Where my girls at?*

Published by Margaux Smith on

*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.

Margaux Smith

Margaux is currently living in Sydney, Australia, working closely with incredible clients at Flat Earth Direct, creating digital and direct mail campaigns with them to help change the world. This Canadian fundraiser misses her compatriots in London and Toronto, where she learned almost everything she knows, but is enjoying the Australian sunshine a little too much to leave any time soon.


Paul Nazareth · July 21, 2014 at 15:21

Fantastic post Margauxs! I have personally mentored with 90% of your list in this post and consider them to be leading minds in female fundraising career development. As someone who encourages dozens of female fundraisers a year I too find it confusing when I encourage Women to reach out to other Women and the usual natural response is to try and connect with the man at the top ( who is usually unhelpful, which is why Stephen Thomas is such a beloved anomaly ). As Clare McDowall said in her post, it’s time to create networks of Women for Women. No exclusive ( and I’m glad for that ) but with a focus of helping Women through challenges and issues that are uniquely their own.

    Margaux Smith · July 22, 2014 at 00:24

    Thanks for your comment, Paul :) They are pretty amazing, aren’t they? And so are you! I considered expanding this conversation to get a male perspective on the issue as well, but this post was already about three times longer than I usually try to stick to! I wouldn’t be surprised if a follow up was in the cards though :) I found this topic and these conversations SO interesting. I had fun writing it!

Dorothy · July 21, 2014 at 16:08

Thank you for this inspiring blog – yes we can!

Stephen Pidgeon · July 21, 2014 at 16:42

Two fundraising agencies in UK, Margaux, were started by women, Burnett Works and TDA.

    Margaux Smith · July 22, 2014 at 00:07

    Thanks, Stephen! I was hoping people would name me even more places in the comments :) Wasn’t =mc also co-founded by a woman, or do I have that wrong?

    It’s interesting that one of the North Americans I spoke to brought up Burnett Works (which I ignorantly assumed was named after Ken), but the UK women I spoke to didn’t bring that one up! I found the conversations I had were culturally very interesting too, but that’s a whole other blog post :)

Ligia · July 21, 2014 at 17:15

Well done Margaux!

Frustrated with the glass ceiling I started my own boutique consulting business in 2007. I had so many people list the million reasons why I shouldn’t which fuelled my desire to do it and be successful. My “f-u” attitude resulted in 5 great years of personal and professional growth.

Along the way, I had some great female supporters and mentors (in fact, I still do).

When it comes to networks, I find that women have a more informal way to creating them. Whereas men may get together on the golf course or the country club, women informally support each other through coffee dates, drinks, social media, etc. (at least that’s the case for me!). I think there is a lot of networking happening, it’s just abut different than the way men do it.

    Margaux Smith · July 22, 2014 at 00:10

    I agree, Ligia! My female professional network (not to discount the awesome men I’m close to) is one of the top reasons I fell in love with this sector, and will stay here my whole life.

Amy Eisenstein, ACFRE · July 21, 2014 at 19:31

Great post, Margaux. It’s so true that most of the agencies are still headed by men, although I think that’s starting to change (although, certainly not fast enough). During my 6 years as a consultant, I have had the opportunity to meet some amazing women mentors – although would love to know more. I’m not sure how we get around the issue of mothering getting in the way of a career. As a young woman in my 20’s, I always thought my career would come first, but having a family changed that. One of the many reasons I became a consultant was to have more flexibility in my schedule, and I have been fortunate to have a good balance of family and work life – although some days are certainly better than others. Would love to continue the conversation! Keep up the good work.

    Rory · July 21, 2014 at 22:52

    Margaux and I talked about how changing attitudes of parenting may help with this issue. It is becoming increasingly common for men to take time off to raise children – which hopefully will mean that decisions about who takes the lead on raising children will become a conversation – not default to the woman.

    I was at a women in tech event the other day where women discussed the impossible choice of deciding “do I have kids, or do I start my company” – something I have never heard Steve Jobs or Mark Zucherberg talk about… Anyways I think it is a great example of how this isn’t JUST a women’s issue, it is a gender issue.

      Margaux Smith · July 22, 2014 at 00:22

      It’s definitely a much wider issue, Rory. It broke my heart a little when I read the quote I used in the blog about how one woman said the drive that has fuelled her to be the best in her career, also now fuels her desire to be a mother. Not at all saying that you can’t work hard and be an amazing mom, but that there’s something inside for some that makes them change their priorities and go all in with motherhood.

      I’m not there yet, but I wonder if I’d be like that too. You can’t give 100% of yourself to more than one thing, can you? I’m not sure, but I guess the little bit of heartbreak came from the truth in it – that it should be our choice to make, and should be an equal discussion between both partners as to who will make that decision, but it’s still a CHOICE. You have to choose which one gets the balance of your effort and attention and I bet, biologically, this choice is just harder for women, and maybe always will be.

        Beate Sørum · July 22, 2014 at 17:41

        This is precisely why we can’t wait “until we’re ready and everything falls into place”. By then, you’ll be having kids and making the priorities to give your work your all becomes all but impossible. Women have to jump on the chances more often, earlier. And then sort it out when the kid actually happens – instead of NOT jumping because it “will be difficult if/when a kid happens”.

        Also, I believe Rory is right that this will change more as attitudes towards who does child care changes. Here in Norway, we have very generous parental leave (54 weeks I think), and of those, about three months are reserved for the father. If he does not take those weeks, the leave is lost. This has led to a lot more men taking parental leave, and they are no worse at taking care of the kids than the mothers are. As this playing field levels out even more, I’m hoping more women will give even more towards their careers, wether that means starting your own business or not.

