‘(Older) Women Are Golden’

As 34 senior executives from European nonprofits took seats at a large round table at Rockefeller Center in New York City recently for an intensive fundraising course, we scanned the room trying to identify our opening speaker.

The most likely candidate was a dignified woman with snow-white hair, professionally attired in a black suit, white polka-dot blouse and pearls. But wait: it couldn’t be. With deep lines on her face, she appeared to be well into her 90s. When the woman cleared her throat and began speaking, I snapped a cellphone shot. This was a first. Never before had I seen a woman of her age given such a platform.

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The speaker was none other than Naomi Levine, former chair of the Heyman Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising at New York University – a woman who had been a catalyst for that university’s storied financial turnaround in the 1970s and ‘80s. In an hour’s time at the King Baudouin Foundation United States’ annual “Art and Science of Fundraising” program, Levine offered participants from European countries ranging from Greece to Iceland a veritable Baedeker of American fundraising wisdom that was strong, blunt and on point.

“A properly run board,” she started in, “runs by the “Three G’s – that is, Give Money; Get Money; or Get off the Board!” She recounted how she used to prepare for donor meetings–by doing intensive research about the prospect–then choreographing the first visit right down to the minute, making it all about the donor, and leaving unanswered questions that would necessitate scheduling a second meeting, preferably onsite at the NYU campus.

Saving her strongest wisdom for last, though, she said: “And don’t forget the women.” When major gift officers cultivate “the big man” and neglect the “the little woman,” they do so at their own peril. That overlooked woman, she continued, could be the difference between success and failure, or between a “go-away” gift and a landmark one.

The truth is, women–especially older women–have always been important targets for development professionals. Those MGOs versed in soft skills such as emotional intelligence have long understood that the distaff side of a couple can represent a power center that’s not apparent on the surface. But recently, with the rise of the #MeToo movement and the groundswell of women running for elective office, nonprofits around America are working overtime to understand the relationship between gender and philanthropy, while creating more nuanced strategies to appeal to women donors.

Development professionals in higher education, for instance, have observed the convergence of two important trends that raise the profile of females as prospects: the growing percentage of women overall obtaining college, professional and advanced degrees, along with a narrowing wage gap between men and women. What is more, on average, women “live four years longer than men,” Sue Cunningham, president and CEO of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, told Inside Higher Ed.  And, she added, they are “inheriting money from their parents and their husbands, so their capacity to give can be significant.”

In April, Dartmouth College unveiled an ambitious new campaign targeting female donors, setting the goal of raising $1 million each from 100 alumnae. (Already 53 women have pledged $1 million to the campaign, meaning that the college has already passed the halfway mark.) While colleges and universities around the country—including Duke University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison—are following suit, so too are other nonprofits.

On the final day of our King Baudouin Foundation fundraising training in New York City, John Bacon, Chief Development Officer for Planned Giving at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, drove home Levine’s point about remembering the women. “Single, childless, older women are golden–quite simply our best prospects,” he said. Often overlooked, they may have worked as teachers, accountants or social workers; many were frugal, saving and investing their money. They often make modest annual gifts but, if cultivated correctly, are capable of leaving million-plus dollar estates to your nonprofit, he said.

So how do you connect with and steward older women donors?

1.     Avoid stereotyping. Older women are often portrayed as “miserly, cranky… incompetent,” writes Margaret Cruikshank, editor of Fierce with Reality: Literature on Aging (Hamilton Books: 2017). In fact, older women are individuals with specific identities and vibrant inner lives. When you learn what makes them tick, when you walk with them down memory lane, you’re more likely to attract them to your cause.

2.     Become a real friend. When I was raising funds for my Simple Living television series back in the 2000s, I was introduced to two elderly women in North Carolina (one widowed, one divorced), both of whom had family foundations. While they had children, they were looking for a friend to take to concerts, church services, and out to dinner. In a sense, I became their honorary daughter and real friend. They, in turn, supported my series and celebrated it as it evolved from pilot to achieving national distribution.

3.     Be inclusive from the start. If the woman is married, convey from the get-go that she is just as important as her husband. “Often the wife is left out of the cultivation process until she becomes the widow,” one veteran fundraising professional told me. “And then, it may be too late.”

4.     The arts and the environment appeal. Consider the fact that high net-worth single women “are more likely to give, and give to arts and the environment,” according a report in NonProfit Times, while high net-worth single men “are more likely to give … to combination organizations, like United Way.”

5.     Show them the need. Research shows that women are more likely than men to give spontaneously and in response to a need. Basic needs—such as hunger and homelessness—resonate more deeply among women than men. My Crouch & Associates colleague Carolyn Walters, who founded the Raleigh nonprofit 100 Women Who Give a Hoot, observed the enthusiasm when members gather each quarter to hear live presentations from three worthwhile nonprofits. (Members vote to select the winning presentation, each committing to donate $100 to the top vote-getter.) One member routinely “brings three checks to each event,” Walters says, often giving to all three nonprofits because her heart has been moved.

6.     Stay interesting. The final tip comes from nonagenarian Naomi Levine who advises fundraisers to practice life-long learning. “Read a book a week,” she recommended. “Nobody wants to be bored – especially older people with less time.”

Wanda Urbanska is Crouch & Associates’ Director of Content.