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.

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.

Up Next
Up Next

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.

Brown Brothers Harriman & Co. (“BBH”) may be used to reference the company as a whole and/or its various subsidiaries generally.  This material and any products or services may be issued or provided in multiple jurisdictions by duly authorized and regulated subsidiaries. This material is for general information and reference purposes only and does not constitute legal, tax or investment advice and is not intended as an offer to sell, or a solicitation to buy securities, services or investment products. Any reference to tax matters is not intended to be used, and may not be used, for purposes of avoiding penalties under the U.S. Internal Revenue Code, or other applicable tax regimes, or for promotion, marketing or recommendation to third parties. All information has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but accuracy is not guaranteed, and reliance should not be placed on the information presented.  This material may not be reproduced, copied or transmitted, or any of the content disclosed to third parties, without the permission of BBH. Pursuant to information regarding the provision of applicable services or products by BBH, please note the following: Brown Brothers Harriman Fund Administration Services (Ireland) Limited and Brown Brothers Harriman Trustee Services (Ireland) Limited are regulated by the Central Bank of Ireland, Brown Brothers Harriman Investor Services Limited is authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority, Brown Brothers Harriman (Luxembourg) S.C.A is regulated by the Commission de Surveillance du Secteur Financier. All trademarks and service marks included are the property of BBH or their respective owners. ©Brown Brothers Harriman & Co. 2023.  All rights reserved. PB-06173-2023-03-02

As of June 15, 2022 Internet Explorer 11 is not supported by BBH.com.

Important Information for Non-U.S. Residents

You are required to read the following important information, which, in conjunction with the Terms and Conditions, governs your use of this website. Your use of this website and its contents constitute your acceptance of this information and those Terms and Conditions. If you do not agree with this information and the Terms and Conditions, you should immediately cease use of this website. The contents of this website have not been prepared for the benefit of investors outside of the United States. This website is not intended as a solicitation of the purchase or sale of any security or other financial instrument or any investment management services for any investor who resides in a jurisdiction other than the United States1. As a general matter, Brown Brothers Harriman & Co. and its subsidiaries (“BBH”) is not licensed or registered to solicit prospective investors and offer investment advisory services in jurisdictions outside of the United States. The information on this website is not intended to be distributed to, directed at or used by any person or entity in any jurisdiction or country where such distribution or use would be contrary to law or regulation. Persons in respect of whom such prohibitions apply must not access the website.  Under certain circumstances, BBH may provide services to investors located outside of the United States in accordance with applicable law. The conditions under which such services may be provided will be analyzed on a case-by-case basis by BBH. BBH will only accept investors from such jurisdictions or countries where it has made a determination that such an arrangement or relationship is permissible under the laws of that jurisdiction or country. The existence of this website is not intended to be a substitute for the type of analysis described above and is not intended as a solicitation of or recommendation to any prospective investor, including those located outside of the United States. Certain BBH products or services may not be available in certain jurisdictions. By choosing to access this website from any location other than the United States, you accept full responsibility for compliance with all local laws. The website contains content that has been obtained from sources that BBH believes to be reliable as of the date presented; however, BBH cannot guarantee the accuracy of such content, assure its completeness, or warrant that such information will not be changed. The content contained herein is current as of the date of issuance and is subject to change without notice. The website’s content does not constitute investment advice and should not be used as the basis for any investment decision. There is no guarantee that any investment objectives, expectations, targets described in this website or the  performance or profitability of any investment will be achieved. You understand that investing in securities and other financial instruments involves risks that may affect the value of the securities and may result in losses, including the potential loss of the principal invested, and you assume and are able to bear all such risks.  In no event shall BBH or any other affiliated party be liable for any direct, incidental, special, consequential, indirect, lost profits, loss of business or data, or punitive damages arising out of your use of this website. By clicking accept, you confirm that you accept  to the above Important Information along with Terms and Conditions.

1BBH sponsors UCITS Funds registered in Luxembourg, in certain jurisdictions. For information on those funds, please see bbhluxembourgfunds.com

captcha image

Type in the word seen on the picture

I am a current investor in another jurisdiction