THE BLOG
03/05/2014 10:06 am ET | Updated May 05, 2014

Meet the 15 Most Powerful Women in U.S. Philanthropy

Women are a fast-rising force in philanthropy. More women are making their own fortunes than ever before and women are also exercising growing leadership in family philanthropy, shaping how wealth made by spouses or earlier generations is given away. Women are also emerging as the top networkers and catalysts in modern philanthropy, bringing people together to mobilize huge resources for different causes.

Too often, though, the quiet power of women philanthropic leaders is overlooked. Again and again, famous rich men are afforded the lion's share of the credit for big gifts or initiatives actually masterminded by their wives or daughters. Meanwhile, some of the most influential networkers in philanthropy operate well outside the limelight.

That has to change -- not just because it's unfair, but because to understand today's big philanthropy, you need to know the women who are so often behind the new mega giving. That's why Inside Philanthropy developed this list. Many of those on it aren't just the most powerful women in philanthropy. They are the most powerful people, period.

Read the full version of this article at Inside Philanthropy to see how we chose the women on this list and why we think power is so important in philanthropy.

1. MELINDA GATES

No surprises here. It's not just that she has substantial influence over the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation--and has from the start, back when Bill was still super-busy with Microsoft. Or that the foundation has so much money, with a $40 billion endowment and $3.4 billion in annual giving in 2012 (the most recent year we have data for). Or that Melinda is also a major leader in the world of philanthropy and global development writ large. (See Inside Philanthropy's profile of Gates.) It's also that she and her husband have another $72 billion waiting in the wings. That latent giving capacity is the really interesting story here, at least to us. I wrote a post a few weeks ago wondering why the Gateses weren't giving away more money, faster. My favorite theory is that they'd rather keep that money working so their fortune will get bigger. I wrote, "Could we imagine Bill and Melinda Gates sitting on $150 billion a decade or two from now? Yes, we could." And the giving choices that Melinda is shaping today--for instance, her leadership in pushing the foundation into reproductive health--will have a big impact on how even bigger money gets spent later. Melinda Gates's unmatched power in philanthropy among women (or maybe anyone) comes from what she is doing now, but also what she is building long-term.

2. SUSAN BUFFETT

The low profile daughter of Warren Buffett may not seem like an obvious choice for the number two slot, but hear me out. In essence, Susie Buffett controls not one, but two giant foundations. She's the chair of the secretive Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation (named after her late mother), which ranked among the five biggest foundations by giving in 2012, giving out $367 million. She has no real board looking over her shoulder at STBF, and the staff is pretty minimal. (See IP's look inside STBF.) That's a recipe for real power. We'd add that STBF's chief focus--empowering women to control their sexuality, health, and lives--strikes us as among the top areas where philanthropy is likely to effect seismic change in the 21st century. But Susie Buffett also controls a second foundation, her own Sherwood Foundation, which Warren dropped $1 billion on in 2012. Judging by how STBF spends money and how Sherwood has also been spending, Buffett is likely to be focused on putting the new money into play, rather than abiding by anything like normal foundation payout levels. Sherwood also has a wider focus than STBF, meaning that Susie Buffett is going to be influencing a lot of funding areas, given the foundation's expanded assets. My bet is that when we finally get the 2013 financial data, we'll see that the two foundations controlled by Susie Buffett gave away nearly as much money as the Ford Foundation--if not more.

3. PATRICIA HARRIS

I predicted a while ago that Michael Bloomberg will soon be giving away more money every year than anyone besides Bill and Melinda Gates. If Patricia Harris, the head of Bloomberg Philanthropies, was merely the implementer of the former mayor's grand philanthropic vision, as some suggest, she wouldn't even be on the list, much less number three. But Harris is too deeply enmeshed in the Bloomberg philanthropic universe to play so small a role in moving such a large amount of money. Harris has been working closely with Bloomberg for twenty years, including 12 years as his top aide at City Hall, and her influence on his thinking is legendary. Bloomberg raised eyebrows in 2010 when he appointed Harris as chair and CEO of Bloomberg Philanthropies, even as she worked at City Hall. She is said to be the person who first interested the wonky Bloomberg in the arts and philanthropy, and she worked closely with him to ramp up his giving while he was still in office. Since 2010, Harris has led the foundation's push to staff up and get ready for bigger giving. In 2013, Bloomberg gave away $452 million, almost as much as the Ford Foundation. That figure will be higher this year--and keep going up. Harris is at the center of it all.

