Nonprofit fundraisers in the UK recently had their own “binders full of women” backlash on social media. Veteran UK fundraiser Giles Pegram, CBE, co-organizer of a conference on the future of fundraising scheduled for April, reportedly tweeted “women are still not adequately engaged in the thinking in fundraising,” according to the Civil Society UK website.
Giles’ remarks stoked what had already become a social media firestorm begun by a Charity Chicks UK blogger who criticized the conference’s 9:1 ratio of male to female speakers and questioned the dominance of speakers employed by for-profit agencies.
Shortly after the first blog post and ensuing social media pile-on, conference co-organizer Adrian Sargeant, Ph.D., canceled the event. Sargeant declined to comment on the incident. Pegram did not respond to requests for comment.
Recent studies show that women holding leadership positions at nonprofits in the United States is close to 70 percent, according to Dwight Burlingame, Ph.D., director of academic programs and professor of Philanthropic Studies at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy in Indianapolis.
Smaller organizations employ more women and larger organizations — those with budgets of $50 million and more — have only 17 percent women in leadership positions. In organizations with budgets of $1 million and less, women comprise 50 percent of the leadership positions, according to Burlingame.
The power of social media
“Without social media, the incident in the UK would not have happened,” said Burlingame. “It seemed like he (Pegram) was blindsided by crowdsourcing,” said Janice Gow Pettey, vice president for resource development at The Asia Foundation, headquartered in San Francisco, Calif. “I suspect that Twitter was not the right medium for communicating and making informed comments or decisions.”
Rachel Mosher-Williams, independent consultant and former vice president of conferences and partnerships at the Council on Foundations in Washington, D.C., doesn’t see Twitter as the problem so much as knowing when to move from Twitter to other media.
“Social media allows criticism to rise quickly and makes it more difficult to quash,” said Mosher-Williams. “It can also show when there is an issue that’s getting some heat. That’s when it’s up to the organization to consider moving the conversation to another venue — a conference call or a face-to-face event — to enrich the discussion, rather than let it die down.”
Using social media to address complex issues of diversity and balance might have been to blame, said Burlingame, but “fundamentally, social media is a very good thing.”
“Social media will keep us all honest to a much greater degree than what we’ve had in the past, but it isn’t where a full discourse can take place. We need other mediums where we can engage — at conferences and in journals,” said Burlingame.
U.S. nonprofit conferences
Criticism of the UK fundraising summit’s speaker lineup raised the issue of speaker diversity at nonprofit conferences in this country. “The conferences that I’ve attended — and I haven’t looked at these systematically — have been fairly balanced,” said Burlingame, who uses a checklist when the Center on Philanthropy is planning a symposium or conference.
“The first question we ask is ‘who’s on the platform’ and examine whether we have a balanced representation of women, race, and more recently, whether we have youth engaged,” he said.
An Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) project launched in 2010, added Burlingame, “catches situations like the one that occurred in the UK. Of course, there are the notable slip-ups, and the UK fundraising summit comes under this.”
Rex Otey, program chair for this year’s AFP NC Philanthropy Conference, is more optimistic. He and the planning committee of two men and two women looked at the numbers from last year’s conference. “To my delight, we had a solid balance of race and gender. In fact, there were 25 percent more women-led sessions than men,” said Otey. This year’s conference will be a “healthy mix” of consultants and practitioners that reflects the demographics of North Carolina fundraisers.
The UK fundraising summit’s lack of diversity would not have happened had there been diversity on the planning committee, Burlingame asserted. “If you don’t have diversity on the planning committee, then you sit around and ask who’s been working on this topic, and you think of your own circle. But if you have a diverse group on the program planning committee, they’re not going to let you get away with it.”
As AFP international chair in 2005-06, veteran fundraiser Alphonce J. Brown Jr., put together a strategic planning committee that reflected a broad diversity of gender, sexual orientation, race and ethnicity. As a result of being inclusive, the committee’s strategic plan passed AFP’s membership without discussion, Brown recalled.
“At one time, the sector was not open to diversity because the field was consumed by Caucasian males, but basically that’s been reversed,” said Brown who believes that there needs to be a systematic inquiry concerning diversity.
“Whether you count or assess, how on earth can you have a conversation about it (diversity) without doing a matrix to know whether progress is being made? There has to be an honest conversation about the organization and its goals regarding inclusivity,” he said.
“There is a danger in doing it [counting] without knowing why or using it as a driving criteria for selecting speakers,” said Kelly Hannum, director of global research insights at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), a nonprofit headquartered in Greensboro, N.C. “Having only certain types of people in the ‘expert’ seat limits the role models people are exposed to which, in turn, can limit how people see their opportunities in the sector,” she said.
Mosher-Williams doesn’t believe that counting is the right approach. “Counting doesn’t lead to meaningful diversity. It just leads to tokenism. The speakers should reflect the audience and the audiences being served by the nonprofit organizations.”
The American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) has a deliberate process to ensure diversity and inclusiveness that relies on culture rather than on classification.
“It’s top of mind to be looking for different people, ‘different’ in a positive sense, because they’re bringing different backgrounds, different experiences and different approaches. That’s what keeps the content fresh and engaging,” said Mark Milroy, vice president of learning at ASAE, which posts on its website its commitment to creating and influencing a model of inclusive behaviors and setting a tone and culture that embrace diversity.
Selecting keynote speakers is less of a formal process, explained Milroy. The selection is “more about our way of thinking. We are constantly challenging ourselves to think about diversity and inclusion.”
ASAE relies a lot on speaker recommendations from its members, said Milroy. “We work with a number of sources to help us identify speakers. We talk to our volunteer committees and encourage underrepresented groups to submit session proposals.”
One national membership organization is breaking free of the traditional approach of soliciting speaker proposals that are vetted and selected by a committee or staff.
“Rather than an internal group of people deciding what are the best topics for the conference, it occurred to us that there are a lot of people with great ideas out there who should get a chance to submit ideas and see what the ‘crowd’ likes best,” said Bruce Trachtenberg, executive director of The Communications Network, a membership association headquartered in New York City. For the first time it is using a crowdsourcing approach to select breakout session speakers for its fall 2013 conference. Posted on its website and Facebook page, tweeted and emailed, the Network asks, “Got a session idea? Send it in. Then we’ll let the crowd choose.”
The Network will post all eligible entries on its website and invite people to vote. The 12 proposals that get the most votes will appear on the session agenda in New Orleans.
“There’s a certain amount of risk involved, but it’s very exciting. It’s in tune with what’s going on today with communications becoming more participatory,” said Trachtenberg.
“People are part of and share information with multiple networks these days,” said Trachtenberg. “Using an open call and an open vote may bring people to the conference who are not well known. Referring to James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of the Crowds, Trachtenberg is confident that “the crowd will get it right every time.”
Trachtenberg believes the session speakers will be as diverse as the membership. Even so, the Network brings a few plenary session speakers who represent a range of backgrounds, ethnic representation, gender and political stripes, such as last year’s plenary speakers Native American author Sherman Alexie and world-renowned game designer Jane McGonigal.
Former CCL senior executive now independent consultant Barbara Demarest agreed that “it’s just good marketing” to know your audience and their expectations.
“Having a panel that meets your audience’s expectations in terms of diversity is important. But it would be a real shame to think that the only people who can teach me something are people who look like me.”
Getting input from everywhere is vital. “The nonprofit sector serves a broad range of people and faces complex challenges that require a diversity of thought,” said Hannum. “Increasingly nonprofit leaders will need to reflect a greater diversity of thought and experience in ways it currently does not.” NPT