Thanks to pioneering efforts in 1992 by then UCLA fundraiser Dyan Sublett to learn and write about what motivated women donors to give to the university, we have a unique opportunity to compare women’s philanthropic behavior then and now and to connect the qualitative assessments to empirical research.
Have women’s motivations for giving changed over time? Do the practice of women’s philanthropy and the research about gender and philanthropy converge?
When Sublett, who became co-founder and director of the Women & Philanthropy program at UCLA, first began her research she and her colleague Karen Stone organized and hosted six focus groups with 76 women in 1992, the contemporary women’s philanthropy movement was in its infancy.
Martha Taylor had started the first women’s philanthropy major gift initiative in higher education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1988. Sublett and Stone’s initial efforts led to the creation of the women’s philanthropy program at UCLA. The program, now celebrating its 25th anniversary, grew out of the focus groups and was designed by the women donors.
Sublett published the findings from the focus groups in a 1993 article in New Directions for Philanthropic Fundraising, one of the first articles to affirm that gender matters in philanthropy.
In some ways, the landscape for women’s philanthropy is much different today. The growth of women’s funds and giving circles has provided a variety of opportunities for women to engage in philanthropy as they choose. More women are stepping boldly into their philanthropy, making big gifts in public ways to encourage others to join with them.
Significantly, the accelerated research output since 2014 at the Women’s Philanthropy Institute has contributed more than 100 data points describing how and why men’s and women’s motivations and patterns of giving differ.
What remains similar, though, is that women’s motivations for giving have remained fairly constant over time. Hillary Person, fundraiser with a master’s degree from the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, took the gender and philanthropy course while a student at the school. With that broad academic background and 10+ years in fundraising, she agreed to compare her experiences with women donors today with the findings from the UCLA focus groups and said, “I only notice slight changes in the way female donors behave today.”
Consistent responses over time
For example, consistent with the UCLA focus groups, Person found that the donors she works with were “personally motivated to give back, taught through tradition that they have a responsibility to be philanthropic, and all wanted to know the impact of their giving and/or volunteerism for the organization” they supported.
In 1992, one message from the UCLA focus groups was that the women donors wanted to volunteer before making a major gift. Sublett suggested this was a way to build trust and confidence in an organization. She highlighted one woman’s statement that “she had never given to any organization with which she had not been personally involved.”
WPI’s research affirms that women want to be connected to the organizations they support. Several studies have found that women are motivated to give because of personal experiences and being on a board or volunteering for an organization. According to one study, women are more likely than men to cite personal experiences with an organization; their own or public knowledge of the organization; and the organization’s connection to their family, friends or to themselves as factors that influence their giving decisions.
A study of high net worth donors confirmed previous research with its finding that women are significantly more likely than men to have volunteered for a charitable organization (56 percent vs. 41 percent).
The importance of family
The UCLA focus group participants identified family traditions as motivators for their charitable giving, often spotlighting their mothers as role models. Person found similar behavior in the donors she works with today and added that women often make gifts in honor or in memory of their mothers.
These gifts frequently take the form of scholarships. For instance, one donor endowed two scholarships with the inheritance her mother left her; she established the scholarships in “academic programs that reflected her mother’s interests of animals and photography.”
WPI research helps to explain this close connection between mothers and daughters. One study found that the relationship between parents’ and adult daughters’ giving is stronger than the relationship between parents’ and adult sons’ giving. Moreover, parents’ giving frequency matters more for adult daughters’ giving than for adult sons’ giving.
Research adds perspective
Understanding donor motivations for giving is valuable for donors and for fundraisers. When women donors reflect on their motivations for giving, they are often able to connect their philanthropic experiences to family members and to family traditions. This helps donors put their giving in perspective and more closely align their values to their charitable behavior. Ultimately, taking time to reflect on why and how one gives can increase giving over time and leads to more intentional philanthropy.
Research expands understanding about what motivates donors to give. Empathy for others drives women’s motivations for giving whereas for men, giving is often more about self-interest. Because women are socialized into more helping, nurturing, and caring roles from an early age, these behaviors become ingrained and become the basis for many of their actions, including philanthropy.
What hasn’t changed enough since 1992 is that while women donors are not waiting in line to lead and to give and are stepping boldly into their philanthropy, far fewer nonprofits are acknowledging the changing philanthropic landscape and actively engaging women in ways that appeal to them.
Sublett cited examples such as the woman who ceased her giving because the nonprofit continued to thank her husband, even though they had been divorced for five years.
Sublett closed her 1993 article with a prescient statement: “Motivational and stylistic differences between women and between women and men notwithstanding, fundraisers cannot afford to have women as anything less than equal partners.”
WPI’s research is persuasive that gender matters in philanthropy and that women are more likely to give and give more than men. As one fundraiser shared, “It’s not my hunch, it’s not my opinion, it’s what data shows to be true.”
Let’s work together to ensure that the outcomes of focus groups with women donors in 2046, another 27 years from now, demonstrate that women are indeed equal partners in philanthropy.
Andrea Pactor is the interim director of the Women’s Philanthropy Institute. Hillary Person served as development director at Pensacola State College Foundation. Dyan Sublett is president of the MLK Community Health Foundation in Los Angeles and 2019 recipient of the Distinguished Alumni Award from Indiana University, her alma mater.