Interview with Diana Small: New Research about Giving By and For Women

By WA, South Sound Admin posted 03-27-2018 09:53 PM

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AFP South Sound recently had the pleasure of re-connecting with Diana Small, a former member and administrator for our chapter.
Diana has been up to exciting things, including research that was recently released in a full report by the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University (IU): Giving By and For Women: Understanding High-Net-Worth Donor's Support for Women and Girls

Read on to find out more about this important research and Diana's experience being part of it. 
AFP South Sound (AFPSS): So tell us about this research. What's significant about it? 

Diana Small (DS): Building on previous research done through the Women's Philanthropy Institute at IU, this research looks at a very specific group of women that represent a donor we can expect to see more and more of in the future: wealthy women who support women and girls' causes.

We interviewed 23 women who have made gifts of $1M or more to women's and girls' issues. We wanted to find out what is unique about these women in their path to these mega-gifts, what their motivations are, and what they want to achieve with their gifts. We identified a pathway that these women took on their way to making their million dollar commitment:

  1. Learning about philanthropy at a young age; 
  2. Making small, but meaningful gifts; 
  3. Coming in to wealth; 
  4. Educating themselves about philanthropy; 
  5. And making the million-dollar gift.
I think the key here is the education piece. Many of these women talked about the huge responsibility they felt to do good with their wealth and give it away as responsibly as they could. That could mean different things to each person, but most women discussed a period of learning and research in an effort to be as responsible as they could with their gifts.
We also found that this group of women are more likely to take risks (which counters well-documented research that women tend to more risk-adverse than men):

  • They desire to fund issues at the systemic, or up-stream, level and therefore desire to very strategic with their giving; 
  • They fund in the area of women's and girls' issues because they have had experiences that are uniquely female; 
  • And they believe that investing in women is key to solving a number of other issues, ranging from climate change to poverty to gender parity. They really see the connections between all these areas and think that funding in this area is key to addressing many of the largest problems we face as a global community. 
Interestingly, many of the women had adverse reactions to being referred to as philanthropists and some said it conjured up this patriarchal notion of detached check-writing that they were fighting against.

AFPSS: How did you get involved in this project?

DS: My professor, Elizabeth Dale, who is also the lead researcher on this project asked me to be a research assistant — simple as that!

AFPSS: What was your role? What was it like to be part of a study like this?

DS: As a research assistant, my primary role was to review the transcripts of the interviews, code and analyze the transcripts (which means you use a fancy software to group themes and findings together — the software helps organize the data so you can see what is common across all the interviews).

Then, I was asked to weigh in with my thoughts and do some writing for some sections. I wasn't expecting to be asked for my ideas and to write sections of the report! I am thrilled that a good number of my original ideas and writing made it to the final version of the report. 
Initially, being part of this work was intimidating. I kept thinking, "I'm not smart enough to participate in Gates-funded, first-of-its-kind research!"

But then, as the research got going, my fascination took over those feelings of intimidation. It was an amazing experience to hear these stories, to learn about why these women believe so strongly in the power of women and girls, and to think about the potential for this kind of philanthropy.

As a member of the research team, I just went for it — said what I thought and put forth what stood out to me. Ultimately, it was a growing and confidence-building experience. 

AFPSS: Has this research changed your view of philanthropy? If so, how? 

Definitely! For starters, I had no idea that a lot of these women's philanthropy groups existed. Through these groups, like Women Moving Millions and Women's Donor Network, women who want to make a difference have a network or cohort of like-minded women to mentor them and challenge their thinking, and to create a safe-space for the very vulnerable, but empowering task of giving away a million dollars. These kinds of groups are essential to empowering other women to do something they've maybe felt compelled to do, but didn't know where to start.
Now I am thinking about how to make sure women who want to give smaller amounts know that these types of groups exist. If more women knew about these groups, the amount of resources coming into the sector could be game-changing.
Additionally, I am really energized by the idea of strategic, systems-level giving that is intended not only to lift up women and girls, but our whole global community. I just love that. Now I am always applying this concept to all kinds of things. 

AFPSS: Who should read this report more deeply? Is this research just relevant to major gift officers?

It's certainly for major gift officers — especially those who work at organizations that support women and girls. But really, this research is relevant for all fundraisers and for anyone who wants to understand how the philanthropic landscape is changing. Women are gaining more wealth and many want to see a different world. This research is about how one group of women are going about that. The research is for women who are feeling like they want to start giving but don't know where to start. It's also for anyone who thinks girls rule and want another quiver in their arrow to argue that point.

As qualitative research, this work can't be generalized to another group of people, but as a fundraiser, you can definitely read this and consider how it might help you understand where your donor is coming from or what they are looking to achieve. This is especially true for identity-based giving. 

AFPSS: Does this mark the beginnings of a career in research for you? What are your plans next? 

Well, it has certainly prompted me to ask about how I can stay involved in research with just a master's degree. I'm also asking people about PhD programs — I can't believe I am even saying that! What's definitely next is finishing my master's program. Then, we'll see!


Diana Small has spent the last 10 years in the nonprofit sector and fundraising. She earned her B.A. from the University of Puget Sound in 2008, after which she started her six-year career at Goodwill of the Olympics and Rainier Region where she worked in the Foundation. She then went on to earn her graduate certificate in Philanthropic Studies from the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University and is now finishing her master's degree in Nonprofit Management from Seattle University. Diana currently works as an Account Manager for The Better Fundraising Co. and enjoys helping small- and medium-sized nonprofits raise more money by writing stronger appeal letters, crafting reports and newsletters, and adopting best practices in fundraising. In addition to her love of fundraising, Diana is also interested in understanding philanthropy through ethical and gender lenses. Diana is originally from the Washington, DC area and currently lives in Tacoma, WA with her dog, Finley. She can be reached at

To access and download the full report, including the following infographic, visit the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy webpage dedicated to this research.