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Seeking Volunteer Leaders: Tips for Increasing Women’s Giving

By Tom Watson on March 5, 2009No Comment

Reversing this pattern in order to stimulate both women’s service and giving can be a key to fundraising success.  A savvy non-profit executive or fundraiser who wants to increase philanthropic support from women will start by thinking seriously about how to increase the number of women in volunteer leadership roles. 

Women’s control of philanthropic resources continues to grow.  In its most recent review of gender and wealth, the IRS reported that in 2001 women represented 46.3% of the nation’s top wealth holders, an increase of 36% from the prior reporting in 19981.     In the same time period, the combined net worth of the female top wealth holders had increased by nearly 50%.  Women are both generating wealth women-owned firms account for 40.2% of all businesses nationwide and, because they live longer than men, inheriting wealth. 

Women are also passionate volunteers.  They volunteer at higher rates than do men in every state2,  and once they get involved, there are strong correlations to their financial support.  To cite just one example, a study of women’s business owners found that those women who volunteered the most (an average of 22.4 hours per month) also gave the most ($10,000 or more per year).  As involvement decreased, gift size also decreased.3 

Based on these statistics, one would expect non-profits to eagerly seek female volunteer leaders in order to encourage their giving and take advantage of their energy.  Yet the opposite appears to be true; there is a disconnect between the high rate of women’s volunteer service and their participation as leaders.  According to BoardSource, women comprise only 43% of board members.  Women serve most often on the boards of smaller organizations, and as the organizational budgets get larger, the percentage of female board members decreases to a low of 33% for those with budgets greater than $25 million.4   In the non-profit boardroom where a small number of volunteers disproportionately influence decision-making and outcomes, women have less power despite their propensity to contribute time. 

To cite another example, the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges’ 2004 survey of its members showed that male trustees outnumber female trustees by more than 2 to 1 at both private and public institutions.  Men chair 81% of the boards at private colleges and universities and 72.7% of the boards at public colleges and universities.5  

If women’s giving is catalyzed by their involvement and they like to volunteer, why are they under-represented in the volunteer leadership ranks?  Surely any smart non-profit executive would recognize the synergies between women’s contributions of time and money and would be eagerly encouraging leadership in both categories.  It’s possible to speculate about some causes for the under-utilization of women as philanthropic and volunteer leaders, and to offer some potential remedies.

Insist on the power of financial contributions as a form of leadership.  Women and non-profits sometimes view service as a substitute for giving rather than realizing that time and money fulfill different organizational needs.  If an organization does not challenge the notion that time and money are substitutional, women may end up addressing envelopes for the annual gala ( a helpful contribution of time) rather than giving major financial support (a contribution that increases their credibility and demonstrates leadership).  Staff and board members should collaborate to send a strong message about the need for financial support and the influence that it brings; women will respond generously if asked.

Make a formal board-level commitment to diversity.  When volunteer groups are not diverse, they have failed to identify and recruit members who would bring a meaningful range of viewpoints and skills.  This can result from a weak or disorganized nominating committee process, or from the complacency of an entrenched group of insiders.  A vibrant, engaged board will hold itself accountable for seeking out strong female contributors (as well as people from a range of races, ethnicities and ages) and create a mandate for the staff and its own selection process.  Well qualified women exist to help lead every organization, and boards must make it their goal to find them.

Create volunteer pathways that allow volunteers to shine on their terms.  Women are more likely than men to leave and enter the workforce during their lifetimes, and they often juggle responsibilities for children and aging relatives.  As they progress through the leadership pipeline, offer women a range of volunteer opportunities and assignments.  Some will welcome six weeks of intensive work, while others will prefer monthly meetings.  Some may wish to invest a single day without further commitment.  The wider the range of volunteer offerings, the more a non-profit can take advantage of women’s desire to be involved.  As women volunteer on the basis that suits them they can be vetted as leadership candidates. 

Don’t patronize.  Women volunteers shouldn’t be on the receiving end of arbitrary recruitment quotas or lowered standards.  An organization that hasn’t identified stellar female volunteer leaders hasn’t tried hard enough.  And don’t forget that the strategies described above benefit every volunteer and donor.  Men also deserve a strong volunteer leadership selection process, and younger donors need different volunteer pathways than older ones.   

In summary, to raise more money from women, tap them to lead.  The first step is to educate staff and board members and correct any misimpressions about women’s commitment and potential.  Then develop a plan and act on it.  Non-profits that leverage their female volunteers as leaders reap the benefits in energy, expertise, and creativity and they raise more dollars.  When women lead, they do it generously. 



  • 1 Personal Wealth, 2001 IRS
  • 2 Volunteering in America 2008, Corporation for National and Community Service
  • 3 Leaders in Business and Community, National Foundation for Women Business Owners, 2000
  • 4 Nonprofit Governance Index 2007, BoardSource
  • 5 2004 Board Composition Survey, Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges
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