As awareness about women’s philanthropic power grows, many fundraising professionals know that it’s time to pay attention to women — or miss out on critical support. But one team member can’t do it alone. Success relies on engagement by all parts of the organization, including leadership. How can you build awareness within your team, leadership, and volunteers, as well as use those conversations to propel the change you desire? A book club could kick off your efforts.

Recently several organizations have shared with me how they have used Gender Matters; A Guide to Growing Women’s Philanthropy in a book club setting. This creative idea has shown great promise within these organizations – creating structured learning, an opportunity to evaluate current practices and share new ideas, and incentive to shift behaviors and strategies.

Here are several takeaways from a diverse group of colleges and universities:

University of Rochester
Marianne Virgilio, Senior Director of Gift Planning

How did the group form and who was involved?

“We offered 20 gift officers and members of our executive management team an opportunity to join a group discussion on the book, including senior executive managers, the director of stewardship, gift officers from central advancement and schools and units, plus regional fundraisers. Men and women participated, and we held the discussion in five one-hour sessions, asking them to read assigned chapters in advance of each session.

What were the key learnings and takeaways?

From the first session, people were referencing the research data in the book, analyzing our overall operations from a different perspective, and applying what they learned to their professional practice. Group members talked about reviewing their portfolios and their record of visits to analyze how much time they were spending with men, women, and couples. Gift officers spoke of changing their approach in phone calls and emails to be more sensitive to the different ways in which women engage. We looked at gender in University leadership, the board of trustees, and overall volunteer activity. The book and our group discussions created quite a bit of buzz throughout Advancement as colleagues shared what they were learning.

At the last session, the group offered to remain actively involved going forward. We have crafted a plan for a working group to arrive at recommendations for changes in our processes and practices. Individual gift officers are asking for help in implementing some of the ideas – such as asking our database colleagues about always including the non-alumni spouse of a couple on our records. We have begun a formal process of gathering shareholder feedback and, already, the results are both interesting and not surprising. We have initiated data review with members of our database team who are interested in what we are trying to figure out and where we want to go with it.

“One fairly new member of our book group closed a $1 million bequest commitment before fiscal-year end — she commented that participating in the group had equipped her to more effectively engage with that alumna and bring a substantial gift conversation to closure. A great start and more to be done. Change is happening as more fundraisers at Rochester understand the greater opportunities for support of the University when all constituents are equally engaged.”

Williams College
Janine Hetherington, Director, Leadership Giving

How did the group form and who was involved?

I gave Gender Matters as a holiday gift-with-homework to an advisory board comprised of women alumnae who were helping me to strategize around annual leadership giving. At Williams, 39 percent of the alumni body is female, yet only 26 percent of our annual leadership donors are female, and this group has a goal of working toward representational parity. They all read the book and we held our February meeting as a ‘book club discussion’.

I also hosted my Williams colleagues for dinner and book club at my home. We wanted all of our front-line fundraisers plus the Vice President of College Relations, AVP of Development and AVP of Advancement Operations to read and digest the material.

Finally, through our Teach It Forward campaign, my colleague Lauren Magrath managed a group of women who were focused on endowment-level women’s philanthropy. This advisory group all read and discussed Gender Matters this past winter.

What were the key learnings or takeaways?

A key line in the book struck a chord with participants: “How might we create meaningful engagement that honors women’s preferences, avoids being resource intensive for staff and leads to growth in women’s leadership and philanthropy?”

This prompted discussion about different research methods that could be more inclusive of women and the need for data analysis and metrics to better understand female donors and prospects. Several ideas emerged, like starting to record women’s philanthropic interests and affinity, as well as turning from monetary thresholds for cultivation events to instead choosing participant based on consistency of giving over time.

Other members were taken with the discussion of women’s communications styles and motivators. They noted the importance of empathy and women’s desire to be deeply engaged, which prompted ideas for ways to secure buy-in from alumnae in changes to the engagement process. They also gravitated to simple yet effective changes that could present women donors at least equally, or better, such as flipping the traditional salutation to “Dear Mrs. and Mr. Smith.”

North Carolina State University
Christina Walker, Executive Director and Chief of Staff, University Advancement

How did the group form and who was involved?

A cross-functional village of staff began meeting two years ago ad hoc to assess what might be possible, what our data was, and to learn from each other.  They mapped out possibilities and created a list of top women donors to pay attention to.

