How to bring feminism into your fundraising

Emily Collins-Ellis and Rachel Stephenson Sheff of I.G. Advisors share their ideas on how we can bring feminism into fundraising.

Written by
Emily Collins-Ellis
February 15, 2018

In the UK charity sector where 65% of staff and 70% of fundraisers are women, you would hope that feminism would be intrinsic to our work and decreasingly necessary. But unfortunately, this is far from the case. Feminism means different things to different people, and is one of the most hotly debated and derided forms of political and social activism. But however you define it our sector struggles with the same issues of inequality as many others, and the many facets of personal and structural discrimination can leave you feeling disheartened. 

So as fundraisers, how can we bring feminism into our work and organisations? How can we achieve great things in a sector built on the foundations of Victorian white, upper-class male philanthropy, whilst also remaining inspired?

Check the basics

First and foremost, assess and resolve any areas of your fundraising team where women are facing additional barriers. Look at how you recruit, the reasons women resign, how and when you promote women to senior fundraising roles, how you conduct performance and pay reviews, and how complaints, problems and disciplinary actions are managed. Proactively ensure women on your team have a voice and place to communicate concerns, and are protected from harassment.

Remember: women are donors too!

Whilst wealth and power are both disproportionately concentrated in the hands of men in our world, that doesn’t mean philanthropy is. In fact, the heads of family foundations and leaders of corporate social responsibility teams are most often women. Women typically outlive the wealthy men in their family, are often more generous than their male counterparts, and strategically give to a wider range of causes than just ‘women’s issues’. Despite this, charities so often focus and tailor their fundraising efforts for men: we have lost count of the number of cultivation dinners we have attended where the table is a complete sea of suits, and fundraisers make the mistake of bee-lining for men at networking events whilst ignoring the women in the room.

Furthermore, husbands often get credited for donations they have made with their wives, and in prospecting women can be completely overlooked, as many techniques (including The Rich List) only address where wealth is held, not where it is given, leaving out some of the biggest hitters in women’s philanthropy. Don’t fall into this trap, and look into the work of initiatives like Women for Change Breakfast Club (WfCBC), Women in Philanthropy and Women Moving Millions.

Turn down money

Every woman we know who works in fundraising has a #MeToo story related to a donor relationship. The power dynamic is clear: donors have the money, the charity needs it, and the fundraisers have the job of getting it by building relationships with them. So when donors take advantage of this dynamic (which they often do), things can get very problematic very fast. The conduct at the recent infamous Presidents Club event is one example, but we’ve both heard of or experienced everything from patronising head pats through to harassment, stalking, and sexual assault – all with the expectation that their VIP donor status protects them from the consequences. And often, there aren’t consequences; we even know a woman who was fired after reporting harassment from a donor, and the day after she left it was announced that he had made a seven-figure gift. 

As fundraisers, we can’t solve the global issue of sexual harassment or violence, but we can control the power dynamic in our field by saying no to the wrong kind of money. It’s hard, because our beneficiaries so desperately need us to raise it, but money raised in a condition of exploitation cannot be welcome in our organisations. Senior leaders must ensure their teams know they will be supported in cutting-off relationships with donors who try to abuse their power in this way, and donors need to know their wealth does not excuse misogyny or harassment.

Encourage femininity

Any fundraiser of any gender will bring a blend of feminine and masculine qualities to their work but it goes without saying that traditionally masculine qualities (assertiveness, competitiveness, confidence) are more affirmed in a professional context, while feminine qualities take a back seat in ladder climbing. The catch here is that brilliant fundraising requires a combination of both. Typically feminine qualities that are often dismissed in the workplace such as nurturing, working collaboratively, leading in more inclusive and thoughtful ways, and empathy are a recipe for excellent relationship building with donors, positive fundraising team cultures, clear communication, and meaningful mentoring of junior staff. So, it’s critical to ensure there is space for these qualities to be encouraged, too: no allowing toxic masculinity to take hold, working in silos, focussing on pounds raised over relationships built, or creating hostile, competitive cultures.

Make the business case

As with any industry where women are underrepresented in positions of power (which is nearly all of them), there is a strong business case for gender equality. Sure, it would be ideal if you didn’t have to justify the value of fellow humans through a bottom line, but the evidence is there if you need to convince your board or your leadership that hiring, promoting, equally paying and following the leadership of women will strengthen their business objectives. As Emily has written before, fundraising recruitment is becoming a very challenging market, and organisations who demonstrate a genuine commitment to supporting women will win. Seriously, pick any metric you like and there is sound evidence to illustrate that a diverse team will improve innovation, retention, productivity, conflict resolution and income.

Include all women

So often the push for gender equality happens as a discussion separate to the vital push for other kinds of equality, such as race, disability and sexuality. We’ve recently heard a lot of excellent talk around black and minority ethnic representation and inclusion in the sector, and the Institute of Fundraising has established a diversity panel, but we need to ensure we’re thinking about these issues as a whole, not in isolation. Getting more women onto trustee boards does nothing if they are all white and able-bodied; similarly, dismantling white dominance in the sector will fail to achieve impact if every person of colour that gets a seat at the table is a straight man. Feminist fundraisers must ensure they are hiring, mentoring and supporting all women, not just a select kind of woman. And at the very least, you must ensure your beneficiaries are represented – literally and demographically – in the decision-making and leadership of your organisation.

Challenge people’s biases

Some of the most discriminatory behaviours in fundraising stem from catering to the unreasonable preferences of those with influence. There is an assumption that if women are hired for fundraising roles, or promoted to senior positions, they should be the kind of women donors and board members would especially like to spend time with – creating a bias towards white, straight, traditionally ‘pretty’ women. You may have donors and board members who hold such biases, but those biases are fed and justified by catering to them, and excellent fundraisers who don’t fit the bill end up missing out. As long as you keep your colleagues safe and supported, decisions about who gets opportunities should not be influenced by the discriminatory preferences of your stakeholders. One of the most powerful things we can do as a sector is set an example of how to address and challenge the prejudices of our leadership and supporters. Because, if not us, then who?

It’s well within our power as a sector to play a leading role in overcoming the social ills feminism seeks to address by setting an example. Civil society is supposed to be leading social change, and as non-profits we tackle this by working tirelessly to serve our beneficiaries. But if we truly care, we must take a long, hard look at our approach – and walk the walk of equality in our fundraising and leadership, too.

About the author: Emily Collins-Ellis

Emily Collins-Ellis

Emily Collins-Ellis is a Fundraising & Philanthropy Advisor at I.G. Advisors, helping charities towards more effective fundraising, and donors towards more effective giving. Her experience centres on foundation and major donor fundraising, and her career has spanned the mental health, LGBT, Higher Education, youth and human rights sectors. 

Emily's twitter handle is @emmielouli. I.G.'s is @IG_Advisors.

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