4. MARILYN SIMONS

She keeps a low profile, but Marilyn Simons makes this list for good reasons: She built and runs the Simons Foundation, which in 2012 gave away $185.5 million, and likely even more in 2013. It makes sense that the Simons Foundation keeps increasing its giving, and seems on its way to joining the very top tier of funders: Hedge fund whiz James Simons built a $12 billion fortune through Renaissance Technologies, and that mountain of money is still growing fast. The Simonses have signed the Giving Pledge, so they need to move cash out the door by the truckload. And Marilyn is no mere advisor here; she has been the main architect of the couple's philanthropy since 1994. As the president of a family foundation with minimal staff and just three board members beyond the Simonses, Marilyn has the kind of latitude that presidents of legacy foundations can only dream of. (See IP's profile of Simons.) What's more, the Simons Foundation is a huge fish in the relatively small pond of basic science and math funding, where it has made some of its biggest investments. It's also a giant in the red hot area of autism research (where Simons is particularly active in guiding the foundation), a big player in life sciences, and is expanding its footprint in science education. To the extent that science both changes how we live and affects America's economic fortunes, the Simons Foundation is turning into a dominant player in an all-important arena. With a PhD in economics, and 25 years experience in the nonprofit sector, Marilyn Simons has the intellectual gravitas to be a top philanthropy leader in a sophisticated funding space.

5. SUSAN DELL

Again, maybe not an obvious choice for the very top tier, but follow the logic chain here. Michael Dell is the 25th richest person in America, worth $15.9 billion, and he and Susan are already way into philanthropy--giving away nearly $1 billion to date. The Michael and Susan Dell Foundation is not far behind, say, the Rockefeller Foundation in terms of annual giving. And the level of grantmaking is likely to grow considerably in coming years. It really has to, if the Dells want to make a dent in spending a decent chunk of their fortune while they're still living. Susan, by most accounts, plays a big role in the couple's philanthropy. As we wrote in our IP profile of her, "in many ways the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation is her baby." That makes sense, given that her husband still has his day job running a Fortune 100 company. The issues and approach of the Dells' giving also make them influential. They're focused on the same three big areas as the Gateses: health, development, and education. And they're fixated on results-oriented grantmaking in a way that's exceptional, even at a moment when everybody says that. So with Susan Dell, we're talking very deep pockets, close involvement, wide latitude, cutting-edge methodology (like it or not), and giving that's right at the center of contemporary Big Philanthropy.

6. PAM OMIDYAR

A more usual suspect, Pam Omidyar definitely belongs high on this list because she checks all of our boxes: she jointly controls one of the largest U.S. fortunes (eBay founder Pierre Omidyar clocks in at 47 on the Forbes 400 with $8.5 billion), the Omidyars are giving away a lot money, with bigger giving likely to come, and they've been quite innovative in their giving--bringing market-based approaches into the mainstream of philanthropy--whatever you might think of such strategies. And Pam's personal role and influence are pretty much beyond dispute. (See IP's profile.) Beginning in 2000, she either founded or cofounded all four of her and her husband's organizations that focus on philanthropic work. And she's been extremely visible in philanthropic and NGO circles. Enough said about this major power player in philanthropy.

