Men in Fundraising: We have a problem. And it’s you.

Published by Matthew Sherrington on

Only a few years ago a senior UK fundraiser was quoted in an article about staff development. He talked of getting his female staff mentors, to help them behave in a more ‘feminine’ way in their relationships at work and with donors. I’ve always remembered it, because I remember my jaw literally dropping.

Women in Fundraising

Have things moved on? Not much, if the Men and Women’s Survey published last week by the UK’s Fundraising Magazine is anything to go by. It’s subscriber-only content, but here are the headlines.

unknownThirty-eight per cent of women respondents reported experiencing sexual harassment at work. (15% of men, too). There’s a pay gap. There’s a seniority gap. In a sector comprising 74% women, women have just 44 of the top 100 fundraising director jobs. Just a third of the UK’s polled ’50 most influential fundraisers’ are women. 41% of women fundraisers think women are adequately represented at a senior level. A full 71% of men think that’s the case. Is this any better in other countries?

Men identified just one major barrier to women progressing in fundraising, and that was women having to balance work and family. This was also the biggest barrier for women too, but they identified others as well – being perceived as less committed to work because of family, organisational culture, lacking confidence, being less ambitious, differences in personal style, and lacking senior female role models. There’s an irony.

As Lizzi Hollis says in this commentary, “the men have no idea”. She quotes this saying too: “When you’re used to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”

Sexism Persists in our Sector

It’s tricky. Is it ‘mansplaining’ for me as a bloke to weigh in on this issue? If I don’t, am I complicit with the 71% of men in fundraising who apparently don’t think we have a problem? I expect any comments to this piece will help me find out. So, checking my ‘unearned privilege’ as a white, straight, middle-class man (thanks to Simone Joyaux for that phrase, from her work on power), let’s carry on.

We can share a knowing laugh at the casual sexism of the 60s and 70s through the ironic lens of TV series like Mad Men and Good Girls Revolt. It’s less funny when women still experience casual sexism today, and indeed, sexual harassment.

I spent my first fourteen years of work at Oxfam, and I realised soon after I left how much attention Oxfam had given to diversity, gender and multiculturalism, and in understanding unconscious bias. Obviously, that was aligned with the values of its mission. In my next job I was stunned, in my naiveté, to find that progressive values were not universal in the sector. Sexism was open and rife. And of course it lingers throughout non-profits, from Boards downwards.

Imposter Syndrome

Something that seems to afflict mostly women, and perhaps hinders their career progression, is Imposter Syndrome. More people are talking about it, which is a good thing. Here are two great blogs by Cerian Jenkins and Lizzi Hollis. Amanda Palmer spoke at the International Fundraising Congress of ‘the Fraud Police’ constantly on her shoulder. This 2011 speech of hers gives you a flavour (there’s a great joke about a brain surgeon.)

Judging from the many women I have managed and coached over the years, it seems horribly common, and combines with a higher incidence of burnout, as high-achieving women feel they have to prove themselves even more. I tend to think not many men suffer from it – but what do I know? Men don’t talk about their vulnerabilities, so maybe we all do and are just better bull-shitters.

But I have it. And I’m a consultant, I coach people and I write these blogs. Who the hell am I to offer anyone insight, advice or an opinion? I get over it with a bit of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, challenging negative feelings by looking at the evidence.

Winning a job in the US several years ago, for example. “I’ve no idea what Matthew does,” my aunt said to my mum, “but I suppose he must be good at it.” A Brit in America? My imposter syndrome went through the roof. But yes, the evidence suggested I was.

More people talking about it can help others feel better about their own insecurities. But they don’t go away. As my mum told me, when I asked her when she started to feel properly grown up, confident and in control of life: “Never.”

Tall Poppy Syndrome

tall_poppy_syndromeMore insidious, is Tall Poppy Syndrome, that irrepressible urge some people have to put others in their place and cut them down to size, (to lop off the head of the tall poppy, rising above the weeds).

It’s what goes on in social media. Belittling personal abuse of strangers. Cutting put-downs. Being told you’re a ‘snowflake’ if you can’t handle the banter. Amanda Palmer spoke of the abuse she’d get from strangers as a street performance artist, people shouting at her to get a proper job. And worse.

