Launching a Women’s Giving Circle

Posted on 04/15/2018

Women are earning more than ever—and taking a larger role in charitable giving. Research shows that a $10,000 rise in a woman’s income is associated with a more than 5% increase in total household giving. According to the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at the Indiana University Lilly School of Philanthropy, women with the top 25% of income gave 156% more than men in the same category. Even in households where the husband is the major breadwinner, women have the stronger say as to how charitable funds should be allocated. But cultivating the next generation of female philanthropists requires a strategic approach, one that appeals to their desire for personal connection with both fellow donors and with the causes that they support.

In an effort to engage more female alumni in philanthropy, Oregon State University (OSU) established its Women’s Giving Circle in 2003. Since that time, the Giving Circle has expanded its capacity and focus, raising a total of over $920,000 to fund university grants that are relevant to women. Projects include a STEM academy that recruits undergraduate women and minority students to work with underrepresented youth, and a series of financial literacy sessions for freshmen with minimal money management experience. Their flagship effort has been a multi-year pledge to support the recently-opened Beth Ray Center for Academic Support, which provides programs and services to benefit all students and aligns with the Giving Circle’s emphasis on helping others get a leg up.

Much of the Giving Circle’s success can be attributed to careful listening and an open-minded approach to donor ideas and interests. The OSU Foundation initially structured the group based on research studies and focus groups, but feedback from alumni and other stakeholders—including the group’s steering committee—helped refine the Group’s priorities and direction. One major challenge was finding the giving level that would most incentivize donors to participate; $100 annually proved to be too low, while $1,000 was deemed too steep of a contribution for some. Currently, the minimum commitment is a $250 annual pledge for donors under age 40, and $500 for women 40 and over, with 30% of their members making a gift of $1000 or greater to the program. While the Giving Circle has grown from 25 charter members to about 125, the membership remains fluid, with some donors moving onto other OSU fundraising efforts and others coming on board through contact via peers or interest in a particular initiative.

Another big incentive for donors is the Circle’s hands-on approach, which studies show is more important to female donors than to their male counterparts. Members vote on every program to be funded. Each year, the OSU Provost invites campus organizations to submit grant proposals. In addition to site visits with applicants, Giving Circle members prepare reports of their findings, which along with the grants themselves, provide the in-depth information and details needed to make informed decisions.

With twice-yearly meetings including an annual awards event where grant recipients make presentations about their projects, the Giving Circle has a social component as well. These functions are often intimate gatherings held in member’s homes, allowing attendees to engage with other members while also connecting with current students who will benefit from their support. Giving Circle members stay in touch through regular emails and plan to expand their social media presence to further engage younger members.

OSU’s Women’s Giving Circle is harnessing the power of an important—and growing—donor segment in a way that resonates with their interests and connects them with their impact. And in the end, that’s strategic engagement that builds a solid foundation for long-term support.

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