2 min Read
November 19, 2013

Leaning In: Women’s leadership in the fundraising world

For years, I’ve noticed that the majority of faces you see in most nonprofits belong to women. Women are the backbone of the social sector! They lead organizations, run departments, and power nonprofits at all levels. In fact, women make up 2/3 of the nonprofit workforce, yet despite that, we still occupy only 18.8% of the leadership slots at the top 400 charities. Sigh. 

But perhaps times are changing.

Some of the most interesting conversations I had in 2013 were sparked by Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In. Love it or hate it, you can’t deny that Sandberg’s book is full of lessons in professional leadership. 

I got together with my friends Stephanie Thomas, who chairs the Association of Fundraising Professional (AFP)’s New York Chapter,  and Adrienne Prassas, a fundraiser par excellence who currently works for the American Heart Association to convene a pop-up event for AFP NY members about women’s leadership in fundraising on November 14, 2013. About 30 women in fundraising participated, representing a mix of age, race, and professional experience. Here are a few highlights from our discussion. 

Volunteering is a great way to develop your leadership skills. Want to transition into a career in international development? Build your skills in planned giving? Overcome your shyness at speaking in front of groups? Volunteer! Organizing or staffing an event, coordinating a committee, and other volunteer activities not only open up networks, they force you to work with new people in new situations. 

Tell them what you need to learn. Trying to break into a new area? Develop new skills? Tell your boss or your peers and colleagues what you want to learn, and offer to help out with projects that may be outside of your job description so you can build your skills. For instance, if you’re a grant writer but you want to get into major donor work, ask your boss if you can help them research and prep for a meeting, or listen in on a meeting or two. 

Be yourself. We talked a lot about the power of authenticity in building a strong reputation. Not sure what the answer is? Be honest about it. It’s good to stretch- but it’s not good to be something you’re not. Most of the experienced women at this event found their careers really took off when they spoke with their own voice, rather than trying to play a part they felt was expected of them. 

Show up. It’s easy to watch that webinar from your desk, follow along via social media in your jammies from home, and learn virtually. But when you show up at a conference, breakfast, workshop, or other event, the benefits are much greater. Get out and show up! You’ll make deeper, more meaningful connections faster. 

Personally, I was deeply inspired by the younger women who participated, like Amalyah Oren, a young woman who works at the Samuel Bronfman Foundation by day, runs a dog rescue and fostering group by night, and writes a blog called the Giving Kind. She posted a great piece about the event, too. If these are tomorrow’s leaders, I can’t wait to see them occupy those leadership seats!