A young fundraiser told me at the IFC of being taken to task, not once, but by several more senior fundraisers, for not having earned her profile, or the right to express the ideas she blogged and presented on. Two other women in charities have told me of similar experiences. “Get back in your box”, one was told by her male boss. Isolated cases?

Judging people’s performance is one thing. Thinking they are not worthy is another. But feeling, and acting on, the need to share that to someone’s face is on another level. It might be insecurity at work, people puffing themselves up by diminishing others they feel threatened by. But it’s also called bullying.

In a sector about doing good, a sector dominated by women but led mostly by men, such unkindness has no place. Who are you to cut people down to size? Check your privilege. Check your attitude. Check your bias. Check your insecurity. If you can’t say anything nice, think about whether to say nothing at all.

Step Forward, Step Back, Step Up

We do have a job to do, as a sector, to nurture talent and the stars of the future. Given most fundraisers are women, most stars of the future should be too. If it’s true that more women suffer Imposter Syndrome, what a double-whammy to then have to contend with bullying put-downs (not always from men, it should be said). So we have a problem. And we all have a role to play in addressing that.

Women need to step forward, but may need encouragement to overcome issues of confidence, bias and organisational culture. Men need to step back. Not because it’s your space to graciously give, just to check yourself from being a dick. More importantly, men need to step up, be aware of your privilege and help push forward women’s progression. The Lean In website has some tips just for men. After all, it’s 2016.

And everyone, can you just make sure you’re a bit kinder to others?

P.S. I leave you with the inspiring words of Marianne Williamson. Words many people think are Nelson Mandela’s, after he quoted them. Typical, eh?


Matthew Sherrington

Matthew Sherrington

Matthew consults and coaches through his consultancy Inspiring Action with charities big and small, in the UK and Internationally. He has over 25 years’ experience of charity fundraising, campaigning, communications and leadership, including being Fundraising Director at Greenpeace USA, Communications Director at Oxfam GB, leading a creative agency. He’s a committed conference speaker, blogger and charity trustee. His guiding principle is inspiring people to action, through communications and leadership, with a particular passion for supporter engagement and organizational effectiveness, aligning strategy and culture behind an exciting mission story. Follow Matthew on Twitter at @m_sherrington


Carla Miller · November 21, 2016 at 15:52

Thanks for this Matthew. I’ve experienced this sort of behaviour at times in my career and not always from men. As a result once I starting leading teams I invested a lot of time and energy in nurturing potential female leaders and encouraging people to step forward for new roles. We all need someone to believe in us when we’re stepping outside of our comfort zones and I am forever grateful that many years ago the inspiring Gill Astarita believed in me and saw my potential and as a result changed my career and life.

I’ve found “Playing Big” by Tara Mohr to be a great book on imposter syndrome for my coaching clients and I highly recommend it.

karen · November 21, 2016 at 16:18

Absolutely brilliant. Extremely difficult to resolve. My advice – respect yourself to know when you experience behavior up with which you should not, will not, put. Find a mission you’re passionate about and move on sooner rather than later. Abusers rarely change.

Alex Allison · November 21, 2016 at 16:25

The report below was produced back in 2013 by IoF and the Barrow Cadbury Trust – it highlights a distinct lack of diversity and the discrimination in the sector for women, for people of colour, for people whose abilities differ from others. It’s central recommendation was the IoF should lead on a sector wide representation/groups for these people to change the culture of fundraising. There has been no action on this!

We need the organisations representing our sector to support us to make these changes in the culture and attitudes of the sector. It is not enough for women to ‘step forward’, why would you step forward when you don’t feel like you will be backed up? You are even less likely to step forward if you face multiple discrimination due to your ethnicity or you are seen as being disabled as well.

If any other women read this and want to be involved in setting something up please reply here and we can arrange to get in touch.


    Alex Allison · November 21, 2016 at 16:27

    And thanks for raising this conversation Matthew, much appreciated!

    karen · November 21, 2016 at 16:30

    Love to be involved in your project on diversity in the fundraising profession.

      Alex · November 21, 2016 at 16:44

      Great! Just set up diversityinfundraising@outlook.com email me there and we can discuss further. If there’s any other women you know who would be interested in being involved please get them on board.

    Ryna Sherazi · November 22, 2016 at 16:07

    Yes Alex, brilliantly articulated. I’d be interested in the diversity project too.

    Peter Lewis · November 24, 2016 at 17:10

    Hi Alex

    you are right. This unfortunately stalled.

