I'm pleased to be attending and speaking now at a CASE conference in Boston, (Re)Defining Women's Philanthropy: Rich Conversations. The meeting has brought together 150 or so fundraisers, mostly from the higher ed sector, to swap stories, share data, and define new strategies for reaching women donors.
The field of women's philanthropy is young. Many institutions, even formerly all-female institutions, do not have advancement programs specifically targeting women. Many institutions have no record keeping mechanism to recognize a woman as an entity distinct from her husband, even if she's the alum. And many institutions, shockingly, lose track of their surviving widows even though the couple had been faithful and consistent donors.
Of the institutions that have developed women's philanthropy programs, many place great emphasis on education, offering programs that teach alumnae about financial management, planned giving, and ensuring their family's financial security. And many find themselves stressing how important it is for women philanthropists to go public with their gift, to get over their traditional reticence about publicity in order to serve as models for other women.
Jill Kerr Conway, author, former Smith College president, and active philanthropist, gave the keynote yesterday. Conway spoke about the "guardian mentality" shared by many wealthy women who don't perceive themselves as investors as much as guardians of their family's funds. If a woman's wealth was accumulated by her ancestors or her husband, she likely views her role as one in which her wishes are secondary to those of the "greater good" of the family system. That's changing, though. Since the 1980s, alumnae have assumed they would earn their own money, and concomitantly assume the responsibility for managing it, directing its flow, and choosing the causes it should support.
So that's good news. But how can we get older women to transition from "guardian" to "investor?" Conway's advice: "Take them through their life. My major approach to any donor is to have them tell me their life story. If I do that, it will become very clear what their values and beliefs are." Through telling their own story, the donor will reveal her most challenging, most rewarding, and most life-changing experiences. These story moments are the cruxes of her life. Through story, it becomes evident what she believes to be true, what she values, what she knows.
Those values form the basis of the charitable act. Because you have to believe first, before you can give.