Founded by Melinda French Gates, Pivotal Ventures accelerates social progress by removing barriers that hold people back.

Members of the Pivotal Ventures Program Leadership Team, at the Pivotal Ventures office in Kirkland, Washington, on January 31, 2023

Photo by Jenny Jimenez for Pivotal Ventures

Dr. Nicole Bates (right), Senior Director, Program Strategy, Strategic Partnerships & Initiatives at Pivotal Ventures, says that when women are in positions of authority, they make decisions that are more inclusive and favorable to everyone.

Melinda French Gates Effort Aims to Accelerate Women’s Power and Influence

Maria Di Mento
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This article originally appeared in The Chronicle of Philanthropy

Sudnya Shroff started off as one of many donors contributing to Fremont, a film that tells the story of a young Afghan woman whose work as a translator for the U.S. Army in Kabul, Afghanistan, puts her in danger so she is evacuated when the Taliban regains control. As someone who has worked with displaced women in refugee camps, Shroff was impressed by how the story conveys the plight of refugees. She was also attracted to the movie because it was primarily a women-led project.

Last year, Shroff went from being just another donor to one of the film’s main producers after Marjaneh Moghimi, the founder of the nonprofit producing the film, died weeks before the film started shooting. Shroff and the film’s other producers had to scramble to find money to complete the film in time to submit it to film festivals, a key step to get independent films out to a wider world.

Shroff planned to give $150,000. She was elated when she heard about a program — backed by Melinda French Gates — to match donations that aim to increase the power and influence of women in the United States, including their artistic endeavors.

“This particular matching program could give me and my philanthropy double the power,” Shroff says. “That was the part that really excited me, that there was somebody, finally, that was willing to focus and target releasing funds in the world of women’s rights.”

Pivotal Ventures, French Gates’s limited-liability company, has committed up to $20 million to match gifts made by members of three donor networks — the National Center for Family Philanthropy, the Philanthropy Workshop, and Women Moving Millions. The goal is to channel more money to U.S. nonprofits that work to get more women into positions of authority to help set policies for the country, in the workplace, and in their communities — and where they will have an equal say in how money and other resources are used.

“We know that when women are in those positions, you start to see different decisions being made, decisions that are more inclusive and more favorable for all,” says Dr. Nicole Bates, Senior Director, Program Strategy, Strategic Partnerships & Initiatives at Pivotal Ventures. “When we think about issues that are impacting women and girls, less than 2 percent of charitable giving is going toward organizations focused on these issues.”

Pivotal officials worked with the donor networks to identify their individual matching program goals. Women Moving Millions and the National Center for Family Philanthropy each set a goal of raising up to $5 million from members, and the Philanthropy Workshop set a target of $10 million. If each network meets its target, then the program has the potential to deploy up to at least $40 million to charities working on gender equity. "While North America is on track to be the first region to close the gender pay gap, that’s not going to happen until 2081.

"Progress is just going too slow, and we really want to accelerate that change and see a difference sooner."

Dr. Nicole Bates
Senior Director, Program Strategy, Strategic Partnerships & Initiatives

To qualify for the match, the nonprofits receiving the money must work in one of six issue areas:

  • Reducing the gender wage gap.
  • Narrowing the gender wealth gap.
  • Shrinking the “unpaid care” gap, the disparity in caregiving and household responsibilities done by women compared with men.
  • Increasing the share of women in leadership roles in business, government, and nonprofits.
  • Increasing the number of people who think society needs more women in positions of power and that women are capable of and effective at using their power and influence for good.
  • Expanding the amount of cultural and intellectual content created by women.
“These are all things that are critical to women realizing their full potential,” Bates says, “and therefore our society realizing its full potential.”

A Powerful Match

Pivotal has let each donor network decide how its matching program will work. Officials at Philanthropy Workshop, for example, stipulated that grants had to be new funding given to U.S. nonprofits and that its program would fully match grants of more than $125,000 and match at 50 percent grants of up to $125,000. 

