Tapping the great potential of female philanthropists

Jessica Houssian outlines ten ways to better engage high-net-worth women donors, and work with them to effectively invest in women and girls, and other social causes

We have long known that investing in women and girls works. Empowered women create safe families, strong communities, and healthier countries. When a girl in the developing world gets seven or more years of education, for example, she marries an average of four years later and has 2.2 fewer children. And for every $1 invested in family planning, depending on the region, an estimated $13 is saved down the line in areas like housing, education, healthcare, and other public services.

Yet despite the evidence, global funding earmarked for adolescent girls—a vulnerable but high-potential demographic—is less than two percent of international aid.

How can we increase funding in this critical area? By reaching out to—and better engaging—high-net-worth female donors. Currently, North American women control approximately $13.2 trillion dollars. By 2026, North American women alone could give one trillion dollars annually if they collectively gave 1.7 percent of their wealth. And in the next 40 years, women will inherit more than 70 percent of the $41 trillion dollars in expected intergenerational wealth transfer. Women today have unprecedented financial power. And with that power comes the opportunity to shift philanthropic priorities to focus on women and girls.

Creating meaningful relationships with female funders requires the same skills you need to be an effective fundraiser in general. But as both a fundraiser and funder in the women’s funding movement, I’ve found the following lessons particularly helpful in forming trusted partnerships with women donors:  

1. Know your donor.

Ask her questions about the impact she wants her gift to have on the world and on herself, and then really listen to and learn from the answers. Don’t make assumptions about what she’s passionate about or the programs she wants to fund; take time to really know who she is and who she wants to be.

When I got serious about building my career in philanthropy, I went to graduate school at New York University. The dean of my program taught me an important lesson: Be interesting. When you’re interesting, your funders will want to spend time with you. That means expressing genuine interest in the people you are with. Learn about your donor’s life and interests. While you may be making an “ask” for girls’ education in Zambia, you should also inquire about your donor’s business, or her grandchildren, or her hobbies.

2. Help her learn from you.

Investments come to life when donors can see change happening. Help your donors understand how your work works. Offer your donor experiences that she can’t have without you. Maybe it’s going into the field to meet people in the communities you serve and seeing your programs in action. 

On a recent trip to the Middle East with UNICEF Lebanon to learn more about the Syrian refugee crisis, I witnessed how critical it is to invest in local, grassroots NGOs that deeply understand the context and communities they wish to serve. Seeing this firsthand gave me greater clarity on UNICEF’s strategy to protect children in conflict zones and renewed my commitment to our partnership. 

3. Help her find a community.

Collaboration enables donors to pursue more ambitious agendas, build strategic solutions, and give at higher levels. One excellent example of community is The 25th Team, an initiative of UNICEF Canada. This group of 60 Canadian women have each made four-year financial commitments for maternal and neonatal health programs around the world, and committed to a four-year learning journey together as peers to understand more fully how change happens. 

4. Share stories as well as statistics.  

More often than not, a single story changes people’s hearts and minds, and moves them to act. Statistics by themselves don’t do it. On September 3, 2015, the universally arresting photograph of Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian toddler, face down on a Turkish beach, took the world’s breath away. We’ve had a global refugee crisis on our hands for decades, but for many, this moved the issue from the sidelines into the spotlight. Since Aylan’s story came out, attention and money for refugees have increased dramatically. 

5. Give her time.

For many women, philanthropy is less about recognition and visibility, and more about building relationships, achieving a deep understanding of what their gift will do, and the impact the journey has on her life. In my experience, women often need more time to write a check. They want time to understand the problem, the intervention, and their role in the solution. But once they make a commitment, they’re likely to invest for the long-term. Be patient.

6. Focus on your pipeline.

More women these days are taking leadership positions in family foundations. Ten years ago, the founder and executive director of RefugePoint saw a potential leader in me. He took a leap and brought me on as a young, green board member, and then a young, green board chair.

RefugePoint tapped my leadership potential, and I can tell you with 100 percent certainty that I have received so much more from the organization than I have ever given. If your potential donor falls in love with your work at 25, she’s probably staying with you for the long haul. Help her grow her leadership, and her giving will follow. 

7. Engage your donor’s skills, experience, and talent.

In that same spirit, know that as fundraisers, you have the power to activate leadership. At Women Moving Millions, we invest in developing our members’ leadership, because we know their stories can inspire other women to join our community. By developing our members’ skills and leveraging their voices, experiences, and networks, we engage our prospective members, and have mobilized 251 donors to give more than $600 million in funding to women and girls. 

8. Frame your “ask” as an opportunity for your funder.

In other words, let the ask be an invitation for your donor to make her money matter in a new way—as a powerful tool for good, for safety, health, equality, the arts, or whatever it is you do. Frame your ask as an invitation to change the world. Women often respond to a meaningful invitation—this makes her gift less about giving something away and more about stepping into her full potential as a leader. 

9. Expose your donors to other funding opportunities.

What would it look like if we approached our work from a place of abundance, not scarcity? When you build strong partnerships with organizations that do great work, and you then connect those partners to your donors, you advance the field. So go ahead: Inspire and model collaborative behavior. Exposing your donors to other funding opportunities will not decrease their support of your work. If anything, it will build their trust in you, and they will be grateful. 

And if all of that fails, and your potential donor decides against funding, then abide by lesson ten.

10. Don’t judge.

Your relationship should feel safe and supportive so that the door remains open for her to reconsider giving in the future, or to consider recommending your organization as a potential grantee for another donor whose interests might be better aligned with your goals. Again, be patient.

The face of philanthropy is quickly changing; it’s no longer the billionaire men or robber barons of the 20th century. Today, philanthropy is for everyone, including the women donor whose wealth is skyrocketing alongside her commitment to catalyzing social change. She not only has the financial power to put women and girls at the center of global development strategy (because we know it works), but also the leadership potential to inspire others to do the same. 

Jessica Houssian is a consultant at Women Moving Millions (@wommovmillions), a global community dedicated to catalyzing unprecedented resources for the advancement of women and girls. She serves on the board of directors of UNICEF Canada, Landesa, and the Canadian Women’s Foundation, where she chairs the Anti-Human Trafficking Grants Committee. She also serves on the Global Advisory for G(irls)20, as board chair of RefugePoint, and as a director of The Houssian Foundation. 

Image CC Guldem Ustun. This article was originally published on Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR)