest is an early example of the kind of gift that will become increasingly common as the aging World War II generation bequeaths trillions of dollars of accumulated wealth to its heirs and society. Ms. Ide stipulated that her gifts be earmarked for endowments, and that the organizations on the receiving end should already have an endowment at least twice the size of her donation. If they didn’t meet these criteria, the money would be held by the San Francisco Foundation until the organization could meet the requirement. The gift was described as “sophisticated” by San Francisco Foundation CEO Sandra Hernandez, who added, “She understood that if you give an endowment and they don’t know how to manage money it’s not a good gift.”

• Osceola McCarty left school in the sixth grade to support her family by working as a laundress. In 1994 she made a gift of $150,000 from money she had saved to the University of Southern Mississippi, a school she never attended, to provide scholarships for African American young women. She wanted to provide the education she could never receive for other young women.

I thought you might enjoy these stories of the impact of women’s philanthropy during Women’s History Month. To read more about the impact of donations made by women, go to

Sharon Rabb
Project Specialist
Campaign Consultation, Inc.

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Sharon Rabb has more than 25 years of experience in fundraising and nonprofit management for both large and small organizations. She currently serves as Project Specialist for tCampaign Consultation, Inc . Rabb holds a Master Degree in nonprofit management from Notre Dame of Maryland University and wrote her thesis on Women and Philanthropy: a design for approaching female donor prospects. Read more.

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