What Can We Learn from the Philanthropy of Madam C.J. Walker?

June 02, 2021
We examine the story of Madam C.J. Walker, America’s first female self-made millionaire and a Black woman, which offers some useful lessons for the intersection of business, personal values and philanthropy.

I am in the business world, not for myself alone, but to do all the good I can for the uplift of my race.



Madam C.J. Walker, 1912

The past year has illuminated some of our nation’s continued challenges relating to racial equity, which is evident nearly everywhere, from boardroom representation to philanthropy. For example, a recent Bridgespan study indicates that nonprofits led by people of color receive less grant funding, and funding they do receive has more strings attached than their white-led counterparts.1 Despite these contemporary challenges, the story of Madam C.J. Walker, America’s first female self-made millionaire and a Black woman, offers some useful lessons for the intersection of business and philanthropy.

Three Tenets of the Gospel of Giving

Walker was a woman of color, a freeborn child of former slaves, who was orphaned, and then widowed early, leaving her as a single mother. She was a penniless migrant, moving around the South and eventually to the Midwest to pursue opportunity. She was serving as a launderess when, following directions given to her in what she believed was a divine dream, she formulated her own beauty products, which were the beginnings of her beauty empire. At its height, her company employed over 3,000 people, many of them Black women. While Walker died early in 1919 at only 51, her reputation as an entrepreneur was matched only by her reputation as an active, purpose-driven philanthropist. For her, these endeavors – her business and her giving – were not mutually exclusive.

Her gospel of giving had three tenets: give as you can to be helpful to others; spare no useful means that may be helpful to others and give more as your means increase to help others.

  • Give as you can to be helpful to others. Walker understood that one’s ability to be helpful to others was predicated on willingness to do so – not simply one’s level of financial wealth. Walker is remembered for the meaningful financial gifts she made once her business was successful. However, even before she enjoyed financial success, Walker sought to help others in a variety of ways. She once went door-to-door to collect food for an elderly man who had difficulty caring for his family. She joined organizations that worked to address the needs of the community, which remained unmet in part because of exclusion by dominant social service providers within the larger society. For example, through these organizations, she pooled her resources with others to provide life, burial and sickness insurance. Though some of her financial contributions were small, she gave as she could to be helpful to others.
  • Spare no useful means that may be helpful to others. This tenet of Walker’s gospel of giving is reflected in many aspects of her life, perhaps most notably in her integrated approach to business and philanthropy. Walker’s beauty empire included not only the production of the product, but distribution through a network that went door-to-door. The products themselves, sold commercially, were intended to contribute to racial uplift through personal development, confidence and public pride. In addition, her employment practices were intended to create opportunity for Black women to develop financial autonomy. Walker encouraged employees and agents to participate in work relating to racial uplift; she envisioned a company that was commercial but also philanthropic for the benefit of Black people.
  • Give more as your means increase to help others. Walker’s philanthropic journey began with gifts of time and relatively small monetary gifts. It culminated with meaningful monetary gifts and use of her business and social networks to amplify the impact of those gifts. Her documented giving reflects consistent support of organizations over a long period of time and her belief that steady gifts addressed cash flow concerns more effectively than large one-time donations.

Lessons for Philanthropists

Walker’s life, business and philanthropy provide philanthropists several points for consideration.

Ensure your values are integrated into your philanthropy and your planning. Walker was dedicated to what she described as the uplift of her race, and her commitment to that cause was evident in all aspects of her life. Philanthropists may wish to identify core values that are important to them. Once these values are identified, they may consider how to integrate those values into their planning.

Get proximate to the cause. Many of Walker’s gifts to charity reflected her own prior experiences with need. As a single mother, Walker benefited from services provided by organizations such as the St. Louis Colored Orphan’s Home, which cared for her daughter a few days each week while she worked. She identified with aspirations for formal education, which informed her views and funding strategies on industrial education. Proximity to an issue may inform one’s views; however, not all philanthropists will have firsthand experience with the causes in which they are interested. Those without proximity to the issue may wish to consider how to integrate the perspectives of those with firsthand experience.

And, finally, a cautionary tale. Walker indicated a desire to leave 33% of her estate for charitable purposes. When she died in 1919, 10% of her estate went to charity. The discrepancy between her intent and her execution can be explained in part by her daughter’s court action to void certain charitable bequests. Those who have charitable intent should work with their advisors to ensure that their intent will be carried out.

Through our Philanthropic Advisory practice, we advise emerging and established philanthropists on structure, governance, strategy and impact. If you would like to have a conversation regarding how to meet your philanthropic goals, please reach out.


Three Questions for Author Dr. Tyrone McKinley Freeman

1.  Which modern philanthropists identify Madam C.J. Walker as a major influence in their approach?

In terms of the well-known philanthropists in the media, it’s difficult to say who specifically looks to Walker for inspiration.

She’s mostly known for being a millionaire entrepreneur. My book is the first to center her philanthropy. To me, Walker’s legacy of philanthropy is for everyday givers. I see her in the everyday church women and club women around the country who serve their communities. I see her in giving circle members, sorors, fundraisers, educators, activists and entrepreneurs for whom community and generosity are key values that guide their vocations as ways to help others. And they do this largely without fanfare and recognition because that’s not what it’s about. For Walker, philanthropy was not mainly about fame and wealth; it was about generosity. All of us can be generous with what we have right now – that doesn’t require a large bank account, just an open heart.

2.  What question about Black philanthropy are you most interested in answering?

I’m very interested in the precolonial West African origins of Black philanthropy. What specific cultural practices of giving did Africans bring with them across the Atlantic Ocean as they were forced into slavery that laid a foundation for today’s African American philanthropy? Black philanthropy is not new. Its history is deeper and richer than we can imagine, and its enduring practice is a vital part of the American story from before the colonial era to the present.

3.  What suggestions do you have for philanthropists who want to get proximate to an issue?

Many gifts that Walker made were ones she once needed herself.

She used social service agencies as a poor, widowed mother of a young child, so she supported similar agencies later because she knew their value. She was denied formal education by Jim Crow, so she funded Black schools across the South and created her own network of beauty schools. Her experiences as a beneficiary informed and inspired her giving because she knew the struggles and the need. So, I recommend examining your own life experiences. What issues have you faced? What kinds of services, supports or opportunities did you benefit from?

Are those supports or opportunities readily available in your community today? How might those experiences inform a strategy for giving so you can provide opportunities for others in need? Your own experiences in needing help and receiving support can give you insights into how those issues or causes can be engaged now.

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Owner to Owner Q4 2020

In this issue of Owner to Owner, we host a CEO roundtable, look at leadership through crisis and cover considerations for private business owners with private foundations.

1 Dorsey, Cheryl, Jeff Bradach, and Peter Kim. “Racial Equity and Philanthropy: Disparities in Funding for Leaders of Color Leave Impact on the Table.” The Bridgespan Group. May 4, 2020. https://www.bridgespan.org/insights/library/philanthropy/disparities-nonprofit-funding-for-leaders-of-color.

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