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Why Are There So Few Male Fundraisers?

February 22, 2017

Why Are There So Few Male Fundraisers?

(This article discusses gender behavior and thinking in a general way. It is not in any way trying to imply that all men or women act or behave in a certain way. Every person AFP interviewed for this article was quick to stress that their comments were being offered in an open, informational manner designed to elicit further conversation and opinion, and not meant to pigeonhole or stereotype members of either gender.)

For many years, the fundraising profession has been a female-dominated profession—at least in terms of numbers. AFP’s own membership numbers show a breakdown of approximately 75 percent female and 25 percent male that has been consistent for many years.

This majority status of females hasn’t led to comparable salary levels between the two genders however. In fact, AFP’s Compensation and Benefits Study has shown a significant gender gap between males and females for many years, typically in the $20,000 - $25,000 range. Men continue to disproportionately make up a larger percentage of CEOs and other senior positions in the field (a topic eWire will explore in a future issue).

But women do dominate middle- and entry-level positions throughout the profession, regardless of subsector or issue, and are slowly making headway into executive director and other leadership roles. Why are there so many more women in the profession? Should we be worried there aren’t more men, and is there anything the profession can do to change that ratio?

A Different Situation at the Beginning

Of course, it wasn’t always this way. At the very beginning of the profession, males overwhelmingly made up the large majority of fundraisers. As Don Baker, president of Baker Brown Consulting in Bear, Del., pointed out, “One only has to look at the founders of AFP—four men—to get a sense of how the profession was started. Philanthropy is directly connected to who has the money, or at least it was traditionally. Men, supported by their wives, led household giving, and networked with male fundraisers as they made their giving decisions.”

Men dominated fundraising bureaus and consulting firms, many of which had started during World War I and were prevalent in fundraising before charities began to develop their own fundraising resources in-house. But the profession began to change after World War II, mirroring changes in society overall as women gained more rights and felt empowered to pursue their own careers.

“There were, and still are, low thresholds for entry into the third sector and a very large upside for those who are flexible, learn and adapt quickly and successfully,” said Richard Bragga, JD, FAHP, FAFP, senior principal at Jerold Panas, Linzy & Partners in Richmond, Va. In addition, the number of charitable organizations was growing exponentially and therefore there were more start-ups that have easily opened doors. “Whether starting their work life or returning from a career interruption, the nonprofit sector was a very viable option for women,” continued Bragga.

The large number of women in fundraising most likely encourages more women to consider the field. “Women dominate middle management, and do much of the hiring,” said Kay Sprinkel Grace, CFRE, FAFP, president of Transforming Philanthropy in San Francisco, Calif. “I think they may lean towards women because they—rightly or wrongly—attribute stronger relationship building skills to women. If they already have six women on their team, they may lean towards the female candidate because she will fit more easily.”

Styles and Maturity

But whether the question is why are there so few men, or so many women, there seem to be a number of factors at work beyond just societal changes and numbers in the workplace.

As AFP spoke with different members, the issues of communication styles and emotional maturity kept coming up.

“Not to generalize, but women tend to approach conversations more in terms of emotions and feelings, while men talk more about concrete factual things, like their plans for the day, or sports and politics,” said Lisa Perry Richardson, CFRE, director of advancement at the Tampa Bay History Center. “Women talk to each other just to catch up, and think about how that aligns with the idea of donor cultivation and stewardship, when it’s important to keep in touch and build a relationship. The word ‘nurturing’ comes to mind when it comes to a woman’s communication style, and that’s more in line with a fundraising approach. In that sense, fundraising may come more naturally to a woman, in very general, broad terms.”

This idea was echoed, albeit from a different perspective, by Dave Tinker, CFRE, FAFP, vice president for advancement at ACHIEVA in Pittsburgh, Pa. “I wonder if there are fewer young men in the field because we as a society don't allow boys and young men to share their emotions enough or build up their emotional intelligence like we do for girls and young women,” said Tinker. “It sounds basic, but the general boys’ mentality is to just ‘suck it up, be tough and don’t talk about feelings or emotions,’ while girls are allowed and encouraged to share their emotions. In fundraising, we often assist the donor to get in touch with their emotions so that they are moved to give.  Maybe it just takes men time to feel confident enough that they can help others in the careful art of giving.”

Barbara Levy, ACFRE, FAFP, a fundraising consultant in Tucson, Ariz., has been in fundraising for more than four decades and has seen the “good old boy” network slowly die out in fundraising. “That network often relied on colleagues to support projects, but now the men who are successful in the field have in common their ability to express and recognize their feelings,” says Levy. “If a fundraiser can tap into a person’s emotions, he or she is much more likely to be successful. But not everyone can do that.”

Speaking the Language

While communication styles and being able to tap into one’s emotions seems to be a popular reason why some men aren’t getting into fundraising, the issue of how the profession is speaking to young men, and how men view fundraising and the charitable sector, may also be a challenge.

