News and analysis
April 28, 2014

Lack of Women in Top Roles Hinders Nonprofits, Female Nonprofit Workers Say

Nonprofits, especially the largest ones, are missing out on donations from women and hurting their missions by not putting more females in board and leadership jobs, according to a new poll of nearly 650 women who work at nonprofits.

Many women have ambition to get to the top: Fifty-seven percent of those who were not already CEOs said they aspire to lead a nonprofit.

But the poll also found that of those who don’t want the job, it isn’t for reasons many people think—like fundraising, working with the board, or other duties. Instead, 55 percent said it was the time commitment, and 44 percent said it was stress involved in leading a nonprofit.

The poll, commissioned by The Chronicle and New York University’s George H. Heyman Jr. Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising, found that:

  • Forty-four percent of female nonprofit workers think their organization favors men over equally qualified women for chief leadership positions.
  • Forty percent of women at large nonprofits, groups with $25-million or more in assets, said their organization did not put as much effort into identifying and soliciting affluent women as it does men and as a result their organizations were losing money that could have been donated to their causes. Thirty-six percent said wealthy female donors were given the same respect as well-to-do men.

The survey of 644 women who work full-time for nonprofit organizations was conducted by Harris Poll last month. Sixty-two percent of the women who took the poll said they have worked in the nonprofit world for 10 years or more

Nothing Insidious

Debra Mesch, director of the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at Indiana University, said the lack of attention given to women as donors or board members was consistent with research she has conducted. “They are not considered as major donors or perceived to be the decision makers.”

That’s a mistake, says Ms. Mesch, who studies women in philanthropy, because women tend to be much more loyal donors than men and often better at asking their networks of women 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,” she says.

Male board members, she says, often say they want to include more female trustees at their organizations. But she is not convinced they are taking steps to recruit them.

“I don’t think it’s anything insidious, that they don’t want women on the board,” she says. “I think [male board members] just don’t understand what it takes and why it’s important and how to do it.”

Similar biases persist in choosing female leaders, say experts. People who make hiring decisions, says Jan Masaoka, chief executive of the California Association of Nonprofits, tend to gravitate toward candidates who are like them. So when the board is largely male, the leaders those boards choose are more likely to be 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,” says Ms. Masaoka, author of The Nonprofit’s Guide to Human Resources. “Then they’ll turn around and hire the people they like and they ignore the profile.”

While men lead most large organizations, the number of women working at nonprofits has increased over the past decade. Now women make up 82 percent of workers at small organizations, 74 percent at midsize groups, and 59 percent at big ones, says Naomi Levine, executive director of the Heyman Center.

“While I am delighted that so many women have entered the nonprofit world and the prospects of them moving up the leadership ladder are real,” says Ms. Levine, “I worry that the loss of the men in this field is not a healthy one. 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.”

Aspiring to Lead

While women may face discrimination from employers, they are not lacking in confidence about their ability to hold the top job. Only 7 percent of those polled said they didn’t think they could do the job. Younger women were the most ambitious of those in the survey. Seventy-two percent of all the women under 34 said they wanted to be a leader, while only 30 percent of those 55 or older said the same.

Women are also plenty willing to ask for raises, especially if they are older. More than half of women 55 and older said they felt comfortable asking for raises, compared with just 41 percent of women 35 and younger.

The women in the survey also rejected a commonly held view that women would rather have more time off than more pay. Nearly 70 percent said they would prefer more pay.

See the infographic below for highlights from the survey.

More information about the survey will be included in the next issue of The Chronicle, to be sent to subscribers on Thursday and available online.

Send an e-mail to Maria Di Mento.