I recently asked a leader of advancement at a state college if she used different approaches in working with women versus men donors on her campus. This was not meant to be a trick question. I was very curious, as she had been a leader in sorority fundraising and had demonstrated an understanding of how women give. Without missing a beat, she said: “Women are much harder. Give me a male donor any day.”
I wasn’t all that surprised by her response. I hear over and over the story that women are harder to work with. Fundraisers tell me that male donors are “easier” to cultivate, to ask for money and to recruit into leadership positions. They share their frustration that their tried-and-true best practices just don’t seem to work with women.
However, when our “best practices” don’t work, should we conclude that the problem is with the donors? Or with our approach?
The Effects of Fundraising Under Pressure
As I explained in my last post, many of our current fundraising “best practices” originated in the 1950s and 1960s and were made to appeal to white, male donors. I truly believe that the story “women are harder” is a myth – one resulting from applying strategies developed for one specific group of donors to all types of people.
I am empathetic to the leader who told me “women are harder.” I know she is responsible for meeting a very large fundraising goal. Fundraisers are under major pressure. They have limited time and often choose to visit with the donors who can help immediately. When we are under pressure, it is normal to revert to what we’ve done successfully before. When a woman doesn’t respond as anticipated and, in fact, asks more questions, gives less than asked or doesn’t agree to be on a board, we turn and focus on those who do respond in the way we prefer. A consequence of moving on is that we sub-optimize what this woman might give us after she is satisfied with her due diligence.
Not “Harder.” Just Different.
Women are not “harder.” They are just different. It is the mismatched application of our well-honed approaches to women that makes it seem harder, because we are setting ourselves up for one preferred result, mainly a quick answer and preferably a gift, but we get another.
If we adjust our expectations, “hard” becomes “THIS is the approach” for women.
An Example: Best Practices in Action
Shaking up our standard operating procedures isn’t an easy task. In the abstract, it can be hard to understand the subtle ways in which our “best practices” may unconsciously lead us astray. Here’s an example to illustrate this important principle:
A mid-size nonprofit has a board nomination meeting this week. Their lone researcher is asked for a list of donor names for board nominations by the next day. The request is the same as the past five years, so she is well practiced. She pulls the top 50 donors from the database. She inputs the wealth rating for each. She adds in total giving and the last two gifts from each donor. She notes key relationships in the organization. She also adds in volunteer activity and leadership roles for the past five years. She then sorts the list based on how many of the donors have all these categories filled, the sizes of their gifts and their wealth ratings. Her final list is the top 10 names, and she emails the list to her colleague.
Why Are No Women on the List?
When asked the next morning why there are no women on the list, she notes that while there were women in the original pool, they did not rise to the top 10. The list moves forward, with a note that there were no women on it this year. The standard request received the standard response, all in a timely fashion.
Neither the colleague nor the researcher paused to consider the inputs:
- The colleague didn’t specifically ask for women on the list.
- The researcher did not know that wealth ratings are normally higher for men than women, under-representing their potential.
- Even if she did know that fact, she had not yet developed a new research process to search women’s capacity with alternative tools.
When we open our eyes to our best-practice story and the thousands of practices that have been created from it, we can begin to imagine alternative ways of handling the simple request to create a board nomination list to meet the new goal of including women.
What Doing Things Differently Looks Like
Doing things differently might have led to more women on the submitted list:
- Different leadership commitment to diversity among volunteer leaders,
- Different request (specific detail on the desire for more women on the list),
- Different awareness (what are alternative ways to track women’s wealth?), and
- Different practices (designing a new list that includes the breadth of women’s wealth capacity).
These new actions might feel “hard.” They may – at first –feel uncomfortable. But with time and practice, you can integrate these needed elements into your work, just as you did with the first “best practices” you learned.
It is time to reframe the story we tell. Women are not “harder,” they simply have different ways of giving.
Sometimes “best practices” simply aren’t best. When we find our tried-and-true strategies providing sub-optimal results, it’s time to step back and reconsider the tactics we use – rather than writing off a large group of donors as difficult. In this case, reflecting on the origins of the fundraising profession’s best practices helps us understand that these approaches were not designed with women in mind.
Have you ever felt that “women are harder”? Were you able to adapt your approach? Share in the comments below.
Develop New Principles That Reflect a Diverse Donor Pool
This is not about one person doing anything wrong. It is about facing the reality that our current learned practices are seared into us. With this knowledge, we can move forward and develop new principles that reflect our current, more diverse donor pool and the preferences of those donors.
In my next post, we’ll explore just how to face this reality and uncover more myths, like “women donors are harder,” that may unconsciously inform and inhibit our ability to grow giving to your organization.