Where my girls at?*

*Ahem – women

Let me start by saying, this is not a new topic to address in a blog. But I feel that the issue of female leadership in fundraising is something we need to keep talking about.

So talking is exactly what I’ve been doing. I spent a few days discussing this topic with some of the female fundraisers that I most admire and respect, and it was an eye-opening experience.

Because I’m deeply entrenched in the direct marketing world, my initial question was this: why is it that if a man and a woman are both working in an agency and, after having reached a certain level of seniority and experience, decide it’s time to take the next career step, there’s a fair chance the man will decide to start his own agency, whereas the woman is much more likely to choose to become a private consultant.

In other words, why don’t women start agencies? How come, in this industry where woman absolutely dominate the numbers, is it so common for the only man in the room to be the boss?

Well, I was very pleased to see that all the North Americans I spoke to began to list off agencies that were started by women. And there was an even longer list of women-led agencies – too many to name here. (Interestingly though, those I spoke to from Europe and Australia didn’t name any agencies that they knew of that had been started by a woman. Perhaps my ignorance in asking this question came from the fact that this is where I’ve been building my career.)

So my question then changed. There are very successful women-owned and women-led fundraising agencies out there – so why didn’t I know about them?

I began to dig into that question with Sonya Swiridjuk, a fundraising consultant in Toronto, and former teacher of mine. She shared her story of branching off to start consulting, and how she spent months and months struggling to come up with a name for her company. After nearly a year, she was catching up with her old boss, Stephen Thomas, when he asked how things were going with her work. She mentioned the difficult time she was having coming up with the right name.

Steve simply said, “But you already have a name. You don’t need anything different for your company.”

Sonya joked, “Have you tried spelling my last name? How would potential clients find me online?”

And Steve responded, “They’ll find you. You are the brand and the brand is you.

As women, do we hesitate to put our name on the door, so to speak? I then came across a four-year-old article from Civil Society in the UK where Rowena Lewis wrote about this exact issue. She states that although 71% of employees in the UK fundraising sector were women at the time of this study, only 47% of the top 100 charities had female directors of fundraising.

“A growing body of research evidences the fact that an absence of ‘visible’ female role models in the top jobs creates an inhibitor to women progressing their careers in any given industry. On the other hand, where women are highly visible at the top, they inspire (and act as enablers) for others to follow suit.

“So would you say the 47% of fundraising directors are ‘visible’ enough? Take a moment to list your top ten figureheads of the fundraising profession. Who are the fundraisers that most inspire you? Do they feature prominently as leaders of our profession?

“Now ask yourself how many of these figureheads are women. This is not an idle question. Whenever I ask my peers to name ten high-profile female fundraisers, they come unstuck.”

Yikes. I’m as guilty of this as anyone. I could easily name far more than ten influential female fundraisers, but the first names that pop into my head are from the blogs I read daily, and the keynote speeches I hear at conferences.

So why? Why aren’t the names on the door, the voices at the keynote, and the daily words I read, those of women more often than not?

Scottish-born Canadian entrepreneur, Clare McDowall, wrote an excellent blog recently about this very issue, which I encourage you to read. She brings up many reasons that women aren’t often pushing to make a name for themselves in business. Among these is a point I’m very familiar with – the idea of Imposter Syndrome.

“Women tend to refrain from promoting themselves because in the back of their mind they are still always remembering who is better than them. They tend to look at all the things they CAN’T do while ignoring all the stuff they can,” Clare told me.

She then pointed out, “Did you know that in Canada only around 4% of Venture Capital investments go to women? And women earn less, making it harder to save funds to start on your own. Women also have less access to traditional funding.”

Of course, we all know that one of the biggest barriers for women in business around the world is regarding the choices women are forced to make between work and family.

One woman I spoke to said, Agency-life as I know it isn’t particularly compatible with having children, especially young ones. I worked for an agency where there were no mothers employed. There were many fathers.”

Another admitted, I have often thought about starting my own agency. Not too long ago I thought really hard about what it might look like – what values would my agency have? What would our approach to fundraising be? What would make us different to all the male-lead fundraising agencies out there?

“But then two things happened: 1) I started to feel unsure. How much do I REALLY know? As much as I feel frustrated, even resentful, some days, am I just being arrogant to dream of ‘going out on my own’ one day? 2) I had a bit of a wake up call that fundraising agency life wasn’t everything. I could still be passionate about changing the world, but it didn’t have to cost me time with my partner at night, or my sleep, or my sanity.

“And now, as awful and cliched as it sounds, I hear the ticking of my biological clock. Now, starting my own agency isn’t as appealing as raising children who care deeply about this world, and are moved to dedicate their own lives to making it a better place. Sure my partner could be a stay at home dad, and there are more options available to women that allow them to do both, but the very thing that has driven my career now drives my desire to give my family the attention they deserve: not wanting to do ANYTHING by half. I don’t want to feel like I’m doing a mediocre job of running an agency AND a mediocre job of being a mum.”

Of course, not all women want to be founding agencies but can’t. Many don’t want this path at all. Associate Director of Development at Simon Fraser University in Canada, Rory Green, offered the perspective of a fundraiser who is passionate about working in charities for the length of her career, and I know many who feel the same way.

Rory also made me laugh by pointing out, Women need to be more ballsy – but how odd that we don’t even have a female word for ballsy.”

There are certainly things that can be done to help bring women to the forefront when it comes to the big names in fundraising. Beate Sorum, Norwegian fundraising power-house, shared this bit of advice:

Conferences need to take a look at their speaker rosters and make sure they have the genders equally represented – and not just in numbers, in positions too. Don’t just bring in the men from the agency (aka the brains) and the women from the organizations (aka the recipients of the help). And women need to jump into things more. Apparently, the stats say you have to ask far, far more women to get a confirmed speaker than you do for men.”

I’m grateful that speaking to all of these amazing women has filled me with a lot of hope for the future. Beate even informed me that she has just started her own digital agency. She said:

“I read a piece of research when I was in high school, where they showed a group of equally qualified men and women the same job description consisting of ten wanted qualifications or qualities, and asked whether they’d apply for the job. The women said “I only fulfill five of these ten things, I probably won’t get it so I won’t apply”. The men said, “Hey, I know half of these things – yeah, I’ll give it a go!” So men tend to take more chances than women – women like to know we can handle it before jumping. For me, just being aware of this tendency has made me actively work against it.”

And Beate wasn’t the only one. I spoke to several women who told me they were just on the verge of stepping out on their own, growing their businesses and making waves.

Principle at Canada’s Good Works, Leah Eustace, said exactly what I hoped to hear:

“The future is very much about female-led consulting firms and agencies, IMHO. The old style of leadership was dictatorial and all about the boss knowing best. The current and future style of successful leadership is about strong teams, emotional intelligence and work/life balance: all traits that women have in spades. So, I don’t think there’s anything in particular we need to do to get more women in leadership/founder positions: it’s happening all on its own.”

And American consultant, Pamela Grow, told me to watch out for a new website that’s coming together called WomenRuleFundraising.

It will take some time, but the tides are starting to turn. In another decade, I hope young fundraisers like me won’t be blind to the amazing leadership shown by women in this sector. It will simply be all around them.

I’ll leave you with the words of one of the incredible women I spoke to:

If I can sum it up, I don’t think women should have to be like men to succeed in fundraising – or any other career. They should be able to do it in their own way. But for that, they also need to have the support of other women.”

They certainly have mine.

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