Meet Heather O’Connor, the recipient of the 2020 Women’s Philanthropy Institute’s Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship.
O’Connor is a former fundraiser and CFRE with 20 years of experience in health, education, and social service nonprofits. She is a Ph.D. candidate at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, and researches women’s charitable giving, philanthropic decision-making processes, and the intersection of social identity and philanthropic behavior.
O’Connor has taught courses on fundraising and philanthropy since 2013. Currently, she teaches for The Fund Raising School and the Chartered Advisor in Philanthropy® (CAP®) program at the American College of Financial Services.
Share a little bit about your background. Where are you from, and what brought you to the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy and the Women’s Philanthropy Institute (WPI)?
Heather O’Connor (HO): I was raised in Jackson, Tennessee and I attended the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, where I earned a BS in Communications. After college, I moved to Chicago to begin a career in fundraising and nonprofit management. In time, I realized I had a particular passion for serving health and social service organizations. That awareness led me to complete an MA in Social Service Administration from The University of Chicago.
Before pursuing my Ph.D., I was executive director for a community-based family planning clinic in Homer, Alaska. I worked in the nonprofit sector for over 20 years and held several positions from fundraising roles to leadership positions.
How does your research connect with the WPI mission to conduct, curate, and disseminate research that grows women’s philanthropy?
HO: Women’s lives are complex and cannot be fully understood through a single perspective. My research aims to extend research on women’s giving by considering their philanthropic motivations and decision-making within the context of their varied social identities and beliefs.
Research from WPI has illustrated how some women use their giving to women and girls as an expression of their beliefs and their vision for a more equal future. This research has also found that women who donate to women’s and girls’ causes view themselves as advocates for women and girls. My work offers a deeper understanding of how dissonant beliefs and identities influence philanthropic behavior by examining how Catholic women pro-choice donors reconcile the tenets of their faith with their philanthropic advocacy for reproductive health.
This project extends research into women’s giving to women and girls by considering one of the most popular causes in this area: women’s reproductive health. Research from WPI shows that these organizations receive the largest portion of overall philanthropic support for women’s and girls’ organizations. This focus on reproductive health and family-planning organizations affords a comparison of women’s motivations in donating to a controversial cause with existing research on women’s giving to other, non-controversial causes.
In addition, this project may extend research on charitable decision-making within the household by examining the extent to which Catholic women are donors to pro-choice organizations and make their gifts with spousal or partner knowledge and support.
Finally, since I’m conducting interviews during the COVID-19 pandemic, the study will provide insights into women’s philanthropic decision-making during a time of crisis. Previous research has shown that charitable giving declines during a recession, yet little is known about how donors may reexamine and reprioritize their giving during these precarious times.
This study will shed light on how giving to pro-choice organizations is considered in the context of a crisis that places focus on organizations that serve basic needs.
What is your research dissertation about, and how does it examine the role of gender in philanthropy?
HO: My project aims to describe how and why women who are Catholic and donors to pro-choice organizations make their philanthropic decisions within the context of their varied identities and beliefs. The central research question is: How do women who are Catholic and donate to pro-choice organizations make their charitable decisions?
My dissertation, “The Unexpected Activist: Catholic Women’s Support for Reproductive Rights,” explores the philanthropic motivations and decision-making processes of Catholic women who donate to pro-choice organizations.
The project aims to extend WPI research on women’s giving by considering their philanthropic behavior in the contexts of their varied (and sometimes incongruent) identities and beliefs. In addition to examining how this potential dissonance may affect philanthropic behavior, the project offers insight into how donors to women’s and girls’ causes may re-prioritize their philanthropic giving during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Are there any specific nonprofit organizations that you hope your research will support?
HO: The research will have implications for practice for pro-choice and reproductive justice organizations that could benefit from a nuanced understanding of this often invisible group of Catholic pro-choice donors. Moreover, the findings may inform larger conversations about understanding donors as complex individuals.
Sometimes efforts to determine whether a potential donor is a fit for the organization fails to take this complexity into account. As a result, organizations may miss opportunities or inadvertently communicate messages that some potential donors find alienating or even offensive. Deeper understanding of the complex, seemingly contradictory motivations of individuals may help fundraisers better identify and approach individual donors.
What are your career goals for when you complete your fellowship with WPI?
HO: I aim to defend my dissertation in the spring of 2021. After graduation, I plan to continue to help nonprofit practitioners understand and apply the latest philanthropic research through research, writing, and teaching.
The Women’s Philanthropy Institute Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship is offered annually to Ph.D. candidates whose primary research focus is in women’s philanthropy or gender differences in philanthropic behavior and giving. Applications are accepted in late spring for the following academic year.
This interview was conducted by Colleen Rusnak, M.A. student at the IU Lilly Family School of Philanthropy and graduate assistant at the Women’s Philanthropy Institute.