Engaging Women in Philanthropy: Practical Ways to Shift Our Approach

Article by Matthew T. Lambert, William & Mary | Shared from academicimpressions.com.

This article at a glance:

It is imperative that we first engage women meaningfully in the life of the university. From there we can develop a strong pipeline of women leaders so that we ultimately see great increases in philanthropy. Our mantra is grow engagement, grow leadership, grow philanthropy.

Put simply, nearly half of the nation’s top wealth holders are women, they are the primary breadwinners in 40% of households, they control 60% of the nation’s wealth and they are the sole or equal party in 90% of philanthropic decisions (see: Do Women Give More?). If none of that convinces you that we need to be paying closer attention to how we engage alumnae, consider this: women live on average eight years longer than men, so they make the ultimate (read: final) philanthropic decisions. We need to do a better job of engaging women. Now. 

Aided by an expert, Kathleen Loehr, a task force at William & Mary explored the literature and best practices surrounding women and philanthropy, and in 2013 when I arrived as a new vice president, they brought me their research and recommendations. Their findings opened my eyes to the many ways that we subtly ignore women in philanthropic conversations.

What We Learned

Like any good development officer, I knew it was always better to engage both partners in a relationship, but more frequently I found myself meeting with men at their downtown offices in Manhattan, Chicago, Washington, and San Francisco because that was easiest for me. What I should have known is that my convenience might be quite detrimental to their long-term philanthropic support.  The research is clear that it is essential to also include women in these conversations if we want to maximize giving.

Upon closer examination, I came to see that our major gift officer portfolios were heavily skewed toward male alumni and that women were significantly underrepresented on our leadership boards and in the pipeline of volunteers and prospects. It became clear that to change behavior, we needed to undertake a cultural shift in the way we approach women and men about philanthropy. This involves more than just rethinking how we make the ask (and to whom we make it). While the fundamental goal of our efforts is unapologetically to increase giving, it is imperative that we first engage women meaningfully in the life of the university. From there we can develop a strong pipeline of women leaders so that we ultimately see great increases in philanthropy. Our mantra is grow engagement, grow leadership, grow philanthropy.

This culture change will not happen overnight; it involves many complexities that warrant a long-term, campus-wide integrated approach. Let me share some of the things we’ve done at William & Mary that have made a real difference.

THE CHALLENGE AT WILLIAM & MARYSurveys and focus groups of our own alumnae showed us that the primary reasons our alumnae give are similar to national trends for all female donors—to impact future generations and to give back (see: the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy). Also reflecting national research, our alumnae are more likely to give. Unlike the national pattern, however, our alumnae give  smaller average gifts than our male graduates.

1. Growing Women’s Engagement

In response to the task force’s findings, we became one of the very few universities in the U.S. to create a full-time position focused exclusively on alumnae engagement and philanthropy. It was particularly important to me that Valerie Cushman, our director of alumnae initiatives, have a dual report to advancement and the provost’s office as a means of strengthening cross-campus connections. I have been adamant, however, that this effort be much more pervasive than one person and involve the entire university community. Campus-wide integration is key. I do not want anyone to think, “Well, now we’ve hired someone…problem solved; she’ll deal with it.”

To be successful, everyone at the university—from senior administrators to students, faculty and staff—must see this as integral to the way we do business.  I have been delighted with the positive response to this charge across campus. The leadership of our president, provost, deans and vice presidents, and our campaign chair has been critical to shifting the way the institution thinks, talks, and responds to the role of women at William & Mary.

Earlier this year, 35 senior faculty, staff and administrators accepted an invitation to participate on an internal advisory group (IAG). The highest priority of the IAG is to create channels for alumnae engagement that will benefit academic departments and students as well as provide leadership and mentoring opportunities for our alumnae. The members are also charged with maintaining and growing relationships with alumnae leaders.

