Husband-centered marriages, and the gender dynamics around fundraising

[Image description: An open dishwasher, filled with clean white dishes and shiny silverware. Image by jhenning on Pixabay]

Hi everyone, if you’re free on June 27th at 10am Pacific Time, please join me and Common Future’s Co-CEO Jennifer Njuguna in a conversation where we discuss our sector’s propensity for fear and risk-aversion, especially in light the pushback against DEI, and what we need to do about it. It’s free, and auto-captions will be enabled. Register here.

A few months ago, I posted a short video on Instagram that talked about our conditioning to be excessively thankful to donors, comparing it to a ridiculous concept I made up called “Husband-Centered Marriage” where every time a husband does the dishes or something that contributes to the family, he gets a handwritten thank-you note: “You did it! Because you loaded the dishwasher, our family is stronger. Our community is better because of you!”

Imagine a whole industry is formed on how to thank husbands better, how to retain their loyalty to avoid divorces. Workshops at conferences teach people about what husbands want. “Make sure you don’t talk about your needs and accomplishments, because husbands don’t care that it’s your 40th birthday or whatever. The limelight must always remain on your husbands and how their contribution is helping them to achieve THEIR goals of making the family better.”

Now, if you threw up a little reading the above, that’s the whole point. It’s gross. In a functioning marriage, partners should do their part without the constant (and asymmetric) requirement of gratitude. Sure, everyone should have respect and appreciation, but it should be mutual. One party should not be expected to chase after the other one, thanking and groveling, when they both theoretically have the same goals but contribute in different ways to achieving those goals. Why would it not be the same with donors and funders?

Husband-Centered Marriages may not be a perfect analogy for our traditional fundraising philosophy and practices that places the needs and whims of donors firmly in the center. But if we reflect on it, it may be more relevant than we think, considering the gender dynamics in fundraising. As our colleague Kat Ferreira puts it:

“The US nonprofit industrial complex is rooted in our broader patriarchal gender disparities. This is not a secret. Social services and charitable causes were often referred to as ‘women’s work’ for generations. It’s well known that the sector has been predominantly staffed by underpaid women while leadership roles were/are predominantly staffed by well-compensated men. These gender power dynamics at play within the nonprofit sector absolutely extend beyond internal organizational culture to include donor relationships, too.”

Extending on Kat’s words, there are significant gender dynamics in fundraising and philanthropy, starting with its origin, where women played a significant role. This leads to the current state, where 80% of fundraisers in development are women (18% are men, and 2% are a different gender).

Despite the majority of development professionals being women, there are still significant disparities and challenges. Women continue to be paid less than men. More men still are at higher levels of leadership. And anywhere from 25% to 76% of fundraisers have experienced sexual harassment and assault, and while it does happen to men, because of the demographics of our fundraising profession, women experience it more, and more likely from men.

Meanwhile, though women donors have been gaining in prominence, with 64% of donations being made by women, donor power is still significantly concentrated among men due to general societal distribution of wealth and privilege.

When examined through the lens of gender and patriarchy, many of our traditional philosophies and practices around fundraising are extremely problematic. Fundraisers, who are mostly women, are encouraged to cater to donors and funders, with the most powerful ones tending to be men. We use gross language like “dating your donors” or “courting donors.” We expect fundraisers, who are again mostly women, to endure horrible behaviors from donors, who again are often men, for the sake of meeting fundraising goals and sustaining programs and services, leading to sexual harassment and other serious problems.

Here are a few things we need to do as a sector:

Shift the narrative from gratitude to partnership: No more attitude of gratitude. No more “you can never thank someone too much.” No more “donors are heroes and none of our work would be possible without them” BS. I’m sure even donors are getting sick of it. We need to work with donors as partners, which means less sucking up, more honesty, more meaningful and sometimes more difficult and uncomfortable conversations, less inflating of donors’ egos, and more of a spirit of mutual gratitude. We don’t need any more rich dudes being told they’re heroes and saviors.

Assess and close salary and leadership gaps: Analyze existing wages to ensure there is no gender disparity in salaries on your fundraising team (and throughout the rest of the organization). Make plans to fix any gaps you identify. Do the same regarding leadership positions. Because of the smaller number of men in fundraising, there may be more of a bias towards them when promotions are being considered. Ensure you’re not falling into the trap of bypassing more qualified women candidates in favor of less qualified male fundraisers for leadership positions.

Address and prevent harassment: The endless stories of fundraisers being told to put up with donors who are abusive for the sake of donations should make us all feel ashamed. No gift is worth the safety and wellbeing of our team members. Policies should be in place to address donors who sexually abuse staff, volunteers, clients, or other donors. Donors should be aware at the onset that the organization will not tolerate that sort of behavior, no matter how much they give. I’m hearing more organizations are having donors sign codes of conduct; this is something we need to discuss and consider.

Change the language we use around fundraising: Seriously, we need to stop with the “dating” and “courting” donors malarkey. These terms and metaphors reinforce gender norms and power dynamics that exist in fundraising and in our sector in general. Let’s be more aware of when we’re using this type of language and replace these phrases and analogies with those that promote respect and partnership.

My analogy of “donor-centered fundraising” being like “husband-centered marriages” may seem silly, but it’s not far off when we consider the gender dynamics of the fundraising field and who are the fundraisers and who wield the most power and influence. Our traditional fundraising philosophies and practices often perpetuate heteronormative patriarchal norms, and it’s time we move beyond that.