3 min Read
August 23, 2017

Shattering the Glass Ceiling of Philanthropy


Though the nonprofit industry has a well-deserved reputation of being highly progressive, there still seems to be a real glass ceiling keeping women from occupying leadership positions. This is true in terms of nonprofit staff—and in terms of major donors. Members of the Graham-Pelton team break down for us the sparsity of women major donors, and what we can do to change it.

The key to unlocking major philanthropic potential is to understand how and why women give.

Last year, of the 50 biggest donors in the United States, six were women and 20 were part of couples whose gifts totaled $25 million to $900 million. Sheryl Sandberg led the way with more than $107 million in gifts to various causes. Roxanne Quimby and Annette Simmons directed their $94 million and $51 million in giving, respectively, to parks, and Suzanne Dworak-Peck invested $60 million in social work.

Correlating this increase in women-led major gifts directly with the rise in women millionaires, breadwinners, and controllers of wealth is at best incomplete and at worst a disservice to the critical missions of those nonprofits worthy of support – along with the fundraising professionals who help raise more than $390 billion annually in the United States alone.

“At a time when society is working hard to shatter the glass ceiling, it seems to place one on the potential of women’s giving,” said Graham-Pelton Consulting President and CEO Elizabeth Zeigler.

Women continue to be consistently under-cultivated and under-solicited. “I have found that the delicate approach typically reserved for women when soliciting gifts is misplaced, unnecessary, and ineffective,” said Zeigler. “And it’s costly, compromising major opportunities that could compel missions forward.”

As women continue to unite around issues that threaten to limit their progress or the progress of missions they care about, it is a critical time for fundraisers to study and understand the important role women play in philanthropy – along with their potential to play an even bigger role.

With data compiled and analyzed from the Million Dollar List released by the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, Graham-Pelton outlined seven major trends among women’s million-dollar-plus giving:

Engagement matters. Women tend to appreciate feeling involved with the organizations they give to and rate having volunteered for an organization within their top five motivators for giving – a ranking that is higher than men.

Organizations should stay relevant and visible, feeling confident in their outreach. High net worth women are more likely to stop giving to an organization because their interests have shifted elsewhere. They are also less likely than men to feel over-solicited. This is a combination that should strengthen a fundraiser’s conviction that relevant, timely, and impact-oriented communications will keep your organization at the top of supporters’ minds.

Education still leads the way. Within the last decade, most million-dollar-plus gifts from women were made to the higher education sector. Million-dollar-plus gifts alone totaled nearly $3 billion in support. Other sectors that gained strong support – both in number of gifts made and the size of those gifts — were human services and the arts, culture, and humanities.

Competition doesn’t always inspire. A standard of fundraising that encourages competition doesn’t necessarily rally women in the same way that it does men, but many institutions still rely on this antiquated method. Instead of, for example, encouraging class competitions among alumni at educational institutions, allow your supporters the platform to communicate their own stories of giving, which will inspire others.

High net worth women rely more heavily on planning and budgets for their giving. Seventy-eight percent of high net worth women state that they have a strategy and budget in place for their giving, compared to 72% of men. Women are also more likely to rely on philanthropic advisors than men, at a rate of 20% versus 14%, respectively.

A planned giving strategy is worth your effort. On average, 43% of women’s million-dollar-plus gifts are recorded as planned gifts, compared to only 18% of men’s gifts at this level.

Regional affinity matters. The majority of both men and women direct their million-dollar-plus gifts within their own regions, though women continue to do so at a higher rate than men.

“If we want to enable women to give to their full potential, we need to ask them to,” said Zeigler. “Let’s not limit women by a standard set by men. Let’s let women set their own standard.”