THE PROVOST’S PERSPECTIVE William & Mary’s provost, Michael Halleran, has been a champion for the efforts aimed at increasing engagement, leadership and philanthropy among our alumnae.  He embraces the need to extend the reach of this initiative beyond the advancement team. “Our undergraduate student body is 58% female and our academic leadership (deans, vice provosts and the like) is roughly evenly split between men and women.  We will be celebrating our centennial of co-education in 2018 and are taking this opportunity to highlight the stories and successes of women across the university. Our law and business schools host women leadership forums as a powerful way to engage their alumnae.  In short, we recognize that fund raising is a team sport, and everyone at William & Mary is involved.”

2. Growing Women’s Leadership

Our marketing and communications team conducted an audit of our print and digital materials and found we had not profiled as many women as men, by a long shot. Many of our prominent women, as well as minority alumni, had never been featured. We have changed our behavior dramatically and there is now much better balance in our communications efforts. Our athletics department began hosting a series of “Women in Action” events around the country for former women athletes, which has resulted in new volunteers and donors to women’s athletics.

Our alumnae emphatically did not want to create a “giving circle” as the sole answer to increased philanthropy from women. Instead, we convened a Women & Philanthropy Leadership Circle, comprised of many of our highest-level women philanthropists, to both advise our efforts and consider what more we can do to elevate women’s leadership and philanthropy. This group is exploring models and structures to grow engagement and to entice alumnae to give at least at the same level as our male graduates.

The work of our Women & Philanthropy Leadership Circle has just begun, but there is interest in exploring an endowment and a women’s summit that may be a signature event hosted at regular intervals, as well as a recognition program for our noteworthy women philanthropists. The members strongly support connecting with alumnae where they live. They are personally hosting alumnae engagement events around the country and exploring ways to develop relationships with alumnae who are high capacity prospects in their regions.

3. Growing Women’s Philanthropy

Women reported that they would give more if they had a personal connection and deeper engagement with the university, so Valerie set out to create an integrated model to do just that. Our development officers now beg Valerie to travel with them because her title and role open doors that have allowed for increased and more substantive visits with alumnae.

“Our development officers have quickly endorsed the new approach, especially seeing that our alumnae are more likely to say yes to an initial meeting knowing that its purpose is to explore the needs and interests of our alumnae philanthropists. This sets the stage for a conversation that results in increased engagement and for sharing the importance of alumnae giving and giving deeply.”
Valerie Cushman, William & Mary

Here’s what else we’ve done:

Change how we plan visits
Opening regional offices in Washington, New York and California has enabled advancement staff based in those areas to better target women and men, particularly when one spouse lives or works in the suburbs and doesn’t often travel into the city. Coincidentally, women lead all of our regional offices. Those advancement officers can now reach out to both partners and ask, “When and where is best for you?” since they are not limited by the short trips the rest of us from campus usually make to those cities.

Train our team
Additionally, we have held trainings for our entire advancement team, which showed development officers that the competition-based approach often associated with fundraising (“Jimmy is giving $X million, don’t you want to do $Y million?”) does not appeal to most women. It turns out, however, that altering one’s approach to appeal to women also works with men. It also works for ethnic minorities, millennials and other underrepresented groups. Our women and philanthropy effort has now inspired similar efforts with our African American and LGBTQ alumni.

Measure our progress
I am a strong believer in setting aggressive, yet achievable goals in order to coalesce teams and inspire action—Jim Collins’ famous BHAGs are helpful in focusing the mind. I have charged my team with the dual goals of having women comprise 50% of volunteer leaders across campus and 50% of private giving by the end of our campaign in 2020. In fact, we strive to be a global model for others who strive to produce and celebrate women leaders. We are challenging ourselves to create an environment that empowers women and enhances their impact on William & Mary.

We are far from perfect, but I am proud of the steps we’ve taken so far and confident in the results we will see both during this campaign and for generations to come. I often remind my team that in addition to reaching our campaign goals we are trying to build a culture of engagement and philanthropy. Cultures can be changed, but leadership, commitment, and focus are required.

I encourage you to audit your own efforts and to explore new ways to engage your alumnae.