7. RISA LAVIZZO-MOUREY

Healthcare is the top domestic policy issue in the U.S. right now, and the Robert Johnson Foundation is one of the most influential institutions in this arena, giving out nearly $300 million a year. As RWJF's president, Lavizzo-Mourey has led the foundation to the very center of the fight over the Affordable Care Act, making herself a power player in health policy. She leads a top-flight staff that is tackling all the toughest challenges in health, including the immediate imperative to get people enrolled in the new healthcare exchanges and long-term challenges like reducing obesity and creating a "culture of health." RWJF under Lavizzo-Mourey's leadership has also prioritized reducing racial disparities in healthcare policy. Now, because Lavizzo-Mourey reports to a board of 14 heavy-hitters, and delegates most actual grantmaking to expert team directors, she doesn't have the clear-cut power of most other people on this list. But she's one of only two legacy foundation presidents on the list because of the role that RWJF and she herself play in the all-important battle to improve America's health.

8. JENNIFER BUFFETT

The NoVo Foundation that Jennifer Buffett leads may not rank among the largest foundations in the U.S., but it is one of the biggest family foundations led by a woman and it gives at a very substantial level: $56.7 million in grants in 2012, placing it in the 100 largest foundations by giving. Jennifer Buffett is the president and co-chair of NoVo, while her husband Peter, Warren's son, is the foundation's co-chair. Needless to say, there's no herd of pesky trustees looking over Jennifer's shoulder. NoVo's board consists of just one outsider other than Peter and Jennifer. Staff is minimal, too. But it's not just her resources and latitude that make Jennifer Buffett an obvious candidate for this list: She's also been a smart and innovative funder, leading NoVo into issues where its resources could make a big difference, like violence against girls and women, sex trafficking, and Social and Emotional Learning, an education approach that stands in refreshing contrast to the business-like focus on metrics and accountability that's so fashionable in philanthropy. Her key role in creating and funding the Girl Effect stands as a major accomplishment. What's more, the Buffetts have had a keen focus on systemic change and building the nonprofits they work with, which is something we wish we saw more of among foundations. Instead of staffing up the foundation and micro-managing, NoVo under Jennifer's leadership has tended to support grantees while letting them lead. Amen to that.

9. CAROL LARSON

The David and Lucille Packard Foundation is a giant, giving out $253 million in 2012. And it's a giant that has been closely molded and guided by Carol Larson, who has been a central figure at the foundation since 1995 and its president since 2004. Larson was director of programs at Packard during the late 1990s, as it digested huge new wealth from the Packards' estate and expanded its agenda and giving. She continued to advance in the foundation until she was the obvious choice to be president. Packard's biggest move since Larson took over has been a historic $500 million commitment to mitigating climate change, funding that has helped transform the climate sector. In savvy fashion, Packard's own climate work has focused heavily on the crucial niche of reducing greenhouse gases from agriculture. To be sure, Larson shares power with 14 board members--a board whose make-up underscores Packard's status as a family foundation in key respects. And she also shares power with Packard's large and impressive professional staff. So it's hard to pinpoint who really is calling the shots at Packard. Still, we can't think of another top legacy foundation that has been so dominated by a woman executive.

10. LAURENE POWELL JOBS

With an $11.7 billion fortune and a long track record of nonprofit involvements, what's the widow of Steve Jobs doing way down here on the list? Maybe she can tell us. Or, more precisely, tell us what she's doing with her money, because right now, we can't get a fix on the scope of her giving. She has yet to create a big new foundation and seems to be channeling her good works through the Emerson Collective, a funky outfit that isn't even a nonprofit. It's an LLC, so good luck trying to follow that money. She's also reputed to give a lot of money anonymously, which is frustrating to list-makers of the world like us. Is Laurene Powell Jobs singlehandedly bankrolling some giant new initiative that could change America or the world? Maybe, but we have no way of knowing. Still, we suspect something big is afoot with all the money simply because (A) there's so much of it; and (B) Laurene Powell Jobs cares deeply about a number of issues, starting with education but extending to environment, immigration reform, and more. (See IP's profile.) So we're tossing her in here at number 10, although when the veil finally rises on her giving, she could move far higher on the list--or lower.

