As women’s share of national wealth grows and their impact on the world of philanthropy increases, advancement professionals in higher education must reevaluate their donor prospect and engagement strategies that, even today, are still too focused on the male perspective.
The opportunity and untapped potential of women donors should be motivation enough for a fresh approach. According to the 2021 Fidelity Charitable “Women and Giving” survey, 90% of women donors want to do more to create positive social change. The problem is that systems for identifying and engaging donors are often not built with women in mind.
We need to acknowledge that women move through the world differently than men—they often have different philanthropic priorities and respond to different messages. Consider whether your advancement department has data-driven insights into the following questions: where do women donors give, why do they give, and how do fundraisers effectively engage them?
Ultimately, the answers may require a reimagination of the system for soliciting philanthropic gifts in higher education.
Institutional challenges to engaging women donors
Fundraisers in higher education in particular face a number of unique institutional challenges to engaging more women donors. One of the primary issues is most colleges and universities continue to track gifts by household—and women tend to get erased in this process. If you automatically assign equal credit to both members of a heterosexual household, regardless of who gave the gift, then you’ll never know who in that household is making the giving decisions.
There are also the echos of past inequities at play. If a client says their donor portfolio is too male-centric, one of the first questions we’ll ask is—what are you fundraising for and who are you targeting? Because if you’re a college of engineering and you’re targeting alumni, then you likely aren’t going to reach a lot of women, given their underrepresentation in STEM fields.
But this presents an opportunity to correct old stereotypes; just because women are underrepresented in STEM doesn’t mean there aren’t women donors who are passionate about attracting female students to the field and may donate to the cause. By gaining insights into the interests and motivation of women donors, advancement staff at any institution can grow the institution’s donor pool while remedying systemic inequities down the road.
Rethinking donor evaluation systems
One of the most basic steps an institution can take to engage more women donors is to collect better data from existing donors, and that starts with changing how gifts are recorded. Many institutions automatically identify the husband as the head of household—regardless of whether that’s how the couple would classify their relationship. We often ask clients: if a wife signs the check for a gift, why is the husband being credited as the donor?
What we hear often from advancement professionals in the field is, “well, this is the way we’ve always done things.” Yet outdated practices are not going to lead to a diversification in your donor pool. If you’ve been following these practices and ignoring a large segment of your donor population, it’s time to take a more thorough look at who is actually giving to your institution in order to sustain these donor relationships.
Institutions can start by recording each household constituent as an individual and building a reporting mechanism that isolates engagement and giving by gender. Once you understand your current donor pool, you can see how engaged women donors are and determine what methods of engagement and priority areas speak to them the most.
Understanding women donors’ motivation for giving
The best way to understand women’s motivation for giving is simply to ask them—whether that’s in a one-on-one conversation with a fundraiser, through a focus group or survey, or via tailored donor relations outreach. What motivates them? What are they passionate about that may match institutional priorities? Where are they in their personal journey through life—do they have small kids or adult children, or aging parents? And how could this impact how they give now and into the future? This is information that should be recorded in institutional databases.
We counsel clients to utilize applications like SurveyLab to efficiently and effectively gather valuable feedback from their donors, alumni, and friends of the institution. Systems like this offer advancement leaders a wide variety of survey tools that provide a deeper understanding of what their audience’s true interests and inclinations are and allow fundraisers to make strategic decisions based on those insights.
Create an effective communications strategy
As advancement leaders, you need to truly consider how your institution markets to women. What assets can you leverage for effective messaging? It may require an interdisciplinary approach to find the answer.
Individual cases are always unique, but many studies show that women overall are more likely than men to prioritize affecting positive social change through their giving and connect with messaging that focuses on the impact of their gifts.
This presents an opportunity to creatively tell real-life stories through a multimedia approach—for example, utilizing social apps like TikTok, YouTube, or Instagram to share video testimonials of students who were able to attend your institution because of a scholarship. Utilizing digital storytelling in your donor relations efforts is especially important as Millennials grow their share of philanthropy. For older generations, email, text, and even traditional mail are all effective delivery tools for sharing stories that demonstrate impact.
With these strategies for identifying women donors, gathering insights into their motivation for giving, and crafting a tailored communications plan, advancement leaders will be well positioned to diversify and grow their donor pool.
If you are interested in learning more and applying these strategies at your institution, please contact us.
– Authored by: Jenny Jones and Sharise Harrison