“I realize that some of us in the profession get our hackles up when we heard the word ‘sales,’ but the truth is a lot of the principles translate and are appropriate to our profession,” said Nancy Brown, CFRE, senior development officer for Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota in Winona, Minn. “And I can’t help wonder if we haven’t communicated to young men well about what fundraising entails and what we do. It’s not a corporate setting, but fundraising can be exciting, high stress, the opportunity to persuade, inspire and make a difference—exactly the sort of environment that a lot of young men might enjoy. Fundraising isn’t Wall Street, but there are elements of our profession that I don’t think we’ve talked about enough with people interested in making this a career.”

For many young men—and young people—sometimes it all gets down to the bottom line. And dollars and sense. “Work 90 hours a week in a law firm for a decade, and you’re likely to make partner and get many professional and social accolades, to say nothing of a great salary,” said Grant Martin, CFRE, FAFP, vice president of capital campaigns for the Tampa Bay History Center. “Work the same 90 hours a week as a fundraiser for a decade, and your career path, accolades and salary simply aren’t as clear and won’t be on the same par. Many men still see themselves as breadwinners, and it’s hard to make them see how that sacrifice and work pays off in the charitable sector.”

Grace was even more emphatic. “We cannot compete with salaries or with benefits—plus there’s long hours, too many bosses, and skepticism among their peers about why they would work so hard for so little. And a large female environment can be uncomfortable and even intimidating for some young men. Men have told me they feel very alone, and that it’s hard sometimes to just go out for a beer after work. Given all that, what do we have to offer?”

Or Is It All Just Cyclical?

But all of that doesn’t mean that men generally aren’t interested in fundraising. Far from it. It might just be a matter of timing. Several members pointed to a pattern they’ve seen with male fundraisers: coming back to the profession after experiences in other sectors and fields.

“I think there’s definitely a life cycle and a level of emotional maturity that some men have to achieve before they’re ready to plunge into fundraising,” said Martin. “Sometimes they have to experience success in other fields before gaining confidence and understanding their passions. I’ve mentored a couple of former military officers who were very excited about fundraising for their causes after years of serving in the Army or Marines. And they’re really good at what they do.”

“I don’t think we should discount the experience men might gain in communications and emotional maturity through marriage as well,” continued Martin. “I know I’ve learned a lot through my marriage, dealing with my children, and while we may not realize it, those are skills and experience we can put to use in our relationships with donors as well.”

Grace sees a similar pattern with fundraisers she has worked with as well. “I’ve worked with some very talented men who came into the profession later in their careers after they had done other things and made money. They now feel free to follow their vision about the environment, social justice or whatever their cause is. At this point, I think unless young men have a very strong passion about an issue early in their lives, they will—in general—not gravitate naturally to fundraising.”

What Can We Do?

Just as there are a number of reasons that lead to a lack of men in the profession, there is no one particular way forward. But it’s an especially pressing issue as Baby Boomers continue to retire, leading to what is expected to be significant demand for nonprofit professionals and especially fundraisers in the near future.

One tack might be to change how the profession communicates to the outside world, focusing on impacts and changing the reputation of the sector.

“The truth is, you CAN make a very good living in fundraising, and given both the demand for fundraising and with so many charities in existence now, a good fundraiser has lots of opportunities for promotion,” said Brown. “We’ve got to make that case in a more compelling fashion, and not just for young men, but for everyone looking at the profession.”

Grace suggests going even deeper. “Align our traditional nonprofits more closely with social entrepreneurship, cross sector partnerships, risk taking, bureaucracy-busting organizations—and pay people what they are worth. We are seeing men getting very involved on the social entrepreneurship side of the equation. What can we learn from them and apply to our own organizations and fundraising?”

Bragga also encourages AFP and the profession to look at increasing specific education and standards for fundraisers. “The more we can make it clear what it takes to be a consummate professional—the career path one has to take to be knowledgeable and successful—the more likely we can attract young people of either gender.”

Plus, there will also be factors beyond our control, both good and bad. “Employment trends will play a role,” said Baker. “As we see large and mid-sized companies reduce positions, more males will likely take a look at the sector and think fundraising might be an option because of their corporate relationships and connections.”

“With the increasing emphasis on wealth being held by the baby boomer generation and the need for organizations to have a robust planned giving program, I've anecdotally seen and heard of many former financial advisers, wealth managers and even attorneys make the transition into the fundraising profession, many of whom are male,” said Thaddeus Teo, donor relations officer at United Way of King County in Seattle, Wash. “If you think about it, the skills needed to become a good financial adviser or wealth manager in the male-dominated banking world is actually not that much different from the skills needed to become a good fundraiser. So that may be one area to look at as well as we consider how to reach new people.”

Whatever happens will evolve slowly but surely. One profession to look at might be nursing, which until recently was almost exclusively female. Males made up just 3.9 percent of nurses in 1970, but represented more than 9 percent of all nurses in 2011. That’s significant growth, though still a relatively small proportion of men to the entire nursing population.

Change may come, but certainly not overnight. 

Have you own ideas and perspective on this issue? Email with your thoughts and comments. We’d love to hear from you.

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