The President of a large Midwest state university recently called his Vice President of Advancement. “Tell me more about our focus on women’s philanthropy. It sure has our Board chair excited.”

It turns out that the Board chair had cornered the President at a meeting and was sharing his enthusiasm about the potential of engaging more women as leaders and philanthropists. He’d been learning about women’s philanthropy from the Development chair who had tasked the Development committee to review the research and what other schools were doing. The volunteers on the Development committee were intrigued and excited by their findings, which influenced the Board chair and then the President.

This is the power of leadership champions.

This university was already in a strong position because staff leadership –the VP and AVP of Advancement — were already committed to this approach. It was the most senior and most influential volunteers rolling up their sleeves and doing their own due diligence to understand women’s giving potential that has accelerated the university’s investment and focus on women. These volunteers have made women’s philanthropy their number one priority to grow support for the university.

When both staff and volunteer leaders take a strong stand and commit to the change they wish to see, their compelling vision can pull others in the organization into new behaviors, conversations, and actions.

Leadership involvement is another key principle within the six that I teach for successful women’s philanthropy. I’ll be covering the six principles and more in the inaugural Women’s Philanthropy Senior Leader Seminar.

This principle, “Leadership Involvement is Pivotal,” makes the difference between a one-off program that fades when a staff person leading it moves on, versus a sustained and integrated way of fundraising across an entire institution. Too many past good intentions to focus on women’s engagement struggled when they were led by one mid-level staff (often juggling other priorities) and lacked strong leadership backing. The past programs often left many women stakeholders wondering – “What happened? Was this just a flash-in-the-pan? Did they only want my money but not all I have to offer?” Today’s successful growth of women’s philanthropy across campuses, schools, and nonprofits is a result of leadership champions — both staff and volunteers — who advocated and persuaded from the very beginning.

And beyond being champions, leaders control the vision, the strategic priorities, and the ability to move resources that allow real transformation and big outcomes. The first question I ask my clients is whether their leadership is involved; it fundamentally alters the path and scope of success.

Leadership Champions in Action

University of San Francisco

Volunteer leadership champions were critical to helping the University of San Francisco dramatically increase women’s giving and women’s representation on councils and boards. Development staff at the University of San Francisco began focusing on women’s philanthropy in 2012. Their efforts accelerated in 2013 when they created an advisory council of six influential champions. Two of the women were on the Board of Trustees. The council worked closely with the staff to understand the quantitative results of a survey sent to over 5,000 participants, as well as the qualitative input from a series of interviews with women leaders and stakeholders. They were part of creating the final report with a series of specific next steps, which included the necessary investment to hire a dedicated staff person to lead the work.

Given the council’s influence, the summary of the findings and recommendations was      shared with the Board and a motion was approved to ask the VP of Advancement to move forward and provide the resources needed. A member of the advisory council also made a $100,000 gift to help launch the initiative. Across six years, USF’s focus has led to increased women’s support on all fronts. More women are now engaged through the highly sought-after annual symposium geared toward women’s priorities. USF has grown the number of women and women of color who serve on University councils and boards from 23% in 2014 to 44% in 2020. There has been an increase in women’s philanthropy at many levels, including 200% growth in giving by Advisory Board members.

William & Mary

An example of a staff leadership champion wielding influence can be found at William & Mary.  Matthew Lambert, Vice President for University Advancement, has been a dedicated ally and vocal advocate for focusing on women’s engagement. With enthusiastic support from the William & Mary Foundation Board of Trustees, many of whom were involved to move from concept to commitment to a report and plan, Matthew appropriated resources to hire a dedicated staff person to lead the work.

He did not stop there. He invested funds in culture and communication changes required to integrate women stakeholders more fully across all of W&M. Specifically, he provided training so that every member of the staff understood the value of engaging women in new and different ways. He reinforced action by having every team within advancement create a mini strategic plan for how they would shift their practices and policies to contribute to the effort.  And he monitored metrics from each team to adapt their work to consistently include women. This adaptation of culture and practices not only led to the deeper commitment of alumnae but also of underrepresented groups and the next generation of younger graduates. William & Mary has undertaken similar approaches to engage other groups, including African American alumni as well as LatinX, APIM and LBGTQ communities more deeply and authentically.

Leaders see the long view and inspire others – they understand their institution can become something more, something better. They articulate “This is how we show up in the world, THIS is who we are with our donors.” And then they champion, train, invest and otherwise organize the talents and skills across teams toward observable changes needed to achieve the collective vision.

If you are committed to sustained success in growing women’s support, I urge you to make sure your staff and volunteer leaders are part of your initiative from the early concept discussions. I believe that if you and others adhere to this principle about the pivotal importance of leadership, we will witness in five years significant acceleration in the visibility, numbers, and transformational impact of women philanthropists for our institutions.