Women face myriad challenges in the nonprofit world across capacities: as donors, as nonprofit leaders and administrators, and as recipients of philanthropy. Research shows that women are frequently overlooked as prospective donors for reasons ranging from lower salary projections to a misconception that men are more often the primary decision-makers in a household. Further complicating matters, research reveals that women think differently than men about their philanthropy, and therefore require a distinctive approach to illustrating the impact of their giving, which may prove challenging to organizations with deeply engrained prospect-outreach practices.

While it is important to equip organizations with the knowledge that these misconceptions exist in regard to their donors, it is even more important to emphasize the reality of philanthropy in the US: namely, that women have the funds and the means to allocate them to causes of their choice. The experience of CCS Fundraising coupled with a burgeoning body of research on women’s philanthropy suggests that organizations must focus efforts on ensuring inclusive fundraising practices, from understanding the philanthropic landscape to crafting proposals that appeal to everyone in the room, to avoid overlooking opportunities to engage prospective donors.

Below are three considerations for your organization when thinking about how to better engage women donors:

1. Understand the reality of the philanthropic landscape

Research indicates that women have a significant say on how familial philanthropy is distributed. In fact, fundraisers have known for a decade that women make larger and more frequent charitable gifts than men of similar circumstances across almost every income bracket, and are more consistent about monitoring their philanthropic impact over time.

As a baseline, organizations should make a concerted effort to identify and cultivate women donors due to the growing population of high-net-worth women. In the case of married couples, organizations may incorporate measures such as ensuring that all communications are addressed to both partners, consistently inviting both partners to the table for all prospect engagement meetings, and shaping proposals to align with both of their interests. Following a gift, organizations can follow stewardship best practices by regularly updating donors and conveying impact over time with information tailored to address donors’ original motivations.

To avoid missing out on engaging potential donors, organizations should study the data on women’s giving and embed it in their understanding of how to leverage their own donor bases. A decade-long study published in 2013 found that 45% of American millionaires were women, and of all high-net-worth women, approximately 60% were self-made. Women controlled 48% of estates valued at $5 million or more, and an estimated two-thirds of all wealth is projected to be controlled by women by 2030. One estimate from Women Moving Millions—a powerful donor network channeling funds for the advancement of women and girls—claims that women control $13.2 trillion of North America’s wealth alone.

Simply put, operating under the assumption that men are primary givers with the most philanthropic potential, within or outside of a household, may be an expensive oversight for nonprofits.

2. Evaluate your own organizational practices

Even if organizations are not deliberately favoring male donors, subconscious biases or even fundraising software systems may negatively impact the efficacy of their engagement strategies. For example, due to the structure of many donor management systems, a family is often assigned a primary point of contact. If not otherwise stipulated, the primary point of contact may default to the first entry – historically, convention has led to naming the male partner first – which precludes spouses that are often equal partners in decision-making.

While not uncommon, overlooking these biases understandably alienates potential women donors – and often their partners as well – who feel undervalued by organizations. It can be particularly damaging for donor relationships when women are the households’ primary breadwinners, yet systems default to their husband’s data regardless of his circumstances or employment status. Equally damaging are conversations, casual or otherwise, with donors where the bulk of the dialogue is directed toward the male partner with the (perhaps subconscious) assumption that he is responsible for a couple’s giving.

It is imperative that organizations turn a critical eye to their donor engagement practices to ensure that prospective women donors are treated with equal respect and attention. Organizations should scrutinize the default functions of their donor database: does it produce profiles predicated on male-headed households? Is data on female partners being recorded and exported to correctly track women’s giving?

Beyond simply ensuring women’s giving is properly recorded and stewarded, organizations should begin tracking giving patterns within the female demographic to gain a more robust understanding of how effective its engagement practices are across constituencies. A great first step for any organization is reviewing the top 100 donors and board volunteers in the database to ensure that all information is correctly attributed for men and women alike.

Taking the time to objectively assess how women are engaged on an institutional level and evaluate organizational practices, whether they be data system functions or subconscious assumptions, may reveal important areas for improving donor engagement and relationships.

3. Engage women on a deeper level

Although undoubtedly important, employing direct, equal communications is not sufficient to actively engage women on a leadership level. Even if an organization has a robust engagement program that identifies and stewards women donors, proposals for support might be geared toward men with a more transactional appeal.

Melinda Gates of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently stated in an interview that “it’s not just a matter of adding a name to a fundraising letter. We’ve learned from new platforms…that women give differently than men do.”

