Five Questions with Jeannie Infante Sager

October 01, 2020
In “Five Questions,” Jeannie Infante Sager, the director of the Women’s Philanthropy Institute, discusses the importance of women’s giving, how women philanthropists have responded to COVID-19 and shifts she has seen in methods of giving during the pandemic.

1. What is your earliest memory of philanthropy?

As a child of immigrants, my earliest memories of philanthropy are of my parents supporting family in the Philippines – helping nieces and nephews with their education, sending clothes and shoes that my brother and I had outgrown and providing small loans to family and friends. This type of generosity might be considered informal in the philanthropic vernacular, but these actions are what I first understood as giving and a common philanthropic memory shared by most first-generation Americans.

2. Why is women’s giving so important?

At the Women’s Philanthropy Institute (WPI) at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, our research shows that women are more likely to give and that women give differently. Women around the world are more influential than ever before and are using their influence to catalyze social change. Philanthropy is complex and influenced by many factors, including income, wealth and education. Today women have more of all three – further empowering them to exert change through their giving. Philanthropy is not gender-neutral; greater understanding of how gender influences giving will help unlock a new era of generosity and ultimately drive more giving by all.

3. How have women philanthropists responded to COVID-19?

The pandemic has upended every aspect of our lives, philanthropy included. Women in particular may be feeling the effects of COVID-19 on their giving. As WPI research has shown, women are typically more likely to give than men. It appears that the circumstances of this crisis – which disproportionately affect women economically and disrupt the ability to network and connect – may be putting a strain on their giving. Nonetheless, women have responded both in traditional, as well as new and expansive, ways.

Early in the pandemic, high-profile public personalities stepped up. Rihanna’s charitable organization, the Clara Lionel Foundation, committed $5 million to support the global fight against the novel coronavirus. Dolly Parton made a $1 million gift to Vanderbilt University to fund research on a cure for the virus and encouraged others to join her in making donations.

At WPI, we know that women like to give together, as demonstrated by the proliferation of giving circles and giving networks for women in the U.S. and around the world. Giving circles in particular have been frontline responders in addressing the pandemic in their local communities. For example, the New York Women’s Foundation gave $1 million for women and families impacted by COVID-19 through its 2020 Resilience-NYC: COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund. Collective giving networks have also been actively sharing lessons and experiences with each other, such as encouraging fast-tracking grant timelines, launching local response funds, supporting members within their networks and adopting the trust-based philanthropy pledge.

Collective giving networks have also been actively sharing lessons and experiences with each other, such as encouraging fast-tracking grant timelines, launching local response funds, supporting members within their networks and adopting the trust-based philanthropy pledge.  

4. What shifts have you seen in methods of giving during the pandemic?

WPI’s latest report, “COVID-19, Generosity, and Gender: How Giving Changed During the Early Months of a Global Pandemic,” indicates that generosity is alive, well and evolving in the face of a crisis. This report signals a new kind of generosity as people give back to their communities in more imaginative ways, despite facing tremendous challenges. This type of indirect giving is in line with a broader reimagining of philanthropy that was underway prior to COVID-19. Examples include ordering takeout or buying a gift card to support a local restaurant or continuing to pay individuals and businesses for services they could not render.

Moreover, as our entire lives moved online, technology became the main driver for philanthropy. People came together digitally to support virtual fundraisers, and organizations pivoted to online giving and donor visits on Zoom. This pandemic has demonstrated the importance of digital platforms and social media to find creative ways of building trust in this unique environment. These developments embrace a broader definition of philanthropy and foster community in innovative ways.

5. What advice would you give to your younger self?

On my desk is a personalized sign that says: “It’s not about your happiness” – J. Sager. This irreverent parting gift was given to me by my former team, but the quote isn’t complete. It should read: “It’s not about your happiness; it’s about your resilience.” I offered this advice during a challenging time for our organization as we attempted to build the plane while flying it. As you can see from their gift, the first half of the quote is what got their attention, but it was the second half of the quote that became our mantra for the year. Embracing, learning an understanding resilience early on will help you face the many trials, big and little, personal and professional, that you will encounter throughout life.

If you want to learn more about the research of the Women's Philanthropy Institute, including WPI's latest report, "COVID-19, Generosity, and Gender: How Giving Changed During the Early Months of a Global Pandemic," visit

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