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. These challenges are often compounded for women of color, whose racial identity can further increase the chances that nonprofits overlook them as potential donors. 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 regarding their donors, it is even more important to emphasize the reality of philanthropy in the U.S.: 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.
Keep in mind these three considerations for your organization when thinking about how to better engage women donors.
1. Understand the Reality of the Philanthropic Landscape
The Effect of the COVID-19 Pandemic
It is important for nonprofit leaders to simultaneously recognize the disproportionate impacts that current events are having on women’s economic wellbeing and understand long-term trends in women’s philanthropy, which tell us that so many women have the means, inclination, and power to make charitable gifts, yet are often overlooked by fundraisers.
As we write in March 2021, women today are disproportionately experiencing the negative economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the U.S. alone, more than 2.3 million women have left the labor force since February 2020, putting women’s labor force participation rate at 57%—the lowest rate since 1988. Across the world, poor and marginalized women face a higher risk of losing their livelihoods amid the economic and social fallout of COVID-19.
Today, research on the effect of COVID-19 on women’s philanthropy is nascent. Initial research by the Women’s Philanthropy Institute suggests that early in the pandemic, single women were more likely than single men and married/partnered couples to report decreasing their giving in response to uncertainty about the economic impacts of the pandemic. In the coming months and years, it will be important to track the influence that the COVID-19 pandemic has on women donors as more research becomes available.
Longer-Term Trends in Women’s Wealth and Philanthropy
Research indicates that women have a significant say in how household philanthropy is distributed. Moreover, fundraisers have known for more than a decade that women typically make larger and more frequent charitable gifts than men of similar circumstances across almost every income bracket.
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. Organizations should also understand the wealth that women donors possess. Women control a third of the world’s wealth, according to estimates by Boston Consulting Group. Projecting the future of women’s wealth is difficult due to uncertainties posed by the COVID-19 crisis. But pre-COVID, it was estimated that the global pool of wealth owned by women could rise to $93 trillion by 2023. In North America alone, it is estimated that as of 2019, women controlled 37% of all wealth, which totals to $35 trillion. Additionally, with women living longer than men on average, it is estimated that women could control a large portion of the $30 trillion expected to be transferred by baby boomers in the U.S. by 2030.
Simply put, operating under the assumption that men are primary givers with the most philanthropic potential, within or outside of a household, can 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.
Organizations must 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 women 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 woman 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 across genders.
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 stated in a 2019 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. 50/50 Women on Boards, a global campaign that aspires to improve the gender balance and diversity of corporate boards, argues that women bring critical diversity of thought that encourages better decision making on boards, in return providing a competitive advantage over all-male or largely-male boards. According to a 2018 report by the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, women held 47% of overall nonprofit board memberships. Though the research did not explicitly report on women of color’s representation on boards, one can conclude that they are less represented based on the Lilly School’s findings that on average 78.6% of board members identify as white, 7.5% as African American, 2.6% as Asian American, and 4.2% as Hispanic. Still, diversity is not the norm across all nonprofit boards—the report found that older organizations and organizations with higher revenues tend to have less diverse boards. Bolstering leadership and board recruitment of women can diversify 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 women 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.
This article was originally published on August 29, 2019, and was updated on March 8, 2021 to reflect new research.
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. 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.