Research indicates that women philanthropists are drawn to impact giving, which often entails their intimate involvement in program development, funding allocation, and strategic planning. A great example of impact giving in action is the Maverick Collective, a nonprofit group that intentionally targets and engages women philanthropists to fund development projects around the globe. While supporters commit to a minimum pledge of $1 million, they also have the opportunity to apply their professional skills on the ground – from legal advice to marketing – to increase the success and sustainability of their projects.

Studies show that women are more persuaded by the emotional and community impacts of their giving, and less motivated by strategic or tax-related purposes. As such, organizations can tailor proposals to specifically highlight meaningful ways women’s philanthropy will transform an organization and its beneficiaries and offer other avenues for engagement, like volunteering. Women are also increasingly engaged with women’s foundations and funds and donor circles that pool resources to increase giving impact collaboratively and track impact over time. Organizations should be aware of any of these groups operating in their area with similar focal areas to develop potential partnerships.

Another excellent strategy for strengthening women’s engagement with organizations is recruiting more women for leadership positions. 2020 Women on Boards, a national campaign group that aspires to increase the percentage of women on U.S. boards to 20% or greater by 2020, argues that women bring critical diversity of thought that encourages better decision making on boards, in return providing a competitive advantage over all- or largely-male boards. Nonetheless, as of 2017, women held only 43% of nonprofit board memberships overall, which decreases to only 33% for nonprofits with annual revenues higher than $25 million. This poor level of representation is not due to lack of interest: a 2014 poll of approximately 650 female nonprofit employees found that 57% of those not already in a leadership role aspired to one day lead a nonprofit. Bolstering leadership and board recruitment of women – whether from an organization’s employee pool or otherwise – can diversify dynamic, critical strategizing at the top level and improve organizational efficacy.

Perhaps our most important recommendation is for organizations to research how to best engage women with the organization’s development objectives and evaluate if their current approaches reflect these findings. A great place to start is asking for feedback from women stakeholders, whether they are current donors, prospects, or otherwise, on what organizations are doing right and areas for future improvement. Gathering insight into how women perceive the mission, vision, case for support, and opportunities for involvement can help strengthen existing relationships while also identifying ways to lay the groundwork for more meaningful future engagement with women donors.

Addressing the Challenges

At CCS Fundraising, we frequently support nonprofits encountering obstacles around inclusive fundraising. We have helped clients address challenges ranging from a higher-education institution with a pattern of directing communications solely to the male counterparts of heterosexual couples – even when both spouses were alumni – to a human services organization, the primary beneficiaries of which are young women, struggling to engage female leaders in industries aligning with the organization’s work. 

Recently, CCS conducted a feasibility study on behalf of an all-women’s educational institution. Among other concerns, many participants noted the challenge of fundraising for a women’s school due to competition from the local men’s school, which had a longer history of garnering philanthropic support. Participants believed that because much of the community attended the men’s school, charitable giving would be designated there rather than the women’s school.

It is apparent now more than ever that organizations can – and should – help facilitate a shift in attitude about women’s philanthropy by educating themselves on the reality of women donors and get ahead of the curve by adopting more inclusive practices. Over-reliance on traditional methods of fundraising and donor stewardship may not only mean organizations are missing out on engaging potential prospects, but also may lead to alienating their current donor pools as the philanthropic landscape continues to shift. 

Luckily, some of these pitfalls can be mitigated with a little extra effort. Organizations can ensure they engage and attract women donors by devoting time and energy to better understanding outreach practices and effective illustration of impact, offering meaningful opportunities for engagement outside of financial support, including leadership roles, and allocating resources to researching and implementing best practices, such as taking the time to survey current stakeholders.

CCS Fundraising is a strategic fundraising consulting firm that partners with nonprofits for transformational change. Members of the CCS team are highly experienced and knowledgeable across sectors, disciplines, and regions. With offices throughout the United States and the world, our unique, customized approach provides each client with an embedded team member for the duration of the engagement. To access our full suite of perspectives, publications, and reports, visit our insights page. To learn more about CCS Fundraising’s suite of services, click here.

About the Author

Ellie McGuire is an Executive Director with CCS. She has worked with clients across nonprofit sectors, including higher education, arts and culture, human and social services, and independent schools in strategic campaign management and feasibility and planning studies. She holds a double B.A. and M.A. from Lehigh University and an MSc from the University of Edinburgh.