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How Women Give—and Invest—for Change

Illustration of the back of two women standing in front of a large wall with six painted-on green bar charts of varying heights. The women are holding paint rollers and appear to be painting the bars

AMERICAN WOMEN ARE SEEING REAL PROGRESS when it comes to financial equality and empowerment, despite a still persistent wage gap. Globally, women’s accumulated assets could reach $110 trillion by 2025, according to the Boston Consulting Group1, and women are using their rising economic influence to make a difference in the world in new and powerful ways—including investing in companies and non-profits that promote greater women’s equality.

Women have long been more likely than men of similar net worth to donate to philanthropic causes supporting women and girls.2 What’s more, they’re taking the lead when it comes to investing in companies that reflect their social and environmental principles, says Jackie VanderBrug, head of Sustainable and Impact Investment Strategy in the Chief Investment Office for Merrill and Bank of America Private Bank. In fact, according to a 2019 survey, 59% of women were interested in sustainable investing.3

“Begin with what matters to you and what change you would like to see in your community or in the world. Then let your purpose and your goals guide how you deploy your assets.”

Claire Costello, Managing Director for Philanthropic Solutions at Merrill and Bank of America Private Bank

“Women have been at the forefront of both philanthropy and sustainable Investing for some time, often in an unsung, unnoticed way,” says Claire Costello, Managing Director, Philanthropic Solutions, Bank of America Private Bank. “Today, they are poised to make a significant impact by using their resources for the greater good.”

In the conversation below, VanderBrug and Costello share many useful insights based on the work they’ve done advising women interested in both giving and investing for change.

Q: How are women putting their money where their values are?
Claire Costello: One of the things both Jackie and I do, in our different but complementary disciplines, is to help guide and advise women and their families about effective and fulfilling ways of using their money for the greater good, as they define it. Certainly on the philanthropy side, the women I speak with tend to see giving as a means by which to articulate their values. And I know that Jackie finds that the same is true regarding the way women invest.

Jackie VanderBrug: That’s very much the case. In my experience, women are increasingly aware of and excited about the potential of investing in causes that matter to them. As a parallel to what Claire said, we’ve seen that, for women, the goal is less likely to be about beating a benchmark and more likely about achieving a goal. What’s more, when women express their goals, they are generally expressing goals for themselves and for their families, as well as for their communities and future generations.

Q: Many women—men, too—tend to think of philanthropy and sustainable investing as separate, but you’re suggesting that they go hand in hand. Why?
VanderBrug: Giving and sustainable investing are complementary tools. Philanthropic giving alone is not sufficient to make the change many people want to see in the world. But it plays an essential role, and also enables you to learn more about both the systemic roots of problems and the nature of solutions. Investments offer the potential to use market forces to make change at scale—but may be limited by required returns or size. When combined, philanthropy and sustainable investments help increase your opportunity to drive positive social and environmental outcomes.

Costello: I agree with Jackie—when they’re used in tandem, they can help achieve maximum impact. Even if you’re not deploying both giving and sustainable investing to effect change, it helps to be mindful of how they work together. For example, you may be philanthropically focused on climate change, giving to organizations that promote solutions, while your portfolio mix might include thermal coal producers. One might see this as giving with one hand and taking it back with the other.

Header reads: How Women Give—and Invest—for Change. To the left, there is an illustration of a woman looking at a paper with red bar charts. A section to the right is  slightly apart from the rest and there is a bow at the top of the bar, giving it the appearance of a gift.
Header reads: How Women Give—and Invest—for Change. To the left, there is an illustration of a woman marching up a set of red bar charts, which are spaced to look like stairs. One the left, the text reads: $110 Trillion: The amount women could hold in financial assets by 2025. The source line reads: Source: BoA Global Research, 2020
Header reads: How Women Give—and Invest—for Change. To the left, there is an illustration of a woman’s head with a thin white halo around it. The halo has stock abbreviations and numbers on it, resembling a ticker tape. One the left, the text reads: 59%: Percent of women interested in sustainable investing. The source line reads: Source: Morningstar, 2019
Header reads: How Women Give—and Invest—for Change. To the left, there is an illustration of a silhouette of a woman inside a clear donation job. A woman’s hand is putting a coin in the jar. One the left, the text reads: 46.7%: Percent of female donors who give to causes supporting women and girls, vs. 37.1% of male donors. The source line reads: Source: “All in for Women and Girls,” Women’s Philanthropy Institute, July, 2019

Q: Is there anything that holds women back from sustainable investing?
VanderBrug: Historically, women have viewed themselves as savers and budgeters, but not necessarily as investors. At the same time, according to “Women & Financial Wellness: Beyond the Bottom Line,” a study conducted by Merrill and Age Wave, 41% of women report their biggest financial regret as not investing more.4 That’s why talking about avoiding regrets, especially regarding adding sustainable investments to a portfolio, is part of my conversation with women.

Q: Do you see the recent crisis and shifts in the health situation in our country having an impact on where women want to put their money?
Costello: The current crises have certainly heightened our awareness on so many fronts. The stark reveal around the disparities so deeply embedded in our society has shown us, yet again, the disproportionate burden women bear. These crises have also been catalytic in spurring generosity. Women have continued to be generous with their time and dollars where support is needed most. We will need the benefit of hindsight to evaluate where dollars—from women and men—were donated during this time. But it is apparent, in real time, that women are stepping up in their customary way for their communities, in addition to being essential workers both inside and outside the home.

VanderBrug: As the coronavirus emerged, you might have assumed that sustainability would take a back seat. Yet the data is showing that recent events are absolutely catalyzing the already strong momentum for sustainable investing. Women are a big part of that. We see women developing a stronger understanding that creating an economy based on our collective well-being is absolutely critical and essential to our global economic success.

“Giving and investing for positive social change needn’t be overwhelming – it should be joyful.”

Jackie VanderBrug, head of Sustainable and Impact Investment Strategy in the Chief Investment Office for Merrill and Bank of America Private Bank

Q: Should there be more of a focus on philanthropy and investing directed toward women and girls?
Costello: Absolutely! While I wouldn’t suggest that women are obligated to or should only fund women’s and girls’ causes, it’s well established that doing so is one of the most effective and efficient ways to achieve broader social change, from education to healthcare to the arts.  A 2018 U.S. Trust® Study of High Net Worth Philanthropy reveals that a quarter of high-net-worth women donors do give to women’s and girls’ causes. But for those not directly funding these organizations, giving with a gender lens—which directs resources toward women and girls within one's chosen focus area—is a powerful accelerant of change.  

Q: Any guidance you want to give to women philanthropists and investors as they start their journey?
Costello: Find your purpose. Begin with what matters to you—your core values and social and/or environmental interests. Identify the change you would like to see in your community or in the world. Then let your purpose and associated goals inform and guide how you deploy your assets. Make your giving, volunteering and investing decisions to further the change you seek.

VanderBrug: I suggest that women focus on being catalysts for change—find what motivates you, educate a niece or daughter on investing or start by asking your advisor, “How might my investments help create the future I want to live in?” Giving and investing for positive social change needn’t be overwhelming—it should be joyful.