Big Gifts

March 15, 2009       Debra Mesch      

Women are committed donors who care deeply about the causes they support. Yet surprisingly, despite women’s economic power and philanthropic potential, too often nonprofits are not engaging them strategically or effectively.

Organizations are missing important giving opportunities, including opportunities for major gifts, by failing to help female donors achieve their true philanthropic potential, by relating to them in the same way as male donors, or by neglecting to learn and incorporate into their work knowledge about women’s giving preferences and priorities.

If asked, most nonprofit professionals would probably say female donors are important to their organizations. And some nonprofits have a staff person dedicated to reaching out to women donors or a designated women’s giving program. As important as these efforts are, though, to maximize the potential of women’s giving, nonprofits need to ensure that an intentional, sustained and strategic approach to involving women as donors is integrated into every aspect of development and engrained throughout the culture of the organization.

Women give, and they give significantly. But they often approach giving differently than men. Nonprofits that want to engage women as donors need to understand their giving behavior and what motivates it. Further, they must make a paradigm shift from viewing women as one segment of their donor databases to understanding that women potentially comprise half or more of their donors — and significantly influence men’s giving.

As Lisa Witter and Lisa Chen note in their recent book, The She-Spot, (2008) “Women are not a niche audience. They are the audience.” Women make 83 percent of all consumer purchases, including big-ticket items such as cars and personal computers — for themselves and for their families, Witter and Chen explain. And their economic clout is significant. They control more than half of the total wealth in the United States, and they are projected to inherit, control and manage much of the wealth in the future.

Some 43 percent of the nation’s top wealth holders (individuals with assets of $1.5 million or more) are women, according to Internal Revenue Service (IRS) figures for 2004, the most recent year for which data are available. Assets of these 1,173,000 women were valued at $4.6 trillion.

The differences between men’s and women’s giving are complicated and surprising. And, it often depends on how the question is asked. Researchers are just beginning to understand gender differences in giving and what influences them, but the research provides important insights for fundraisers.

If differences between men’s and women’s giving are examined without controlling for other factors that influence giving — such as income, age, marital status, and educational attainment — most research shows that women are more likely to donate to charity, but men give more in terms of the amount donated. When these other factors are equal, however, the differences are more complex.

For example, in a study by researchers at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, after controlling for these other factors, single women were 9 to 10 percent more likely than single males to be donors, and they gave more money (2006). Research by Greg Piper of the National Council of Voluntary Organizations and Sylke Schnepf of the University of Southampton found that at all income levels, except the greatest 10 percent, single female donors gave more than single male donors (2008). They also found that marital status makes a difference in determining gender differences in giving. Married people gave more than singles, and married females gave more than both single males and married males.

However, a new study by the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University shows that differences in the amounts given by men and women might not be gender-related. Before controlling for income and other factors that affect giving, the study found that in 2006, on average, men gave $1,894 to charity, while women gave $1,538. Women with incomes of more than $100,000, however, gave $4,223 on average, while men earning at that income level gave $3,904.

But the study also found that women and men give essentially the same amount, on average, after controlling for income, education, religious attendance and other factors proven to impact giving levels. This suggests that differences in the amounts given by men and women likely are driven by one or more of these other factors, rather than by gender. In other words, as women are earning more and are more educated, and when their other personal characteristics are equal, women give as much as men. This means that they are equally strong prospects for giving.

In addition to being significant donors in their own right, women also have a tremendous impact on their spouses’ giving. Giving patterns among married couples vary based on which spouse is the primary decision maker, or whether they make giving decisions jointly, according to research by Eleanor Brown of Pomona College, James Andreoni of the University of California San Diego and Isaac Rischall, then of Citigroup (2003). They found that women are highly influential in couples’ giving decisions.

Additional research by Brown and Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University researchers about giving to education found that households in which women take the lead in making giving choices, or give separately from their husbands, are more likely to give to education and give nearly twice as much (2007).

These studies indicate that women might “socialize” their spouses in terms of giving decisions. Single women give more than single men, and married couples give more than single men. The common denominator is women. It appears that women do influence men in their decision to give, and the amounts given.

There are some key differences in the ways men and women give. Women tend to spread out their giving, by making smaller donations to a larger array of charities and giving to more causes than men. Men tend to concentrate giving, making larger gifts to a few organizations, according to research by Andreoni, Brown and Rischall (2003).

Some studies indicate that men and women also might differ in the types of organizations they support.

Research by Christopher Einholf of DePaul University suggests that women might be more likely to give to children or educational programs, and that men are more likely to give to veterans and civil rights organizations (2006). Women appear more likely than men to give to the environment, according to a study by Debra Israel of Indiana State University (2007). Other research has found that women are more likely than men to give to meet basic needs and for health.

The new Center on Philanthropy study found that men and women agreed on the three most frequently cited motivations for giving: to help meet the basic needs of the very poor; to help the poor help themselves; and, the desire to make the world a better place to live. But there are some important differences in what male and female donors say are key reasons for their giving.

Feeling that those who have more have a responsibility to help those who have less was more likely to be cited as an important motivation by women. Men were more likely to report that giving to provide services where the government can’t or won’t and to make their community a better place were significant motivations.

Researchers think these differences, which are clear among older generations and Baby Boomers, might narrow or disappear in younger generations. This could be because younger men and women might be more likely to have similar life experiences than did men and women of earlier generations. As younger women become more likely to earn more, to get a college education and to join the workforce, and as younger men and women become more alike in other ways, some researchers speculate that their giving may become more alike. There are many steps nonprofits can take to engage women as donors in more meaningful ways.

  • Ask. Too often nonprofits don’t receive gifts from women because they aren’t asking.
  • Involve women in your organization’s work. Invite them to events that demonstrate impact. Engage women in volunteer leadership positions with your board, campaign planning committee, and giving associations. Women want to feel a connection to the charities that they support.
  • Help them identify what they are most passionate about and raise their sights toward major gifts. Research is clear that women tend to give to lots of different types of organizations and that they become involved in organizations that connect to their passion and values. Help women think strategically about how they can have a larger impact on something they care about.
  • Realize that women might take longer to decide about their giving. Many women want to research an organization, ask many questions, and build a relationship with people there over time before making a gift. This takes time.
  • Engage both spouses. Many nonprofits assume that the husband will be the primary decision maker, but research shows this often is not the case. And women are often the primary decision makers for certain types of charities.
  • Understand women’s preferences for stewardship and acknowledgement of their gifts. Women often prefer to donate anonymously and be thanked privately, according to research by Pamela Parsons, vice president for advancement at the University of Alabama (2004). When appropriate, encourage women to consider making the gifts public to inspire other women to give. Women want to share their experiences with other women, and have a deep sense of commonality in supporting causes they believe in.

Remember that women’s social networks and word of mouth can be very powerful marketing strategies for your organization and for fundraising. If women like what you are doing and truly believe in your cause they will tell other women — and men. NPT

Debra Mesch is director of the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. Patrick M. Rooney is interim executive director of the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.