Shroff, the donor supporting Fremont, became a member of the Philanthropy Workshop in 2019. Once a hardware designer for Intel, she now works as an artist and writer. She’s been a donor and volunteer committed to women’s rights and refugee issues for more than two decades. Shroff joined the donor network because she wanted to collaborate with others who were interested in the same causes. 

Shroff’s gift, along with the $150,000 match from Pivotal, was a watershed moment for the movie project. 

“The timeliness of this match was a miracle,” Shroff says. “That made it possible for the film to be completed and actually made it possible for this film to be accepted at Sundance.” 

After appearing at the Sundance Film Festival, Fremont showed at the South by Southwest and the First Look festivals in March, and Shroff is working to get it distributed to wider audiences. 

Holly Fogle started the Bridge Project several years ago to provide cash to mothers and babies living below the poverty line in New York. The former management consultant and member of Women Moving Millions toyed with the idea of expanding the nonprofit to other parts of the state, but it was really more of a daydream than a realistic goal. That is, until Fogle heard about the Pivotal match. 

On her own, Fogle couldn’t afford to donate enough for the charity to expand, but the math changed with the matching program. Women Moving Millions officials decided to match at 50 percent gifts of less than $80,000 to qualifying charities and fully match donations of more $80,000. 

Fogle gave $1 million to the Bridge Project. That, together with the $1 million match from Pivotal, was enough to establish a branch of the project in Rochester, N.Y., where she says the child-poverty rate is extreme. 

Renee Kaplan, CEO of the Philanthropy Workshop, would like to see foundations follow Pivotal’s lead in giving to other causes, such as climate change, racial equity, and human rights. 

“I did a lot of thinking around where that money could be used wisely,” Fogle says. “There’s so many grantees in my portfolio, but it forced me to think hard about where my funding, matched with the Pivotal funding, could truly be catalytic.” The expansion to Rochester, she says, could inform state budget discussions and policy on a much broader stage. 

Women Moving Millions was the first of the donor networks to reach its goal. Its members gave a total of $3.4 million in December and plan to give another $1.6 million in the fall. The Philanthropy Workshop members have given away $4 million so far. Because the National Center for Family Philanthropy only recently started its program, members have not yet made any commitments. 

Pivotal’s matching program could be a model for organizations and donors that support other causes, such as climate change, racial equity, or human rights, says Renee Kaplan, CEO of the Philanthropy Workshop. She’d particularly like to have foundations follow Pivotal’s lead. 

“We see a lot of foundations today stay pretty clearly in their own lane,” Kaplan says.

"If we could see a matching program to help incentivize individuals and families alongside what they’re doing so that it increases resources for an overall issue or region, I think there’s a win-win in thinking about this as a model that could be replicated far more broadly."

Renee Kaplan
CEO of The Philanthropy Workshop

Walking Away Changed

Money is the motivating factor driving the matching program, but the opportunity to learn more about gender equity issues and the charities that are working in that space has also been a draw for some donors. That’s especially true for members of the National Center for Family Philanthropy. In addition to the $5 million Pivotal has committed in matching funds, it also gave the NCFP a $300,000 grant to pay for Women’s Power and Influence Learning and Action Cohort, a five-month education program that teaches NCFP members how gender-equity issues affect society and how they can apply what they learn to their grant making. The goal is to help donors develop a giving plan that has a real chance at accelerating women’s power and influence. 

Because the NCFP doesn’t have a gender-equity expert on staff, officials there hired the Panorama Group, a nonprofit that manages donor collaboratives and works with philanthropists, nonprofits, governments, and businesses on social issues, to design and lead the educational program. The curriculum includes monthly sessions on topics like identity and discrimination, the root causes of the gender wealth and gap, childcare issues, and social-justice and gender-related investing. Panorama brought in subject-matter experts, such as a group of Black women leaders who work on reproductive-justice efforts, and guest speakers, including Ford Foundation trustee Ai-jen Poo, who leads the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and Pamela Shifman, of the Democracy Alliance

Participants were also part of smaller peer groups so they could talk about what they were learning, discuss giving practices, and brainstorm how they may want to collaborate on giving in the future. 

