That which is done for us, is not done with us, but to us. – African Proverb

The Myth
Though thoroughly debunked, the myth that women aren’t as philanthropic as their male counterparts prevails. Research consistently shows that single women give at least as much, if not more, than their single male counterparts. In fact, a Barclay’s Wealth study reveals that women in the U.S. give an average of 3.5% of their wealth to charity, while men give an average of 1.8%.  As women’s income rises, their philanthropy increases as well. For married couples, women influence philanthropic decisions between 75 and 81 percent of the time, depending on generational and income differences.

For fundraisers and the nonprofit organizations they serve, unraveling this myth is becoming increasingly important. Women now control more than half of the private wealth in the U.S. Furthermore, according to Boston College’s Center on Wealth and Philanthropy, women are set to inherit 70% of the $41 trillion in intergenerational wealth transfer expected over the next 40 years.  The question to ask then, is “Why does this myth persist?” The answer comes from the manner in which women approach their philanthropic decisions.

Gender Differences
Women and men, regardless of whether they are single or married, do not make philanthropic decisions in the same way. Melinda Gates opened the recent Dream. Do. Dare. Women, Philanthropy and Civil Society Conference by challenging participants to consider the “unique and powerful” role women play in philanthropy locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally. And, the more than 300 scholars, philanthropists, activists, educators, practitioners, and policy makers did just that. This year’s symposium explored the intersection of women, philanthropy, and civil society, focusing on the many unique, creative, and inspirational ways women are making a global impact on the 21st century.

A common theme resonated from Melinda Gates’ opening remarks, through the 27 speakers, to the multitude of conversations carried out between sessions: Women are as philanthropic as men, but approach their decision to make a gift in very different ways.  Accentuating this is the African proverb Dorri McWhorter, Conference Co-Chair and CEO for the YWCA Metropolitan Chicago, shared in her opening remarks: That which is done for us, is not done with us, but to us.

Women are philanthropists as a result of their passionate convictions and opportunities to engage directly to make an impact. Women seek to be partners in the philanthropic process, not transactional consumers. Women want to be engaged by stories, and then see those backed up with measurable results. And in order to achieve success, women strive to find ways to work collaboratively, across party lines, across generations, across issues, and across genders, before making a philanthropic decision.

How Do We Change the Prevailing Myth?
As advancement professionals and nonprofit executives, the impetus to change the conversation and erase the prevailing myth begins with us. Implementing these four fundamental precepts will help shift the paradigm (and in doing so, may help you exceed your fundraising benchmarks):

  1. For married prospective donors: Do not assume the male is the head of the household and philanthropic decision-maker. Presume that both members of the couple have at least an equal share of influence.
  2. For unmarried prospective donors: Do not assume women are less engaged as major donors than are the men in your prospect pipeline.
  3. Get women involved: Women’s philanthropic decisions are influenced by a) a focus on the issue; b) an opportunity to make an impact through voluntarism; c) opportunities to collaborate, build partnerships, and facilitate conversations.
  4. Ensure that your database does not marginalize your female prospects: Have you captured your prospect’s correct surname? Does she use her birth name, married name, or a combination? Does she prefer the prefix Miss, Ms., Mrs., Dr., or something else, entirely? Be sure to honor her preferences, and review your institution’s communication policies to ensure they are flexible enough to do so as well.

When changing perception on any issue, consistency is always the key to success. As a philanthropic community, we must not only continue to enforce the truths over the myths, but must put them into action whenever the opportunities arise.

About the Author

Julia M. Siebel has two decades of nonprofit experience that has focused on empowering women and children through effective collaboration and capacity building. Her experience spans the sectors of education, membership organizations, social services, and health care. She holds her Ph.D. in U.S. History and Women’s Studies from the University of Southern California.