Women as Donors and Fundraisers: Insights That Every Organization Can Use

If you recognize my name you may know that promoting diversity within nonprofit organizations is one of my passions. I wrote a blog for IP a few months ago on achieving greater donor diversity that generated an encouraging volume of like-minded feedback. Given I’m always looking for evidence of expanding diversity, I was excited to read a National Public Radio report on the Maverick Collective, a new philanthropy effort launched by a group of influential women.

No question, this is important news. But at the same time, I was disheartened by discussion within the piece of these dynamic women feeling “marginalized in philanthropy,” as only their husbands were sought out to give or being expected to support the same charities as their spouses.

It all brought to mind a recent conversation with a colleague who’s an expert on women in philanthropy. What are we missing when women are not fully engaged as donors and fundraisers? Here are insights that organizations ignore at their peril.

View Women as Vital, Not Victims

Stephanie Clohesy has been a leader in the field of women’s philanthropy for 30 years. Her Clohesy Consulting clients include a long list of regional, national and international foundations targeting women and girls’ issues, among them women’s foundations in Dallas, Chicago, New York, California and Iowa.

Clohesy is one of my thought gurus. I went to her with questions about women in philanthropy, starting with the broad query of how women want to be viewed by nonprofits and what they expect as donors and fundraisers.

“They don’t want to be cast as victims,” Clohesy begins. “Although women are [generally] kind and responsive when asked to help, they are becoming more self-directed and strategic about giving and asking. They want to be leaders and deciders. They want real action for the money they raise and give.”

Recognize Women Measure Results Rationally and Intuitively

Women want results, but they may measure them differently. And that difference is distinct and typically, to an organization’s benefit.

Women fundraisers and women donors are more open to making a case for funding that is a blend of intuitive and rational thinking,” Clohesy explains. “On the one hand, women — like all donors — are looking for organizations [that] can show how financial resources change program design, organizational operations, strategies and tasks, in ways that add up to discernible and measurable impact. 

“But women are also very open to making intuitive leaps,” she continues. “They understand that it’s nearly impossible to make cause-and-effect arguments to solve complex problems. So they’re open to some solutions that are more centered on leadership, the quality of the people, and ‘off-road’ ideas as unexpected pathways through a problem.” 

Understand What Women Champion and Why

Problem solving is very much at the core of what motivates women as donors, adds Clohesy. She points to the arts as an area frequently championed by women – and often misunderstood as “nice but a detour” in addressing urgent needs. “Many women donors are interested in the arts as essential for solving social justice and human rights issues. There is much and increasing evidence that shows how the arts inspire and change people’s minds and hearts, which then energizes actual social movements and change.”

As examples, Clohesy describes her work with funders that are emphasizing strategies using arts and social justice. “[I am] watching more and more of my women’s philanthropy clients move more grant-making dollars into many art forms, especially filmmaking. They are ‘investing’ through grant-making, as well as actual investments.”

Look to Women’s Funds as Models for Engaging Women

Nonprofits that want to reach out to women would do well to study women’s funds and women’s organizations. “[They] have found ways to create high engagement with women donors,” Clohesy explains. “To integrate donors into leadership … [and] deal with donors at a depth that recognizes their commitment as a whole person, not just a capable donor,” she adds. 

“I think the donor cultures being created by the women’s funds are impressive. They are building ties that bind women together into transformative activities. There is nothing bland about giving to and through a women’s fund!” Clohesy concludes.

Next Step: Self-Assess

You’ve heard the expert. Now take time for an organizational self-check: How do you view women as donors? Are they central or peripheral to your efforts? Is the way that you speak of women within your organization active or passive, empowered or “marginalized”?

To make any woman ready and willing to contribute to a cause feel sidelined is shortsighted and foolish, let alone women with the resources and savvy to create their own approach to philanthropy. Let’s keep moving toward the goal of greater donor diversity by giving women the opportunities – and respect – they’re due!

Susan J. Ragusa is a nonprofit strategist in the Hudson Valley region and metro New York. Email susan@susanjragusa.com or connect with Susan on LinkedIn and Twitter.