Flora Birdzell, a grandchild of the late Hewlett-Packard Company co-founder William R. Hewlett and his wife, Flora, and Kimberly Myers Hewlett, who is married to Flora’s cousin Billy, participated on behalf of their family’s grant maker, the Flora Family Foundation and a new effort the two women spearhead within the foundation to support Black maternal-health programs. 

Both women say the classes and small-group discussions have given life to what they are trying to do within the foundation. Right now, they’re identifying charities that work to improve Black maternal health and hope to bring that information to their foundation’s board in the coming months. Their goal is to award grants that qualify for the match over the summer. Birdzell and Myers Hewlett are also trying to find other participants in the learning program who may want to collaborate on donations to groups working on Black maternal health. 

Birdzell and Myers Hewlett both say that what they’re learning through the program has galvanized them in ways they did not expect. 

“On the very first day, we did a session about women in politics and leadership,” Birdzell says. “It was just striking to me some of the statistics that were thrown out there, for example, that women are something like 51 percent of the U.S. population but still make up less than 30 percent of our country’s elected leaders even when we see recent historic gains.” 

That pushed her to learn more about gender representation in politics and get more involved on her own — including as a donor. She immediately gave a personal donation of $25,000 to the Ascend Fund, a Pivotal-funded collaborative, run by Panorama, that helps elect women to public office. 

Myers Hewlett, a former senior vice president at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, says the sessions and peer discussions have given her a deeper understanding of how many of the problems in the world intersect with each other. She is starting to think that philanthropy is only one of the tools at her disposal. 

“I think maybe these classes that I’m taking with other philanthropists are turning me into more of a social activist,” Myers Hewlett says. “I’m getting inspired to do more than what we’ve been doing by giving grants.” 

Myers Hewlett has taken a first step and joined the board of, a nonprofit that operates a nonpartisan voting registration and get-out-the-vote technology platform and seeks to reach underserved voters of color and underrepresented young voters. The group’s board members are currently all women. 

Efforts like Pivotal’s program have the power to influence donors on multiple levels, says Miki Akimoto, NCFP’s chief impact officer. Participants gain a better understanding of how collaborative funding — matching donations and giving in partnership with like-minded donors — can double or even triple the power of a grant, how it helps to deepen and expand philanthropists’ knowledge of a particular cause or issue, and how that reminds them that they have a range of mechanisms that go beyond grant making. They can turn to advocacy, too.

"When you participate in a cohort like this, you are going to walk away changed. You’re going to walk away more engaged, more enthusiastic, and feeling more confident to take on what are often really pernicious issues."

Miki Akimoto
NCFP Chief Impact Officer

Collaborative Power

Opportunities to learn from each other and work together are giving members of the donor networks confidence that they can really make a difference, says Bates, of Pivotal Ventures.

“There is something about these complex social issues like gender where it can feel overwhelming and we’re not sure what to do,” she says. “But when we know that we’re doing it in partnership with others who share our values, when we know that we are not going at it alone, we’re willing to step out because the opportunity feels safer and more comfortable.”

Being able to collaborate gave Monika Parekh, a member of Women Moving Millions, the chance to quadruple her support for a program that unites two causes she cares about deeply — reproductive rights and how women are portrayed in the media. Parekh, a former physical therapist for the New York City Board of Education, wanted to support four young women filmmakers who are creating narrative films about reproductive rights through the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative’s Reproductive Rights Accelerator at the University of Southern California. But there was one problem: Each of the four filmmakers needed $25,000, and Parekh could afford to support only one of the four.

She knew the Reproductive Rights Accelerator= would qualify for the matching funds from Pivotal, so she asked two other Women Moving Millions members to join her in donating. They agreed; Parekh and the two other donors gave $25,000 each for a total of $75,000. Pivotal kicked in a matching grant of half of that total, or $37,500, which gave the project a total of $112,500. That was enough to support the work of all four filmmakers, plus provided an additional $12,500 to pay for costs associated with events to showcase their movies.

“We can only do so much as one individual, or at least you feel that way,” Parekh says. “Then you come into these spaces and you meet other members and you talk about various topics, and all of a sudden you’re like, ‘Whoa, that’s a good idea, and OK, we can do some stuff here.’”
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