Ditch The Niche in Women’s Giving

From the late 1980s to early 2010s, many university advancement departments thoughtfully designed dedicated women’s “programs” or “initiatives.” These efforts responded to women’s preferences to connect and collaborate, as well as to be engaged before they are asked.

The specific design of these initiatives varied. Some resembled giving circles, with annual gift requirements and collective decision-making on the use of those funds. Others focused on placing women in leadership positions or on connecting alumnae to current students and to each other.

However, a common thread united – and limited – these programs: they all were siloed, niched programs that artificially separated women’s giving from larger development efforts.

The Problem With Niche Programs

I ran one such program, the President’s Council of Cornell Women (PCCW), in the mid-90s. I was five years into my university fundraising career and was the sole staff person for a council with over 700 successful and engaged alumnae. PCCW was not linked to the rest of the development functions at that time. Rarely was I asked for my input about large gift strategies for these donors. Rarely did other fundraisers join in any events we developed for our members to meet them and further the relationships.

I heard similar stories of non-integration from other colleagues running women’s programs at the time. In 2009, the Women’s Philanthropy Institute (WPI) published a paper, “Women’s Philanthropy on Campus,” reviewing over two-dozen initiatives like the PCCW. My and my colleagues experiences were reflected in the findings about why many of these programs failed.

Seven Reasons Women’s Philanthropy Programs Fail

  1. A mid-level manager (most often a woman) creates the initiative, and the institution marginalizes it.
  2. When the mid-level manager leaves, the institutional memory about the program leaves with her.
  3. The institution fails to invest the long-term human and financial capital needed to build the program.
  4. The program is maintained in isolation and not integrated into the total development strategy.
  5. Development staff see the women’s philanthropy initiative as competition to ongoing efforts, such as the annual fund or alumni giving.
  6. When there is no return on investment in the first year of the program’s operation, the institution terminates the program.
  7. Some development staff are resistant to change and reluctant to change the status quo.

After my own research and review, I would add a #8: Lack of defined metrics to systematically measure success. Given that the programs were “extras,” no organization set metrics in place to create accurate benchmarks and track and report changes in gifts, donors, participation and leadership due to their programs. This lack added to the undervaluing of these initiatives and kept them outside the core of development functions.

Move Toward an Integrated Model

You may find that a women-only initiative would benefit your organization. The niche programs did create value in many ways. They brought in women who had capacity to give but had not been cultivated. They expanded women’s understanding of the life of the nonprofit or university and important issues it faced. They successfully connected women to the organization, its beneficiaries and to peers.

In its early years, the PCCW worked well with women baby boomers who had struggled to make it to the top of their professions and truly appreciated the ability to connect to similar peers. It was a relief and felt supportive to connect with other women leaders who cared about the mission and had shared professional and life experiences.

However, times have changed. I have found in many recent focus groups that women do NOT want to be seen as separate from men. They do choose to connect and collaborate with each other, but they also know that they are part of a larger solution that will require all voices. Women today want to connect with each other and be integrated with men as well as women to tackle issues. Talk to your women stakeholders – what do they want? How would they like to connect to your organization and others invested in the mission?

More importantly, any women’s philanthropy initiative must be integrated across the entire development department. When we create a “niche” program, we run the risk of building an artificial framework that holds the organization back from growing women’s support sustainably and significantly. In an integrated approach, you may design a programmatic means to connect women to each other while growing their engagement, leadership and philanthropy. At the same time, you’ll leverage your design with your fundraising colleagues across the organization in commitment, collaboration, behaviors and support to grow women’s philanthropy more broadly.

As Lisa Witter and Lisa Chen write in their excellent book, She Spot: “Women are not a niche. They are the audience. Ditch the niche.”