    Margaux Smith · July 22, 2014 at 00:17

    Absolutely! 5 years ago, I was the same – my career dreams didn’t even take motherhood into account. Now that I’m a bit older, I’m realising that in another 5 years, I’ll probably be at a fork in the road – ready to start a family but ALSO ready to be the boss. So I can 100% see myself choosing a flexible option instead and either being a private consultant, or working in a small agency, not at the boss. If I did start my own shop, I’d likely wait another 10 years to do it, so be 45+ by the time it happens. Nothing wrong with that, but taking a 10 years quasi-career break from your end goal is certainly something that women would likely consider more than men, and would be expected to do more than men.

Derek Glass · July 22, 2014 at 07:40

Hi Margaux, interesting post. I was just going through in my head the different agencies in Australia, and there are quite a few women who either own or started most of the agencies here.

There is of course Pareto and Flat Earth, both founded and owned by men yet they both employ lots of women in senior roles. Ask Fundraising is half owned by a woman, my business partner Amel Bendeddouche. I can honestly say Ask would never have happened if it wasn’t for her hard work and determination.

There is also Evelyn Mason, and there’s Kathy John who started Robe John. There’s Mel Jenkins who runs 2Evolve, there’s Justine Carter who runs Blendmarketing, and Justine Curtis who started Inspired Adventures. All of these women are strong role models and there are many smart and talented women in senior roles working within many charities as well.

Visibility is key. If women see other women starting agencies it will certainly inspire them to follow in their footsteps. That’s why I find it similarly frustrating that there are so few openly gay or lesbian fundraising executives working in Australia.

One of the big reasons for that are the “religious exemptions” contained in the Australian Non-Discrimination Act, which allows religious organisations to openly discriminate against gays and lesbians in their hiring of employees as well as their hiring of contractors, like agencies.

And as we all know, church-affiliated charities dominate the philanthropic sector in Australia.

These exemptions in the non-discrimination act also give religious charities the “right” to openly discriminate against women who are divorced, who have children out of wedlock, or women who have simply chosen not to get married and/or have children at all.

As long as the laws in Australia give churches the “right” to openly discriminate against gays and lesbians, the visibility of gays and lesbians in the sector will be low. I know of many gays and lesbians working in fundraising today, but I don’t dare name them here, because it might negatively impact their careers in the future, and they would have absolutely no legal recourse if that discrimination was dished out by a church affiliated charity. I can also tell you from personal experience that this kind of discrimination is openly practiced by people working for several church-affiliated charities today.

The same is true among teachers and nurses, because religious organisations also dominate the educational and health-care sectors in Australia. One’s sexual orientation should not be a factor in determining if someone is qualified to teach, to practice medicine, or consult on a fundraising program. Yet, in Australia today, that type of discrimination is not just permitted, it is actually enshrined in law.

Someday, this type of legalised bigotry will get tossed onto the scrap heap of history where it belongs, but until that happens, if you’re gay, lesbian, divorced or a single mother, you ARE a target for discrimination in the charity-sector, and I think that is really, really sad, and reflects very poorly on the sector as a whole.

    Margaux Smith · July 22, 2014 at 23:31

    My goodness, I find that shocking!! I had no idea that was the case :( I’ve been in Australia for a year, but I’m not really part of any network other than my immediate colleagues, so what I experience tends to be very insular, I find. I’m encouraged by the beginning of your message, and the prominent female fundraisers I hadn’t yet heard about. Thank you for sharing.

Meredith Niles · July 23, 2014 at 01:10

Really thought-provoking post — thank you for sharing. I find it difficult to generalise about the experience of other women, so only feel comfortable speaking from my own personal experience, and I have always viewed my career and “extra-curricular” pursuits through the lens of impact: how can I have the greatest impact (including within my family) with the time I have available? When I think about the kind of impact I want to make in my career, it has literally never occurred to me that that would be from starting my own agency. The responsibility of having to employ and manage staff and constantly pitch for enough business to keep them all gainfully employed is not a challenge that I could imagine myself seeking out. All that management feels like it could become a giant distraction! However, I could well imagine a day (far in the future — I’m quite happy where I am now!) when I could imagine that the impact I could create would be greater by choosing my own projects and having more control over my time to enable me to focus on all the areas of my life where I want to have impact. So major kudos to those (women and men!) who decide that owning and running a successful agency is the right path for them — I am sure it is very hard work! – but I personally wouldn’t necessarily see a relatively smaller number of women choosing that particular course as cause for concern in itself. I think it’s more about looking at the representation of women in the round — within the rank and file, among senior leadership, on boards, on speaking panels, etc.. — and seeing whether we’re having the influence and recognition that we deserve relative to our contributions. I’ve found this to be a sector and profession that is very welcoming to women and where it is possible to have a decent degree of work-life balance, and for that, I am very grateful.

I think it’s also worth pointing out that the organisation which I think has arguably had the greatest impact on UK fundraising in the last decade, JustGiving, was founded by two women: Anne-Marie Huby and Zarine Kharas. Top that, fundraising fellas!

    Meredith Niles · July 23, 2014 at 01:42

    Also, as far as “balls” go, I have always been much more impressed by the number that so many women manage to keep in the air at any one time than by any other set! ;)

      Margaux Smith · July 24, 2014 at 03:34

      Haha I love this comment!

      I totally agree though. I can see myself having more impact on actually raising funds and on my own priorities by being a private consultant, but as someone who works in an agency, I think it’s hard for younger women to see so many men as the bosses (and very, very few men in junior positions). It makes it that much harder for us to picture ourselves in that position.

      But like you and others have said, there are a lot of agencies actually founded and run by women, and that’s why I’m so glad I’ve started talking about it. There’s so much more out there than I knew :)

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