The second of six key principles that make women’s philanthropy work is “Women’s Input is Key.”

Furman University (a mid-sized liberal arts university in South Carolina) took this to heart and has had extraordinary early results. They invited 21 accomplished women for an initial conversation about growing women’s support for Furman and have since increased three-fold the number of women committed to their effort, plus are on the cusp of finalizing and launching a bold, visible initiative that the staff would not have designed on their own.

Their success came from a very different approach of listening to women’s input.

You might think, “I know how to ask for input.” Yes, fundraisers are certainly taught how to be curious, ask questions of stakeholders, and listen to learn about motivations and values. We learn how to facilitate focus groups, create surveys, mingle in small events and connect in one-to-one meetings. These technical skills become part of our competence and we teach new staff these practices as they enter the field. But are we just hearing – while still keeping our own perceptions about how women provide support to us and what we want them to do for us? Or are we listening deeply – to pick up on the lived experiences, rich histories, and ideas women have to share when we ask them for their input on how to do better?

Many institutions, like Furman University, that take the second principle to heart are surging beyond their original women’s philanthropy goals. What is going on?

These successful organizations create a generative atmosphere and build on the energy and ideas of their women stakeholders in three ways:

Recognition of the importance of belonging.

All human beings seek to feel safe, connected, and worthy. Institutions which continue to leave women out of the fundraising conversations because they don’t think she is the decisionmaker, or don’t see her capacity to give, are not providing women of all backgrounds an opportunity to feel a deep sense of belonging to the mission. Institutions which sincerely invite women to participate, be heard, and provide valuable input transform the interaction from being just about money to acknowledgement of the human values of connection and worth.

Furman’s invitation was authentic in asking for advice: “Please help us develop a connected community of powerful women who are invested in advancing the university to open a world of possibilities for fellow alumnae and students.” In their first conversation, Furman staff and the President never wavered from their commitment to listen, understand and probe to learn from the women what was working and what they could envision.

Understanding the benefits of approaching women collectively.

Most fundraisers are narrowly trained on identifying, cultivating and soliciting individual relationships. Furman University understood that a wider collective approach would accelerate the effort. Whether called task force or steering committee or advisory council, intentional focus on a group of women grows their collective positive perceptions and sense of being truly valued. In addition, a group approach can build important bonds and create shared purpose. Input and new ideas from the women leaders help open up a wider range of what might be possible. Indeed, this external input is often bolder than what staff might propose.

After a series of focus groups and more listening (held successfully during the pandemic), Furman University convened 42 founding women to consider specific designs for an initiative to grow the number of women supporting the university. The positive, grounded feedback from the group dismissed a key idea the staff had proposed and instead shared a way forward that has led to even more engagement, commitment, talents and treasure from an ever-wider circle of women who want to be part of this effort.

Willingness to design using a broader definition of philanthropy.

Knowing that women bring more than money to their philanthropy, successful organizations do more than merely sprinkle a little engagement (time) or a little networking (ties) into their philanthropic goals. They are holding the full depth of what women have to offer – their talents, experiences, beliefs as well current connections to the institution – to listen deeply to what is possible. And then they partner WITH the women to design an initiative that will grow women’s broad range of support for the mission. 

Tricia Carswell, Principal Gift Officer and staff lead for the Furman’s Women Collective, recently shared: “Thanks to the founding members of our collective, and the additional support from many more women who have raised their hands to help, we are poised to have a memorable, first-class national launch of an initiative that encompasses meaningful ways women can engage with Furman and its students, a growth in the number of women leaders helping across campus, as well as a high-impact philanthropic focus. We never could have gotten to this design without our founders being “all in” with their voices, talents, commitment and support every step of the way.”

I can add that Furman’s progress has been remarkable for many reasons that tie to the six principles (such as true commitment from the co-chairs, President Elizabeth Davis and Minor Shaw, or taking a pause to learn before they started). However, their commitment to really listen to women’s input has made all the difference in designing an initiative that will be seen as bold while still tailored to the unique history and current strategies of Furman University. Keep your eye on their progress across this year! We have much to learn from Furman and so many other institutions that create strategies based on the six principles to grow women’s philanthropy