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The long road from tea and daffodils for women in philanthropy

Once seen as an altruistic destiny, raising money for notable causes is a business in and of itself, and women are running the show

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In the early 1950s, a group of female Canadian Cancer Society volunteers decorated their fundraising tea table with daffodils to brighten the atmosphere. When one of the volunteers shared the idea with Lady Flora Eaton, her boss at Eaton’s department store, the women saw an opportunity. Lady Eaton decided to host a tea party at the store, using the daffodils as symbols of hope. About 700 women attended the event in the spring of 1954, and a moment in Canadian history was established.

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But the event holds more currency than a sweet heritage story for women in philanthropy. It has in it the kernels of what is emerging today: a transformation of the giving instincts or expectations placed on women into a savvy business approach.

These days, women in the non-profit sector are merging their skills as innovators with their desire to reach people in need. Some lend their time and fundraising expertise to non-profits full-time, planning gala events or community drives; others donate their art, photography or fashion pieces to charitable raffles.

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Then there are women who do all of that and run their own agencies that help non-profits promote their causes and improve their brand visibility.

“Lady Eaton’s ‘Daffodil Teas’ in the 1950s marked a pioneering moment in the history of women and philanthropy,” said Andrea Seale, chief executive officer at the Canadian Cancer Society.

“Through community building, Lady Eaton encouraged women to excel as leaders in philanthropy. They raised funds for cancer research, championed important health issues, and inspired others to give and get involved. We see this vision continue today, as so many of Canada’s non-profits, and the organizations who support them, are led by women. At the Canadian Cancer Society, we are proud to have a strong female presence in our staff and volunteer workforce – nearly 70 per cent of our executive leadership team comprises talented women.”

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Recent studies published by the Women’s Philanthropy Institute (WPI) and Statistics Canada suggest that women may be more giving and charitable than men, and it is difficult to tell whether this is a natural phenomenon or an expectation of their gender. While women in Lady Eaton’s era were expected to be entertainers, supporters of their husbands and volunteers for charitable causes, it did not prevent them from solidifying the practice as something more than a supporting role. The impetus has evolved into today’s philanthropic women, many of whom have parlayed charitable work to opening agencies that govern outreach for different not-for-profits.

“Certainly back in the day, ‘charity work’ or ‘volunteering’ was an extension of a woman’s role in society,” said Paula Roberts, CEO of HALO Brand Leadership, a consultancy she founded six years ago, specializing in not-for-profit branding and fundraising strategy.

“As was the case for most women in the ’50s and earlier, they were supporters, a reflection and extension of their husband’s or family’s success, versus pioneers establishing new frontiers and bringing their own vision to life. I would say that the idea of making the world better for all is decidedly female inspired – executed by women and men but now led by a delightfully disproportionate number of determined female changemakers.”

As they changed the game, historically, some women may have felt hesitant to speak of charitable work as something they would want to invest in as a business. Whether working in a career as a leader in fundraising for a major organization, or as a consultant who helps other organizations improve their brand exposure, the idea of making money in this sector has been something men behind corporate enterprises have been applauded for, whereas women have been assumed to be natural volunteers, say those in the sector.

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The idea of making the world better for all is decidedly female inspired – executed by women and men but now led by a delightfully disproportionate number of determined female changemakers.

Paula Roberts, HALO Brand Leadership

A 2015 WPI study indicated that men are more likely to give money through their workplace, and lean toward political campaign funding, whereas women choose causes that match their personal interests and their sense of empathy.

Statistics Canada data suggest women are donating more often than men, and that men are donating greater overall sums, though Statscan notes larger donations may be related to higher incomes. Canadian donors are most likely to be women 35 years old and older, with younger women keener to donate material items such as food and toys.

But pushing beyond gender stereotypes, women are going beyond donating and volunteering to approach the sector with business savvy.

In 2011, when she became president of the Junior League of Toronto and also started her marketing consultancy, BrandEQ Group Inc., Nadine Spencer noticed a more pronounced change in women feeling less tentative around merging charity with business.

“There is a certain ethos of volunteerism and altruism that surrounds charity work, with many people feeling that if they are gaining financially, then the work they are doing isn’t truly altruistic,” said Spencer, who is also the president of the Black Business and Professional Association.

“That is okay for some people, particularly those who are independently wealthy or have other jobs that support their lifestyles, and who are looking for ways to give back to their communities with no expectation of compensation. But when humanitarian and community-building work becomes your entire focus, there eventually comes a time when you no longer have time for other ‘work.’ At this point, it only makes sense to make your charity work also be your source of income.”

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Spencer says she has seen numerous women establish and run philanthropic businesses over the past decade, and that a marked shift in business parallels and charitable governance have matched the general shift in society. Her insights match a recent Imagine Canada study, which suggested that as pay gaps have narrowed slowly between men and women, so, too, have women’s desire and ability to put their money toward meaningful endeavours.

The report found that, between 1985 and 2014, the value of charitable donations claimed by Canadian women soared from $1.1 billion to $3.5 billion.

“A good example is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation,” said Spencer. “Everyone knows he made the money, but her name is on the door and she has carved out her own role, which I hope continues.”

Photographer Tamara Bahry sees her colleagues as unapologetic examples of philanthropists. In her three decades as a fundraiser and artist, she has lent endless hours to countless organizations, including Covenant House, Sick Kids and The National Ballet of Canada. She also donates her photography to various events.

“I see more self-made women are being very visible and relational about their philanthropy, which means they don’t want to just give to an organization, they want to be involved within that organization,” said Bahry, who founded and directs HART (Human Anti-Trafficking Response Team), which recently partnered with Women’s College Hospital to develop programs for sex trafficking survivors.

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“I think that women have become increasingly confident that the pursuit of [business] doesn’t need to compromise the values that drove them to their philanthropical passion in the first place. And as more women develop significant brands and businesses, I think there is a realization that business itself can be noble, and that charity and enterprise can co-exist quite comfortably.”

If the idea that women should be inherently giving has been imposed on them for generations, women have seamlessly parlayed that expectation into something both compassionate and rewarding.

“I don’t think Lady Eaton and her successor thought about branding in the way we do,” added Spencer. “She and other pioneers saw a need and did something about it. It wasn’t a brand or a strategy; it was a missing piece, a wrong she set out to right and it has stayed with us to this day. That is the essence of women’s contribution to philanthropy – there is a problem, there is a need; What can we do about it?”