KNOWLEDGE: Gender Issues in Fundraising – the career of a female fundraiser

From a gender pay gap to the glass ceiling, Ruth Smyth examines the factors that shape the career of a female fundraiser.

This blog is part of the Gender Issues In Fundraising Project run by Rogare – The Fundraising Think Tank.

What is it like for a woman who chooses to have a career in fundraising? Does fundraising suffer from the same gender imbalances as other areas of work? And how can we, as a fast-changing sector, with many charities actively working on these or similar issues, lead the way on gender equality? This blog aims to introduce the topic of how gender impacts on fundraising careers by highlighting some issues that we will be exploring further as part of Rogare’s project on gender in fundraising.

How does fundraising compare?

Sadly, or perhaps unsurprisingly, the issues in career inequality found elsewhere are also found in fundraising. The gender pay gap is not only present but slightly higher than the average across all sectors: the pay gap in UK fundraising is 16.7 per cent vs an average of 16.5 per cent, in the US it is 19.5 per cent vs an average of 18.2 per cent.

The ‘glass ceiling’ also holds true, with fewer women than men at the top of the profession despite far more in the junior and middle manager roles (see Tables 1 and 2 below). This is particularly the case for bigger charities in both the US and UK.

It might seem surprising that these are still major issues for the contemporary workforce considering that many charities have had women heavily involved in their founding, leadership and day to day activities for longer than most other professions. After all, if you trace the history of fundraising back to its origins, it was often undertaken by women for whom charity work the only form of labour they were permitted to perform. Although, as Seattle University’s Elizabeth Dale points out, these were often ‘invisible careers’ and the first people to be paid to raise money were men, so perhaps the voluntary aspect of these early fundraising women gave them lower status and reduced autonomy over how they were able to progress in their careers.

Starting out

There are plenty of junior positions in fundraising, and the majority of these are held by women. Fundraising seems to attract women rather than men and men entering the profession at a junior level can feel less welcome as a result of this. What makes the profession more attractive to women than men? Is it, as Elizabeth Dale suggests, because charities are perceived as having more feminine traits? Or is it linked to the reasons a higher percentage of women donate to charities, like the tendency to having stronger pro-social values?

A study by French academics Lanfranchi and Narcy from 2015 explores this question and finds that part of the reason women are attracted to non-profit work is because it tends to offer more part-time work opportunities and a shorter work week than for-profit organisations. They also found that men tend to be less attracted to the non-profit sector because they tend to favour pecuniary benefits (like savings plans, insurance and pensions) that are less likely to be on offer at a non-profit organisation. This raises some interesting possibilities for what we might be able to do to recruit more men into fundraising at a junior level.  What else might be we able to do to attract more men into fundraising and to support them when they do enter the profession?

The high percentage of women at junior levels suggests that gaining entry into a career in fundraising might be relatively easy for women. But there is evidence from academia that women with higher levels of qualification are less likely to be called for interview compared to men with that level of qualification, which may well effect women seeking both junior and senior roles. Are our fundraising recruitment processes fair? If we move towards a need for more qualifications (argued by Ian MacQuillin that we should) what will this mean for women? Will the women who gain these qualifications lose out by being perceived as over qualified and therefore find it harder to gain entry? Something for us to bear in mind as we move towards fundraising in the UK becoming chartered.


In fundraising, women are in the majority at the lower levels of the organisational hierarchy (see Table 1 below for US data), but this majority decreases at more senior roles. This also varies with budget responsibility and size of charity, with smaller charities more likely to have a female CEO than larger charities.

Table 1: Percentage of male and female respondents occupying fundraising roles in the United States (source: AFP 2014 Compensation and Benefits Study taken from Dale 2017 )
Table 2: Gender diversity of senior leaders in major UK charities (source: Green Park Third Sector Leadership report using data gathered from annual reports, Charity Commission listings, charity websites and LinkedIn.)

One of the theories put forward to explain why there is a lower proportion of women at a senior level is that women don’t tend to ask or apply for promotion as frequently. Recent research finds evidence to refute this theory, suggesting that women do ask as frequently but are not given promotions at the same rate. Added to this is the differences in experience when men and women do get promoted. A longitudinal study of data collected in the UK over 10 years has shown that women who get a promotion tend to have a decrease in their level of work satisfaction, whereas for men the opposite is true.

