PERSPECTIVE: Is Philanthropy Women’s Work?

by Mary Cahalane The numbers

In Connecticut, the nonprofit sector employs almost 14% of our workforce. Connecticut nonprofits generate $33.4 billion in revenues annually. Individuals in Connecticut contribute $2.7 billion a year. The sector is important to our state.

Recently, I wrote about the struggles of balancing work and life – especially for those of us in the nonprofit world.

Stress is a real problem in the sector. And it’s getting in the way of our organizations’ missions.

PageLines- CTperspective.jpgThe New York Times article that inspired my original post looked at the problem of stress in our lives.

The author suggested as a society, we’ve separated caregiving and work. Work we prioritize; caregiving is sidelined. And the need for both in our lives puts a great deal of pressure on the people who are caregivers – mainly women.

The impact on women in the nonprofit sector

Our approach to caregiving versus work is also holding women back. The need to juggle so many responsibilities at work and at home becomes impossible.

Women in Connecticut make up almost 70% of private nonprofit salaried workers. Yet median wages for women are $46,004 compared to $60,168 for men.

Nationally, it’s the same: nonprofit workers are also overwhelmingly women. Yet men fill most of the leadership roles – particularly in larger organizations.

The impact on nonprofit organizations

Dan Pallotta wrote a piece for The Daily Beast 6 years ago, Gender Trouble at Nonprofits. One paragraph really whacked me in the face.quote

Charity is not allowed to use the same tools as business because society subconsciously regards it as female, and discriminates against it the same way it has historically discriminated against women. Charity is subservient. The for-profit sector heads to the office every day to do the real business of the world, while charity stays at home and dabbles in idealism and sentiment. Even the governing structure of charity is patriarchal; business people direct nonprofit staff—seven in 10 of whom are women—from the perches of their board seats.


We have a leadership problem

Here’s the irony of it all, though. When you survey people about the most important leadership qualities, they’re the ones most associated with women.

Diversity is needed to build a strong organization. We applaud it in theory, but struggle with it in practice. That’s not lip service, that’s fact. Surveys point to a need for the qualities women score more highly on. These traits include “expressive”, “plans for the future”, “reasonable”, “loyal”, “flexible” and “patient”.

Why the disconnect? An article in the Harvard Business Review talks about second generation bias – unconscious, unintentional, but still present.

It’s a trap for women: men who score high on likeability are also seen as more competent leaders. For men, the two leadership traits are complementary. Women are seen as less competent if they’re more likable.

This infographic from TCC Group makes the problem of gender diversity in our sector quite clear.

Double whammy?

Nonprofit organizations must work twice as hard to care for the needs of the world. And as Pallotta says, they’re denied many of the tools used in the for-profit world. Somehow, we’re supposed to innovate without investment. We’re supposed to care for people while not caring for our employees.

Nonprofit work is seen as less important – even though it’s desperately needed. (And not likely to be done by the private sector.)

That’s bad enough. But then within our sector, women are still fighting for a place at the grown-ups’ table.

So what can we do?

We can mentor. We can push for flexibility. We can be conscious of bias when we hire or promote. We can model kinder, gentler organizations.

But what’s needed to create real change is leadership.

We need leaders with those qualities usually identified with women.

We need the loudest voices to be those who value empathy, vulnerability, loyalty, flexibility and patience.

This isn’t only about what’s just.

It’s about what’s best for the sector and for the world. It’s about effectiveness.

We’re killing ourselves to save the world.

Doesn’t that mean we’re doing it wrong?


Mary Cahalane is a nonprofit fundraising consultant, and author of the blog Hands-On Fundraising.  She has more than 30 years of experience with community-based organizations, major regional theaters and a variety of nonprofit organizations in Connecticut and beyond. 

PERSPECTIVE commentaries by contributing writers appear each Sunday on Connecticut by the Numbers.