    It is being restarted though. If you are interested in getting involved please e-mail me and I will link you to the person leading this end.


Derek Humphries · November 21, 2016 at 18:21

Great piece Matthew.
I was really struck by the quote about equality feeling like oppression when you have been used to privilege.
There are many men in the sector who will happily be on an all-male panel, and not even notice it. And that’s just one small, obvious, very visible example.
One useful thing for equality-minded men to do is just get out of the way (it’s not enough, but it’s a start).

Morag Fleming · November 22, 2016 at 09:25

Great article Matthew and highlights so many truths about the sector. It’s not until you get out of a situation where you are treated badly as a woman that you actually appreciate how bad it was and it can take a long time to get back up again.

That’ s partly what leads to impostor syndrome in some women I think and if you find a way to explain your job to your aunt please let me know as my dad keeps asking what I actually do!

    Matthew Sherrington · November 25, 2016 at 00:18

    Thanks Morag. No answer to explaining my job. But when I worked for Greenpeace my daughter, then aged 5, told her nursery class her dad’s job was ‘to save the world.’ Which will do for me!

Ken Wyman · November 22, 2016 at 13:48

Well said!

Ryna Sherazi · November 22, 2016 at 16:18

Well done for writing a piece that makes many of us a little uncomfortable, because that is usually the impetus for change.
Thank you!

Victoria Hancock Fell · November 22, 2016 at 18:00

Very relatable Matthew – as a young women early-ish on in my career (and being short too – which somehow seems to make it worse!) I have experienced this sort of attitude more than I would like to say – sadly sometimes it may have been as a result of my own imposter syndrome!

I was once told that I was “too young and inexperienced” to weigh in on a conversation my SMT was having, despite one member of the SMT being a man younger than me – but hey, he was a 6ft3 rugby player so at least he looked like he might be able to make a valid contribution!

Also great to see Lizzi Hollis mentioned, she’s a Trustee for my charity Team Kenya (a girls and women’s charity!)

Thanks for blogging about this!

Susie Goss · November 22, 2016 at 21:30

I genuinely, hand on heart, can say that after 16 years in the sector I really don’t feel I have ever been discriminated against for being female. Does that just make me lucky?

I’ve had experiences that were thoroughly unfair and about which I’ve felt angry, poorly treated and even bitter, but not because of my gender.

The inspiring leaders I have worked under have almost all been women and often women who also had families that they prioritised appropriately. I am still led by such women and also job share with another, an arrangement put in place when she returned from maternity leave.

I have had one male boss who I felt disliked me for being a strong woman but I think he’d have disliked a strong man who disagreed with him too. Ultimately, he got his comeuppance and I moved on an up.

I feel fairly paid and fairly treated by the sector on the whole. I guess I must be lucky because so much evidence exists that others have differing experiences. I hope, however, that I am not alone!

Matthew Sherrington · November 23, 2016 at 11:45

Thanks for all the comments so far. I’m pleased it’s resonated and touched some nerves. In a good way, I hope!

Matthew Sherrington · November 23, 2016 at 14:16

At the International Fundraising Congress in October, there was a session on Fixing the Gender Imbalance in Leadership, with Rory Green, Simone Joyaux, Laura Croudace, Julie Verhaar and Helena Sharpstone. I hadn’t seen it before I wrote this blog, but am relieved that we are much aligned! You can watch and listen to them here.

Nick Allen · November 23, 2016 at 17:19

Thanks for this article, Matthew. I especially liked the reminder to “Step Forward, Step Back, Step Up.”

redactle · July 26, 2023 at 11:05

Many thanks for the feedback received so far. It makes me happy that it has struck a chord with others. I certainly hope so!

Men in Fundraising: We have a problem. And it’s you. | Nonprofit Newswire from Imagine Canada · November 21, 2016 at 20:42

[…] Only a few years ago a senior UK fundraiser was quoted in an article about staff development. He talked of getting his female staff mentors, to help them behave in a more ‘feminine’ way in their relationships at work and with donors. I’ve always remembered it, because I remember my jaw literally dropping. (101 Fundraising) […]

Round Up: Fundraising Is Female · March 16, 2017 at 06:02

[…] From Fundraising 101: Men in Fundraising: We have a problem, and it’s you. I love that this article is based on community research based in the UK. It’s a great example of community listening. […]

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