The Engagement Trap: Moving from Meaningful Connection to Meaningful Gift

Guest Post by Kathleen Loehr

The research on women’s philanthropy highlights again and again that women want to be engaged before they are asked for a gift. For example, in their 2015 report, “Where Do Men and Women Give?,” the Women’s Philanthropy Institute found:

Women report that they are motivated to give because they are on the board or volunteer for an organization, a finding that is not salient for men…Women report needing first-hand involvement to increase their motivations to give. Fundraisers should keep this in mind prior to soliciting women for a charitable donation.

Unfortunately, over the years, I’ve witnessed this important fact lead fundraisers astray. Although we cannot lead with an ask, the conversation about providing support when the time is right should not be ignored. There is a risk in focusing exclusively on engagement and never making the leap to an explicit ask for support.

Many of the women’s philanthropy programs created in the past 25 years shared an unspoken belief: “Build it and they will come… and give.” These programs successfully connected women stakeholders with the organization and ignited excitement for the mission – only to then fail in overtly asking these newly engaged women to give or to give to their capacity. Time and again, dedicated women’s initiatives emphasized engagement to the exclusion of other organizational goals. Many women’s initiatives dissolved after the larger fundraising department saw little financial R.O.I. from the programs.

Lead with Curiosity to Reach Philanthropy

If we do not lead with giving, where should we begin in building relationships with potential women donors? The answer is curiosity.

Women prefer to be heard and known before being asked.  Imagine if the first conversation with a donor prospect concentrated on learning more about her thoughts and interests you’re your organization. Beth Mann of the Jewish Federations of North America uses this strategy. She shared with me:

I find it is important to truly have a conversation, maybe even a second one, before making an ask. I make her the reason for the encounter and not the gift. It is my time to learn about her and understand what she cares about. In just about every scenario, this mindset of learning first leads to a gift that is not only a quality gift but one that is repeated and increased each year as the relationship to the organization and its mission grows.

What if we used the first conversation or two with a woman to discover? Discovery is not just about learning. It allows for relationship building, appreciation of values and creating a common understanding from which to move forward. Open-ended, curious questions that allow for reflection help our donors connect to purpose in their increasingly fast, transactional lives. Once you learn about her vision and what she wants to accomplish, the path opens to connect her with philanthropic support for your organization in an explicit and meaningful way.

Make Philanthropy Overt

Once we begin the process of connecting with women, we cannot assume they will make the jump from engagement to giving. Connecting those dots is our job as fundraisers and the stewards of these relationships.

Duke University successfully modeled one means of engaging women while simultaneously making the need for philanthropy overt. In 2013, the university created a task force of women donors and leaders. The staff was clear about the compelling need to grow women’s financial support from the very start. At first, many task-force members wanted an inclusive program for all Duke women to be engaged and to give at any level. As the committee members slowly learned about all the ways that women were already engaged with and giving to Duke, they shifted away from an engagement-only approach. Instead, they began to focus on a more pressing issue: the major-gift gap. Duke alumnae were not making major gifts in amounts and frequency equal to men. The participants, on their own, chose to prioritize solving this issue.

If the Duke staff had not stayed anchored in the university’s philanthropic vision, the task force may have recommended an engagement model that did not lead to significant philanthropy. Instead, Duke is gaining the philanthropy and leadership of women who are joining the recently designed Women’s Impact Network. Individuals become members when they cross the threshold of $100,000 in cumulative lifetime giving. Recently, the network introduced lower tiered membership thresholds for younger undergraduate alumnae to encourage them to establish a pattern of giving back to Duke and strengthen the pipeline for volunteer leaders and donors.

Make Powerful Asks

After opening the relationship with curiosity and then sharing the need for philanthropy, we are ready to ask for a gift. Ideally, after these conversations your women stakeholders (like the women at Duke) will see philanthropy as a high priority and see themselves as key players in growing support for your organization. Even still, you must clearly ask women to give. And you need to make powerful asks.

The lack of significant requests is common theme in the interviews and focus groups I’ve held with women donors. One woman I interviewed said, “I know I’m one of the largest donors to this organization. But they still aren’t asking me for enough. In a focus group for a university’s women donors, I heard: “If someone doesn’t ask, we don’t give. I’m fine being asked for more than my capacity, being asked by a close relationship that I trust, and have the ask tailored to what I care about.”

Engaging and informing a woman about your organization builds a strong relationship. Asking is also part of relationship building. We can get caught in an engagement swirl. We can get so close to the women through cultivation that we assume they will see the need and step up. However, we can’t assume. As the quotes above indicate, a woman deserves the courtesy of an ask that is significant and will have the impact she desires.

My Challenge To You

This is my challenge to you:

Ask a woman for the boldest amount you believe is possible.

Don’t second-guess yourself. If you opened the relationship with curiosity, you will be able to tailor your request in a way that speaks to your understanding of the woman’s preferences, goals and values. Present the ask as an opportunity to achieve her vision. When you ask boldly and provide compelling details of the potential impact, important and authentic conversations about possibility and change will happen, rather than smaller logistical conversations about making the gift.

To learn more about women’s giving preferences, cultivating women donors, and best practices for soliciting women for philanthropic gifts, read my new book – Gender Matters


About the author: Kathleen Loehr knows that women are more frequently in the philanthropic driver seat, given the increased money being earned and inherited, and their influence in the household giving. Kathleen translates the research on how women give into practical action fundraisers can take. Her book, Gender Matters: A Guide to Growing Women’s Philanthropy, was published by CASE in 2018. Kathleen is a Senior Consultant at the Aspen Leadership Group. She is the chair of the Advisory Council for the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. Kathleen received a BA in Government from Cornell University’s College of Arts and Sciences.

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