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Humans of Fundraising: Dr. Elizabeth Gillespie

This “you are enough” picture is a constant encouragement for myself and others in my campus office at the University of Memphis.

Dr. Elizabeth Gillespie

Assistant Professor
The University of Memphis

There’s something special about philanthropy. Philanthropy is as old as humankind. How many things have lasted the entirety of human existence? It exists in every religion and culture. And as it evolves, it is becoming more beneficial to even more people.

While it has endured, philanthropy is also changing. It’s crucial that we be open to that change and receptive to how it shifts: to let philanthropy challenge the status quo.

As someone who has always been intrigued by social change, I discovered that some of the most powerful social change in America stemmed from people organizing, nonprofits, and fund development. I began my career in human services and came to realize that going into academia would be a good way to harness my passion.

It was a full-circle realization, as I first thought about being a professor at 10 years old. Yet I was never the most obvious candidate: I come from a blue-collar and single-parent background, was a first-generation college student, and was initially rejected from doctoral programs. It was my desire to effect social change that kept me going. That, and persistence. Perseverance became a daily effort, and fearlessness became a matter of simply putting one foot in front of the other.

If I were to give any advice, it would be to be fearless in your pursuits. And that’s my biggest accomplishment – I gave it my all. I believed in what I was doing and got other people to believe in it, too. That certainly parallels the possibilities of social change as well.

I study the role of women in philanthropy. Women have always been a source of change, and even more so when they organize. Throughout history, women have broken the mold and challenged the status quo, and done so by harnessing their collective strength through organizations. Despite their increasing economic power, however, women remain understudied and overlooked in this area. One way that philanthropy is transforming is that it is becoming more female dominant, and I can help fill a knowledge gap in that regard.

I’ve always been interested in social change and I’m doing my part at a 2017 march in Des Moines, Iowa.

Specifically, my focus is on women’s foundations and giving circles. Most research looks at the larger, private foundations. While women’s foundations and funds are smaller, they have power as a collective. However, they tend to concentrate on their region without considering their place within a larger social movement. They have a chance to capitalize on that, and it starts with knowing one another. This inspired my creation of the nation’s first-ever database of every women’s foundation and fund. The goal of my work is to help others know what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, and why they’re doing it. I see that as a way to improve existing efforts.

While my current research is on women’s grantmaking foundations, my future research efforts will focus, in part, on the fund development efforts of women’s and other social change nonprofit organizations, as well as those organizations serving oppressed and marginalized populations.

I hope that those reading this will consider the ways in which research can both advance the industry and their organization. Being open and willing to be researched can help bridge the gap between academics and practitioners. It’s easy to doubt the degree to which your nonprofit is making an impact on social change, and nonprofits might be surprised by how much impact they are actually having.

But the fact of the matter is: let some research happen, and let your mind be blown.

Here I am with my cat Milo — I am a full-time cat lady.


Dr. Elizabeth Gillespie is Assistant Professor in the Department of Public and Nonprofit Administration at The University of Memphis. She is report author of Women’s Foundations and Funds: A Landscape Study, in partnership with the IUPUI Women’s Philanthropy Institute at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Access additional research here.


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