The “Traditional” Donor Life Cycle May Not Apply to Women

In your work as a fundraiser, you may use the term “donor life cycle.” This model charts the path of a donor through several sequential phases of engagement and giving to causes they care about: first gift, occasional gifts, consistent annual gifts, major or stretch gifts, leadership role and accompanying giving, and finally, a planned gift.

This tool is a helpful way for fundraisers to map how much to engage, cultivate and solicit groupings of donors each year. We only have so much time and can’t attend to every relationship equally. For instance, one might strategize: “If this donor has now given annually for three years, it is time to engage them as a leader and grow their giving.” However, this linear approach really only looks at the donor through our lens, mapping their donor life solely in relationship to our organization. While a useful rubric, this isn’t the only “life cycle” we need to track when working with our stakeholders, especially women.

From guiding many focus groups on women’s philanthropy, I have learned that women prefer engagement that recognizes their personal life cycles:

“I was not involved until 10 years ago because of my career and babies. Now I am very involved.”

“When I became aware of the organization, I was working full time and the events were in the city after work. It just didn’t work for me – the timing didn’t fit with my life.”

“My engagement has a life cycle or rhythm. Make it OK for me to check in and out. There are times for leadership roles and times I need to draw back.”

Life Obligations and the “Donor Life Cycle”

These statements point to an important truth about women donors – because of their personal life stages, women’s “donor life cycles” are often not as linear as the simple model would suggest. Many women’s earning and spending levels go through several readjustments due to motherhood, time spent outside the workforce, the need to care for aging relatives and their own retirements. Their path from occasional donor to annual giver to major donor to leader may include starts and stops, reconnections and stepping back.

These life stages can make it difficult for organizations to maintain a steady prospect pool for women major donors, or for women leaders. When my colleague Haider Ali, formerly the associate director for business intelligence in the McGill University advancement office, was focused on donor analytics, he said the school had “a leaky pipeline for women leadership candidates because women’s connections to McGill shifted based on their life obligations.” A volunteer at The College of William & Mary said: “I was asked to be on the Business School Board. I said no at that time, and I never heard from them again. Just because ‘no’ comes at a certain time does not mean for all times. Just keep asking me until there is the right fit and time.”

Our Linear Model May BackFire

When we scan our lists with a linear framework in mind, we likely are missing women when we create a leadership pipeline list, or invite to a major donor event. By not staying in touch with women and their interests in between their availability to support our cause, we can lose relationships and resources.

A colleague shared recently that a wealthy alumnus to a university died suddenly. He had graduated from university, but they both had come to various events. She did not come to events the year after his death, and slowly slipped from view. When a newly hired major gift officer visited her three years later, the widow said: “No one kept in touch with me after his death. No one has kept me apprised of the impact our gifts continue to make. I was prepared to make a significant gift to continue to honor my husband, but I’ve moved on. I’ll no longer be providing support to your campus”.

Four Questions to Ask Before Creating Cultivation Strategies for Women

Learning about a woman’s ability to provide resources at different stages in her life is important in devising appropriate cultivation strategies. How we track women may require creativity and curiosity. Ask yourself these questions:

  1. Do you have a system in place to collect information about a woman’s life stage on donor visits? How do you learn about and track the various key stages? Do you record key life shifts such as career changes, marriage, childcare years, eldercare years, grandchildren, retirement and any combination of these phases?
  2. How might you stay in touch throughout the different stages of a woman’s life, regardless of how she is engaged with you at this moment?
  3. If a woman says “not now,” do you follow up at a later time? How do you determine when and how to circle back to her?
  4. In general, how do you stay open and curious about her, and her values or concerns as she moves through life?

As noted in the book “Gender Matters: A Guide to Growing Women’s Philanthropy”, working with women is not harder, just different. Consider adapting ways you connect so you demonstrate you are welcoming of women as they move in and out of their engagement with you. The rewards are great if you meet women in ways that resonate with what they care about, for they remain loyal and also bring in their network of family and friends to support your mission.