Nonprofits’ Glass Ceiling Has Very Real Cost: Poll

Poll finds women confident about their ability to lead charitable groups

Seventy-two percent of women under 34 who work at nonprofits say they aspire to a leadership role. Seventy-two percent of women under 34 who work at nonprofits say they aspire to a leadership role.

It’s the old story out of the for-profit world. The largely male board members of a charitable group meet to hire a new leader — and choose someone who looks like themselves.

This behavior has costs. Nonprofits with few women on the board miss out on donations from affluent women and hobble their missions, a new poll commissioned by The Chronicle of Philanthropy and NYU’s George H. Heyman J. Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising found.

Harris Interative in March surveyed 644 women who worked full-time for nonprofit organizations. Sixty-two percent of the respondents said they had worked in the nonprofit sector for 10 years or more.

The poll revealed that 59% of respondents at nonprofits with at least $25 million in assets said their organizations would be more effective at advancing their mission if they had more women on the board. Another 58% said their organizations’ fundraising efforts among women would be more effective.

Seventy-one percent of women from large nonprofits said their organization’s chief executive was a man, and 69% said their board was “predominantly male.”

Forty percent of women at large charities said their organizations did not try as hard to identify and solicit donations from affluent women as they did from men, leaving significant money on the table. However, 36% said wealthy female donors received the same respect from their nonprofits as wealthy male donors.

Indiana University’s Debra Mesch, director of the Women’s Philanthropy Institute, told The Chronicle her own research had found that female donors tended to be more loyal than their male counterparts and were often better at asking their networks for donations and other resources.

“We certainly see that in many studies there are financial gains for organizations when more women are on the board,” Mesch said.

Reaching for the Top

The poll found that women were confident about their ability to lead a nonprofit. Fifty-seven percent of respondents who were not already chief executives said they wanted to lead a nonprofit.

Seventy-two percent of all the women under age 34 said they wanted to be a leader. Ambition decreased with age, with only 30% of those 55 or older aspiring to leadership roles.

Of those who did not aspire to the job, 55% cited the time commitment, and 44% said it was stress involved in leading a nonprofit.

A mere 7% of the women surveyed believed they were not capable of assuming a top leadership position.

Older female workers were not shy about asking for raises. More than half of respondents 55 and older said they felt comfortable asking for raises, compared with just 41% of women 35 and younger.

Nearly 70% said they would prefer to receive more pay rather than have more time off.

Women Fill the Ranks

The bias for hiring male leaders is not necessarily insidious. Jan Masaoka, chief executive of the California Association of Nonprofits, told The Chronicle that people who make hiring decisions tend to prefer candidates who are like themselves. Male board members are more likely to hire men.

“Boards will often spend a lot of time on the desired profile of the type of person they want in terms of skills and professional background,” Masaoka said. “Then they’ll turn around and hire the people they like and they ignore the profile.”

Something different is going on in the lower ranks of nonprofits. Women now make up 82% of workers at small nonprofits, 74% at midsize groups and 59% at big organizations, according to Naomi Levine, executive director of the Heyman Center.

Levine saw this as a positive development, but wondered whether there may be a downside.

“I worry that the loss of the men in this field is not a healthy one,” she told The Chronicle. “Why are so many women attracted to this field and why are so many men leaving it? These are questions nonprofit organizations should begin to discuss.”

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