Wednesday, July 17, 2024



Here’s one way to fix fundraising leadership’s gender imbalance

An Association of Fundraising Professionals event in Philadelphia. February 20, 2018 Category: ColumnFeaturedFundingLong
On its surface, fundraising is a female-dominated field.

The Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) reports that its membership is consistently about 75 percent female and 25 percent male, and the majority of the fundraisers I know are women.

But, once I really started turning this over in my mind, we’re not quite as far along as it may seem. AFP was led by a woman for 13 years and she was followed by three consecutive men; the group’s current at-large board consists of seven men and three women.

On paper, AFP’s leadership gender split is almost the exact opposite of its membership.

Full disclosure, I was recently nominated to the board of our local AFP chapter, and our board consists of 19 members: 14 women, five men. The majority of volunteer leadership positions within our chapter are also held by women. I have felt nothing but supported and empowered by members of our local chapter of all genders, and I feel lucky to be a part of it.

That said, I think the breakdown of our local chapter vs. parent organization’s leadership is reflective of a larger issue: Fundraising leadership positions are held disproportionately by men. Studies show that 51 percent of fundraising director roles are held by women; this sounds like an event split until you remember that 75 percent of fundraisers are women and therefore 75 percent of director roles should theoretically also be held by women.

It also has to be said that AFP’s 2017 Compensation and Benefits Study shows that there is a significant gender gap in terms of salary, with the average pay of men in fundraising roles about $12,000 more than that of their female counterparts.

To add to the gender imbalance, the majority of the decision makers my colleagues and I meet with regarding donations are men. Regardless of how high you might rise as a fundraiser, at the end of the day you’re reporting to a mostly male board, you’re likely working with a male CEO or ED, and the majority of your prospects for funding, whether corporate, individual or foundation, will be men.

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So, what do we do? The short answer is that I don’t have an answer.

I do, however, want to share the most empowering moment of my career in hopes that it sparks ideas about how women can lift each other up.

In a previous role, I had cultivated a relationship with the female chief-of-staff for a state senator for years, after meeting her at an event we both attended. My (amazingly supportive) supervisor at the time encouraged me to stay in touch and develop the relationship.

Years later, our board wanted to honor that senator at a fundraising event. I was elated to be able to make the connection and grateful that my former supervisor had the foresight to encourage me to keep in touch with the chief-of-staff.

I connected with my contact to run through the logistics and she was on board and had gotten a preliminary agreement from the senator. And yet, I was required to bring my male CEO with me to meet with her to finalize logistics.

So I set up the meeting, debriefed our CEO on the history of the relationship and went with him to meet her. The chief-of-staff greeted us and we covered the requisite introductions and banter about current events.

That’s when the magic happened. As we broke into the actual meeting, the chief-of-staff directed all of her questions and attention to me, and more or less ignored our CEO. It was the first time I had seen anyone flip the script so entirely.

I was used to taking a backseat in meetings like that because I was the younger, lower-level, female part of the team. Generally, I was the only there to do the legwork: Fill in the higher-ups on the pertinent details beforehand, answer questions that were directed to me when the higher-ups didn’t know the answer, and take notes so that I could follow-up on action items afterwards.

Occasionally I’d be called on to answer a question, usually because the CEO or board member I was with didn’t actually know the answer. Then came the paternal, proud, patronizing smile of said male counterpart while I provided the necessary expertise to cover for their lack of knowledge.

Listen, I don’t expect every person affiliated with an organization to know every answer; that’s just not possible. I do not, however, want to provide an answer under auspices of “professional development” so that my male colleague can feel good about giving me the opportunity to speak during an important meeting. Can’t I answer the question because I’m the best person to answer it, full stop?

It was crazy empowering and inspiring for me to see how purposeful the chief-of-staff was in not just intentionally drawing me into the conversation, but centering the conversation between just her and I. We were always the ones who would do the eventual heavy lifting in that conversation, but never before had I seen someone openly acknowledge that and act accordingly.


My one regret from the whole interaction is that I moved to a different organization not long after that meeting, the chief-of-staff retired not long after that, and I never got the opportunity to thank her for what was a truly transformative moment. I hope it’s not too late and you can bet I’ll send a well deserved, massive thank you to her as soon as I submit this article to my (awesome, empowering) editor. [Editor’s note: Aw!]

So, here I am, more than a year later, in a new role that came along at just the right time. I am lucky to now be in a director role with a female CEO and a female board chair who both respect my knowledge and expertise without patronization. I was nominated to a female-driven board of fellow fundraisers and asked to share my expertise monthly for Generocity.

Did this all happen because of that one, transformative moment? Nah. But, I took that moment to heart. I pay attention to all voices in the room, and make room for those at all levels of expertise to provide input. I encourage professional development and credit those on my team for their hard work rather than claim it for myself. If one of us wins, we all win.

Amazing things can happen when women support each other — and that includes supporting the women who have already worked their tails off to gain leadership positions. Let’s figure out how we can all do better.

P.S. AFP may have gender inequity in its leadership, but they have put a whole lot of work into inclusion, diversity, equity and access (I.D.E.A.) for both staff and members to help improve on all diversity initiatives; you can read about that ongoing effort here.

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