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Editorial | Who is a donor?

publication date: Mar 23, 2021
author/source: Ann Rosenfield

There is a story about the famous bank robber Willie Sutton. It is said that a reporter once asked him why he robbed banks and he replied "Because that is where the money is." One criticism of Community Centred Fundraising has been that the people who have money are all white men. So, therefore, fundraising needs to focus on that demographic because, crudely put, that is where the money is.

Thirty years of experience in fundraising have shown me that assumptions about who gives and who doesn't are wrong.

Early in my career, in the 1990s, there was a persistent belief in the fundraising field that women were not donors. That women donors took a lot of time but didn't really give much. That women didn't really give major gifts. That if you wanted a big gift, the person to ask was the man. It was common to have fundraising cabinets with only men. 

Thankfully, two women, Martha Taylor and Sondra Shaw-Hardy, started doing research into women's philanthropy. Together, Shaw-Hardy and Taylor proved women were powerful philanthropists - but that their dominant style was different. They found that women donors took more time to give but that, once they gave, they were more likely to be repeat donors. They found that women donors were less hierarchical than male donors which meant that it was easier for young major gift officers to build relationships with them and secure gifts. They also busted a lot of myths about women donors, sources of wealth, and decision making. They cofounded the Women's Philanthropy Institute in 1995, now the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University which is still going strong.

Today, there is a wealth of data, and experience, to show that woman are active donors. From the Canadian research Time, Treasure, and Talent: Canadian Women and Philanthropy to the group Women Moving Millions, women have proven their commitment to substantial giving to charity. Women donors have given major gifts and mega gifts to charities in Canada. Women serving organizations have run successful, multi-million dollar campaigns with primarily women donors. 

To be fair, white men do hold disproportionate wealth in our society. While that is true, it doesn't mean they are the only people with significant wealth in Canada.

My point is that fundraising professionals, senior people in the field, made a flawed assumption about women philanthropists as recently as 10 years ago. As a result, professional fundraisers built systems that left women out of the sector as donors and as leadership volunteers. While they raised lots of money from one group, they missed scores of opportunities because they didn't realize they were missing many donors and many possibilities.

It seems to me that if the mainstream fundraising brain trust could be wrong about women in the past, then we need to imagine that our assumptions that there is only one way to do fundraising or one target audience could also be wrong today. Don't we owe it to the charities we serve to keep an open mind about who is a donor and how we ask for gifts?

Ann Rosenfield has been a career fundraiser for over 30 years. Her first successful major gift was a $3M gift from a woman donor in the mid-1990s.

Cover photo by Evgeniya Litovchenko on Unsplash

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