The more I peruse the literature on women’s philanthropy, the more I understand how typical the motives for my own giving are.
Recently, a fundraiser from my undergraduate alma mater called me in the lead up to our quinquennial reunion celebration at the recommendation, she told me, of two classmates who were also friends. They wanted me to complete the funding for a scholarship that they had seeded in honor of our reunion. Although the ask represented a stretch gift for me, I immediately agreed.
I have been a donor to my alma mater since I graduated many years ago—often modest gifts, but I gave consistently out of a sense of appreciation for the empowering education I received at this all-women’s college. Moreover, I was an active volunteer—serving as an alumna admissions representative and in multiple class officer roles from class correspondent to vice president. Through the years I had also served a term as a Director of the Alumnae Association and as a member of two board committees. When I moved to a new city, I immediately connected with the local alumnae club, which provided wonderful connections to women ranging from graduates of a decade before my class to those just out of college.
My sister and I also established an endowed scholarship at the university in our home town, which neither of us attended. However, both our parents had taken graduate courses there and this institution plays a prominent role in the local cultural life. The scholarship memorializes our late sister and our parents and we are gratified to receive an annual thank you note (now via email) from that year’s recipient.
In both these instances, my philanthropy connects me to others who share my belief in the importance and power of higher education. In fact, my entire professional career has been as an administrator in this field and my sister is also an educator. So these gifts also connect me to my passion and desire to ensure that worthy students can receive the financial support that they need to attend college.
The literature reveals the themes I have noted from my own experience that play critical roles in motivating women donors: connection with peers, volunteer involvement, shared vision, and good communication and stewardship.
In the first instance, my many years of volunteering and consistent giving speak to the connection I have to my alma mater. Over the years, my volunteer activities have deepened my connection with fellow classmates and exposed me to applicants, current students, the presidents of the college. Their excitement, intellectual power, and self-confidence nourish my positive feelings and keep me abreast with the college’s developments. As a donor, I wasn’t asked to compete with my classmates to match their gifts but rather to join them at a new level of giving. Is this a distinction without a difference? I don’t think so. The power of this ask was to become a partner with friends whom I respected and who shared my love of our college. In fact, although this gift put me at a new giving society, that wasn’t mentioned in the solicitation, and I never thought to ask about how our names would be associated with this scholarship. These matters were clarified in subsequent stewardship but they did not figure in the initial conversation or my response.
In our time, women have the capacity to be major and even principal donors to the causes that they care about and in which they are already often engaged. The much anticipated and unprecedented transfer of wealth from the baby boomer generation has begun and women stand to inherit twice: not only from parents but also from spouses or partners, leading to an estimated 70% of this wealth over the next five decades. Women run two out of five of all businesses in the United States. Women own the majority of stocks listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Women who have earned their own money are consistently more generous than men or women who have inherited wealth. Interestingly, women with inherited wealth often choose charities where their parents and spouses have traditionally given while women who have earned their own money tend to make more independent decisions about where to give.
Fundraisers need to broaden their “toolkits” in thinking about what motivates and incentivizes women donors. It isn’t unusual for a woman to decline public acknowledgement of her gifts (including not wanting to have her name on a building). On the other hand, many women now realize that by publicizing their gifts, they will serve as role models for others. It takes sensitivity and time getting to know a prospect in order to understand these different attitudes and plan a solicitation accordingly. The accomplished fundraiser not only plans her ask but also develops a sensitive plan for celebrating the gift and stewarding the donor.
Opportunities for women of means to become engaged in philanthropy in a meaningful capacity, to meet other potential and actual women donors, and to be exposed to the most articulate proponents of the causes they embrace all enhance the likelihood of their giving. Connections with peers, opportunities to have first-hand contact with the recipients of the charity or the projects it enables, and consistent, clear communication about how funds will be used and the results achieved all contribute to successful outcomes.