The Rise of Billionaire Women’s Philanthropic Legacies

by Lindsay Guido, CFP®

With names like Laurene Powell Jobs, Melinda French Gates, and Oprah Winfrey, we recognize the billionaire women who are redefining what it means to be philanthropic in the 21st century.

History is rich with role models of women’s philanthropy, beginning in the 1600s when a wealthy English woman, Anne Radcliffe Moulson, donated the first endowed scholarship at Harvard University.

Around the turn of the 20th century, there was a surge in women’s giving and volunteer societies that brought women together under common causes, frequently social services like healthcare and education. Charitable gifts from affluent families such as the Rockefellers and Carnegies were complemented by Clara Barton’s founding of the American Red Cross. Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan worked with the American Foundation for the Blind; Jane Addams, who established Chicago’s Hull House, received the Nobel Peace Prize for her work.

Women are statistically likely to outlive their spouses and manage the family funds, and their wealth continues to grow as they become a rising force in philanthropy. It’s estimated that women will control two-thirds of all the wealth in the U.S. by 2030. They’re also projected to inherit 70% of the $41 trillion intergenerational wealth transfer expected over the next 40 years.

Today’s philanthropists are making headlines not just for their giving, but also for making a statement and broadly sharing their abundance in ways that will continue to improve the quality of human life into the future.

Priscilla Chan created The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative with her husband, Mark Zuckerberg, aimed at eradicating disease and improving education. Beyoncé Knowles-Carter partnered with her husband, Jay-Z, to donate $1.5 million to Black Lives Matter, and co-founded (with Salma Hayek) Chime for Change, an organization focused on education, health, and justice for girls and women in 86 countries. Not to be outdone, Susan Dell, co-founder and board chair of the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, has committed $1.75 billion to improve the lives of children and families living in urban poverty in the United States, India, and South Africa.

MacKenzie Scott

In recent news, MacKenzie Scott was celebrated for an $84.5 million gift to Girl Scouts of the USA. The former wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, she has promised to give away half of her fortune (currently estimated at $28.4 billion) and has been fulfilling that pledge, giving at historic levels to community-focused organizations.

She is among an emerging group of female philanthropists, some whose fortunes are tied to their current or former husbands, who are assuming more prominence in public life. Her philanthropic works have been praised for their speed, the research behind her decisions, no-strings-attached messaging, and a wide scope of beneficiaries, including HBCUs, community colleges, and YMCA/ YWCA organizations.

Melinda French Gates

Melinda French Gates founded the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2000 with her then husband, Bill Gates, which has since made a total of $65.6 billion in grant payments to works involving health and development, education, and improved equity in the U.S. and around the world.

In recent years, French Gates discussed “finding her own voice” and made a core priority of advocacy for women and girls, forging her own path with projects that include the founding of her investment company, Pivotal Ventures, a company working to accelerate the pace of social progress in the United States.

A champion of collective giving, she also founded the Maverick Collective with Crown Princess Mette-Marit of Norway. The organization brings together female philanthropists, and has mobilized over $100 million in resources since its inception and helped more than 6.7 million women and girls to live healthier lives.

Oprah Winfrey

A self-made success story and beloved American icon, Oprah Winfrey’s current net worth is estimated at $2.6 billion.

She has donated more than $400 million to higher education, including 400 scholarships at Morehouse College in Atlanta. Her foundation has given out thousands of grants to nonprofits that support the safety, empowerment, and education of women, children, and families around the world, and it funds the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, a girls-only boarding school in South Africa.

During the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020, the Oprah Winfrey Charitable Foundation committed $12 million to assist vulnerable communities, particularly in cities and states where she once lived, including Mississippi, Nashville, Chicago, and Milwaukee.

Laurene Powell Jobs

Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Apple founder Steve Jobs, is one of the world’s most prominent philanthropists. She founded and runs a sprawling media, political, and charitable empire called Emerson Collective. Using philanthropy, investing, and storytelling, Emerson Collective creates opportunities and develops innovative solutions in education, the environment, immigration, and health equity.

Powell Jobs has been described as a formidable presence in investing circles with an impressive background of her own including an MBA from Stanford and Wall Street tenure with Merrill Lynch and Goldman Sachs.

She plans to direct Emerson to give away her $28 billion in assets during her lifetime or shortly after her death, rather than aiming to fund a perpetuity doling out small amounts of cash until the end of time.  “I inherited my wealth from my husband, who didn’t care about the accumulation of wealth. … I’m not interested in legacy wealth buildings, and my children know that. If I live long enough, it ends with me.”

The Future

Whether women earn their fortunes, inherit them, or receive them through a current or former spouse, there is a unique opportunity at the leading edge of a world being transformed by the wisdom and altruism of women, shaped over many generations.

Within families, Conifer Bay Capital can help women find their role as creator of wealth, financial manager, and/or the family philanthropist who decides where the money goes. Among many worthy causes, it’s helpful to begin by considering where you want to make your mark, and what you want to prioritize, which will inform your mission, vision, and values statement. We can assist those ready to complete tax deductible charitable gifts before year end, establish Donor Advised Funds, or build private foundations.

With women ascending to ever more influential positions in philanthropy, their examples remind us that it’s time for all women to start considering their own legacies. We’re here to help when you’re ready for your story to begin.

November 10, 2022

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