In 2018 they gathered a more formal steering committee that included volunteers and developed a first vision statement and assignment to read the book. Their first assignment was to think about the “dream” – what should they focus on.  This meeting to create a vision was led by Susan Woodson, the wife of NC State’s chancellor. This group continued to meet to define an updated Mission and Vision statement from the dream exercise and to define the structure of a focus on women’s philanthropy.

What were key learnings and takeaways?

Full buy-in from leadership is critical. Vice Chancellor for University Advancement, Brian Sischo, is fully committed and has encouraged and supported women leaders, including staff and volunteers, to drive it.  Participants across the board have found the book to be very useful.  All steering committee members frequently refer to it and appreciate that they now have a common understanding and language, and Brian infuses points from it into his thinking and priorities.

“The book serves as a road map to guide you; it is not a specific how-to manual.  Our work to grow women’s philanthropy will keep changing because our demographics, landscape, and own successes keep changing.  The book helps me think forward even as I design for today and the future”.

Penn State
Haley Staub, Assistant Director of Volunteer Programs, and Penn State’s Women’s Philanthropic Advisory Board

How did the group form and who was involved?

We provided a copy of Gender Matters to each board member as a part of the recruitment and onboarding process for the Women’s Philanthropic Advisory Board. The WPAB’s mission is to work collaboratively with the Office of Volunteer Programs to identify and strengthen the relationship between the Division of Development and Alumni Relations and traditionally underrepresented groups, with specific focus on donors and volunteers who identify as female/women.

What were key learnings and takeaways?

This book laid the foundation for understanding why the time is now to reevaluate traditional fundraising practices to be inclusive of women, what the research tells us about gender differences in giving, and how the conversation can be shifted to include a focus on impact (rather than solely dollar amount) and capitalize on a woman’s network.

Due in part to the spotlighted attention on this topic by the advisory board and University Development leadership, Gender Matters is also included in the division-wide Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion goals for the 2020 fiscal year. Staff are encouraged to read and incorporate strategies from the book to work with greater cultural agility.

Virginia Commonwealth University
Amy Gray Beck, Executive Director, Inclusive Engagement and Philanthropy
Rachel Brandell-Mayers, Executive Director, Prospect Development

How did the group form and who was involved?

The group was initiated by Amy & Rachel to build awareness and internal champions for more inclusive development practices at VCU. The Inclusive Engagement and Philanthropy Office was launched in January of 2023, and by February we were hosting our first book club meeting with 22 members across all of development! We had representation from staff from internal advancement operations, to alumni relations, to school and college lead fundraisers, to the executive leadership team members in our division. We hosted meetings bi-weekly (could be in person at the DAR building on campus, or join virtually) and we read 2 chapters between each meeting. Beyond offering a cold Diet Coke and chocolate at each meeting, their involvement was completely voluntary. Each meeting was facilitated by a different member of the team – making the conversations dynamic and interesting. We were thrilled with the interest and commitment! VCU’s plan is to build 3 identity-based giving initiatives for alumni and donors who identify as women, black, and LGBTQ+, and building knowledge and partners internally was one of the first initiatives to this work.

What were key learnings and takeaways?

There were many takeaways from our members. Most felt the research matched their anecdotal experiences working with women alumni and donors at VCU and at other institutions or nonprofits. In addition, our division was going through (and still is at the time I am writing this) significant change through a centralized reorganization – and the Appreciative Inquiry model was something that many of the members of the group gravitated towards. We talked about how it would be a great model for change in our division or subsequent teams, as well as for our external philanthropy groups as we move forward. We were able to speak practically and thoughtfully about the timing of launching a women’s philanthropy initiative given our structural changes, as well as the timing of our campaign launch. Another key takeaway was that several members have worked within their own teams to re-think small changes in how they do their work. For instance, this summer the Prospect Development team is going to examine our research briefing templates to make them more inclusive. It also provided us with some really great networking and professional development internally – below are some quotes from the members of that group

“I loved the cross-campus collaborative nature of it” 

“My participation in a professional book club was viewed as valid, useful, and important”   

“It allowed me space to focus on professional development. Instead of me spending energy on finding professional development, that space was created for me.”   

“As a new member of DAR, the book club provided a simple way for me to network with my colleagues” 


** Photo: Virginia Commonwealth University’s Development and Alumni Relations Book Club members celebrating finishing Gender Matters.