Gender Gap? Analyzing Leadership of the Big Foundations

There’s been a great deal of turnover at the biggest foundations, prompting us to revisit our 2012 analyses of the backgrounds of CEOs of the largest 100 foundations by asset size. We reported last month on the professional backgrounds of foundation CEOs — noting a slight uptick in internal promotions and the hiring of those with foundation experience.

But what about gender?

In 2012, we noted that, as the foundations got bigger, the women got scarcer. But, today, we no longer see that pattern. While women remain just over a third of the CEOs in the top jobs at the largest 100 U.S. foundations by asset size, we no longer see that number decreasing as the foundations get larger. Here’s what we found:


Proportion of Women CEOs
2015 2012
Top 100 foundations 34% 35%
Top 50 foundations 38% 25%
Top 25 foundations 32% 16%


And among the very largest foundations — the top 10 — half the CEOs are women.

At first glance, this looks great. The bigger the foundation, the more likely we are to find a woman running it.

But when we look closer, at both CEOs and other staff in the field of philanthropy, the picture looks much bleaker. According to the Council on Foundations, three-quarters of professional staff at foundations are women. Yet, as our study finds, they remain just over a third of the CEOs of the big foundations, as was the case in 2012.

Viewed in that context, women remain under-represented in the top job. And while women are now more evenly distributed across the top jobs at big foundations — which is good news — the overall proportion of female CEOs among the largest 100 foundations hasn’t changed in recent years.

Phil Buchanan is president of CEP. You can find him on Twitter at @PhilCEP. Jen Cole is a research analyst at CEP.

Foundation Management, foundation staff/program officers, foundations, leadership
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