11. LAURA ARRILLAGA-ANDREESSEN

This is the only person on the list who isn't engaged in large-scale giving, but who definitely has real power. Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen has emerged as a key thought leader in philanthropy, with a book, Giving 2.0, and a long track record of fostering innovative approaches to philanthropy. (See IP's profile.) She thinks big and outside the box about how to mobilize major resources through new ways of giving and empower a broader range of people to engage in philanthropy. What's more, she has the ear of lots of tech types in Silicon Valley who are just getting started in their giving. That's big. And there's more: She and her husband Marc Andreessen have a sizeable fortune and their own foundation. Arrillaga-Andreessen is also one of only four board members of her father's foundation (John Arrillaga), which may get the bulk of his $1.8 billion fortune one day.

12. LAURA ARNOLD

This is another pretty obvious choice. Arnold is half of one of the more notable young philanthropy power couples of recent times: She and John Arnold are tapping a $2.9 billion hedge fund fortune to give big on K-12 education, criminal justice, science, and public accountability. They're moving the money with a super lean staff and, as far we can see, they aren't especially interested in leaving a big foundation behind when they die--which, by the way, won't be for many years, since they are both 40 or under (and look even younger). Laura Arnold makes the list because she and her husband John work closely as a team when it comes to their large-scale philanthropy, she takes a hands-on role at their foundation, and because in some cases, it appears Laura is the main driver in their giving. (See IP's profile of Arnold.)

13. PRISCILLA CHAN

For all we know, Mark Zuckerberg's wife belongs much further up the list, but information is scarce on Priscilla Chan's role in the couple's mega philanthropy. So we'll just tack her near the end here. What we do know is that Priscilla and Mark gave nearly $1 billion to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation last year, making them the biggest individual donors of 2013. (See IP's profile of Chan.) That gift came on top of $500 million worth of Facebook stock that Zuckerberg gave to SVCF in 2012. Beyond these big numbers, though, the Zuckerberg/Chan philanthropic partnership is hard to penetrate. Clearly, Priscilla Chan, a pediatrician with no nonprofit experience who has avoided the media spotlight, is not interested in playing the hands-on role of some philanthropic spouses. There is no Zuckerberg Family Foundation, although the couple directs a fund at SVCF. Notably, one of the first gifts they made from the fund in 2014 was $5 million to a health center serving low-income communities (see IP's story). Chan referred to her experience as a doctor in explaining the gift. So if health does emerge as a central focus, it will probably be because of Chan's influence.

14. MARGARET CARGILL

Yes, I know: This heiress to the mighty Cargill fortune died in 2006. But Margaret Cargill is on the list because it's only recently that her full fortune--over $5 billion--has been harnessed to philanthropic ends. And while Cargill is no longer living, her money is being given away according to a blueprint that she laid out before she died. The two people who helped her develop that blueprint, Christine Morse and Paul Busch, both of whom she worked with closely for years, are now running Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies. You can't do much better than that in terms of post-mortem power: Your confidantes executing your wishes after you're gone. What's more, over half the money she left behind went to the Anne Ray Charitable Trust, a support organization with designated grantees and limited ability to redirect funds in a different direction. Clever, right? The umbrella operation for all Cargill's giving, Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies, is a confusing entity, made up of one foundation and two support organizations. But it amounts to one of the biggest piles of money on the philanthropic scene--all being deployed according to Margaret Cargill's wishes. (See IP's primer on Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies.)

15. CATHY CATALYST

Forgive us for being cute, but we want to close the list with a reminder that power in philanthropy isn't just about controlling and deploying big resources; it's also about catalyzing action and bringing people together to mobilize resources collectively. Women have been the most notable catalysts and networkers in philanthropy, often for innovative work on gender, whether its Eve Ensler raising tens of millions of dollars through V-Day to fight violence against women; Helen Hunt, who created Women Moving Millions, a network that has inspired nearly $300 million in giving to advance women and girls; Barbara Dobkin, an activist donor in progressive Jewish and women's philanthropy; Angelina Jolie, who has helped raise many millions for different causes and organizations; and the list could go on. Here at Inside Philanthropy, we're watching the power networkers closely and will be writing a lot about them in the coming year.

A longer version of this article originally appeared at Inside Philanthropy, a new media site covering giving by foundations and individual donors. Read the full version here.