Women tend to have less support from managers, less access to senior leaders and face daily small differences in treatment to their male counterparts, making progression much tougher for women. Women also tend to take on more ‘non-promotable’ tasks than men, something which there could be plenty of opportunity for in fundraising. This research isn’t fundraising-specific but highlights issues that are found within fundraising, as an American poll from 2014 suggests. What can we do in fundraising to address the barriers between women and senior leadership, to support women to get to senior roles and, importantly, to thrive when they do?

It is also important to note that these issues are not the same for all women. Minority groups tend to face multiple issues. The proportion of Black and minority ethnic (BAME) women at a senior level is more skewed than for white women in the UK and the same is true in the US. The UK Institute of Fundraising’s current initiative to increase diversity in fundraising will hopefully help with this, but what more can we do as fundraisers and fundraising organisations to improve equality for all women?

The fatherhood bonus and the motherhood penalty

I’m part of a Facebook group called ‘Juggling motherhood and professional charity work’ set up by British consultant Lisa Clavering (right). There is a common theme to many of the discussions, which is exemplified by a post that asked other members about flexible working. The question posed was “When in the interview process for a senior role should I bring up that I would like to work for 4 days a week?”. This touches on one of the thorniest issues for women and career equality, the impact of parenthood.

Parenthood is now perhaps the most significant factor in the gender pay gap. In a paper published in 2017, Danish academics Kleven, Landais and Søgaard’s 2017 call this the ‘child penalty’:

“The arrival of children creates a gender gap in earnings of around 20 per cent in the long run, driven in roughly equal proportions by labor force participation, hours of work, and wage rates. Underlying these ‘child penalties’, we find clear dynamic impacts on occupation, promotion to manager, sector, and the family friendliness of the firm for women relative to men…gender inequality caused by child penalties has increased dramatically over time, from about 40 per cent in 1980 to about 80 per cent in 2013.”

It is notable that the ‘child penalty’ is one more often borne by the mother, whereas fatherhood tends to have a positive impact on pay and career. Most women who have children tend to have a higher level of responsibility for caring for them, and this impacts on their careers. In fundraising this is further compounded by the difference in salary that might occur for a woman working in a lower-paid fundraising role with a partner who earns a higher salary in the private sector.

One question that nearly always comes up when discussing the issues is whether women choose to take on more of the responsibility for childcare and would do so even if they had other options? Although studies consistently find that that women tend to carry out twice as much housework than men, they also find that perceptions of fairness are socially constructed with women tending to feel they should take on more. How both men and women arrange their domestic lives and careers  is influenced heavily by identity and social expectations, which often place emphasis on the father as ‘breadwinner’. It could also be argued (as it has been by feminist author Jessica Valenti) that men need to take on more domestic responsibilities to enable women to progress in their careers.

As well as these very strong social norms there are still both structural and cultural changes that employers could pursue, like better flexible working options, increased parental leave for men and opportunities for job sharing. Would more fathers choose to take on higher levels of childcare and reduce their hours if this was made easier by employees? How can we make charities and fundraising roles more flexible and accommodating of different needs during parenthood? And how can we ensure senior roles are accessible to women who may at some point in their career want the flexibility to have and bring up children?

Going it alone

One solution for creating the flexibility required by parenthood is freelancing or setting up your own business and, partly due to technology enabling it, this is a growing trend for mothers across all areas of employment, doubling in the UK over the past 10 years. But this increased flexibility may come at a cost: although 10 years old, a study by Debra J. Mesch and Patrick M. Rooney of Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy showed that female fundraising consultants earnt on average 36 per cent less than their male counterparts, as well as receiving significantly lower bonuses.

What are the implications for women who work as freelancers in fundraising? Is this a good way for women to maintain or develop their careers outside the restrictions of traditional employment? Or does it raise new challenges and risks? The more precarious nature of freelance work is receiving focus due to the rise of the gig economy.

What to do next?

  • Find out if there’s a gender pay gap in your charity/company and then try using some of these techniques – recommended by the UK Government’s Behavioural Insights Team – to address it.
  • Does your senior management and board reflect the diversity of the rest of the charity/company, and/or the population(s) you serve?
  • Do your recruitment and promotion processes explicitly have mechanisms for ensuring gender equality, such as blind assessment of CVs?
  • What can be done to better support women in your organisation who want to progress their careers? Good mentoring from a woman in a more senior role is often cited by women as critical in them advancing in their careers.
  • If you’re interested then read up on the issues, follow the links above and I especially recommend Elizabeth Dale’s excellent paper ‘Fundraising as women’s work?’

  • Ruth Smyth is Planning and Insight Director at BoldLight and a member of Rogare’s Gender Issues in Fundraising project team.

Further reading

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