Talking Whole Family Work with Donors

For three years, through the Women’s Funding Network, supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, four women’s foundations have engaged in policy and direct service work focused on whole family approaches.  These four funds – the Women’s Fund of Greater Birmingham, Southern Arizona Women’s Foundation, Women’s Foundation of Colorado, and Texas Women’s Foundation, came together in spring 2020 to reflect on how they talk with donors, both prospective and existing, about their whole family work.

Whole family, two-generation work offers donors a compelling reason to invest in women’s funds, community foundations, and through donor-directed giving.  Learning how to talk about whole family work, and with which donors, is important for foundations building out a whole family investment focus.

The conversation below offers insights into how to talk to existing and potential donors about the work embodied by whole family strategies.

Q: What are donors most interested in hearing about generally?

Women’s Foundation of Colorado: We always try to use a very donor centric approach that is tailored to individual donors and what brought them to the foundation.  It might be their own personal experience navigating their life as a single mom, so we might talk about innovative approaches to supporting single mothers.  Or for others, girls’ education wasn’t invested in as much as their brother’s, so we might talk about how investing in education improves outcomes for the whole family. It works well for WFCO to know what a donor is most interested in and how their passions connect with our work.  Two Gen work is so broad and integrated, that we are able to make those connections.

Texas Women’s Foundation: We find two-generation is intertwined with everything; we don’t lead with it, like WFCO we are donor focused and we go from their interests.

Women’s Foundation of Southern Arizona: We are also donor centric, but we’ve found for major donors they are often interested in higher level conversations on how we are making systems change through advocacy, which is beyond our normal foundation work around granting.   That’s how we can have those thoughtful conversations around two-gen, particularly around our advocacy work.  We find the major donors are really interested in that conversation and we can lead that conversation with those donors with more of a two gen lens, while with smaller donors it tends to focus on grantmaking.

Women’s Fund of Greater Birmingham: or a long time we talked about our two generation work in conjunction with collaboration and getting programs to work together on systemic level.  And here, storytelling is required.  For example, we brought non-profits together to work to provide seamless services for the entire family at one spot.  And we’ve found it’s better to say – “here is the East Lake Initiative providing housing, and Hope Inspired who does job training, and they are doing that all together in one spot.”  That helps make it very real and concrete for donors.   Similarly, if we are writing a fundraising letter, or in a 1-1 ask, we don’t just tell Monique’s story, we tell Monique’s story and her children’s story.

Q: Does that resonate with new or existing donors more?

Southern Arizona: Most are major donors who have given in smaller amounts, and when we explain what two-generation work is, and our advocacy work, donors have doubled or tripled what they give.  I am passionate about the work, and they can see I believe in it, and that’s why they give.

Birmingham: You attract the donors to the passion you have.   We are now passionate about systems change and advocacy and that’s where the donors coming in are now focused.

Q: How do you frame gender equity?

Southern Arizona: We’ve found that the advocacy work we are doing, that Amalia has been taking to the next level is very interesting and appealing to most of the donors we talk with – it’s changing the system, moving the needle in a very powerful way.  There is often more interest than in our traditional grantmaking, because it is at scale.  We are working across the aisle to introduce bills that will benefit women in Southern Arizona and statewide and impact women in a real way that appeals to donors.

Colorado: Our tagline is “women thriving, Colorado rising.”  We bring our gender equity frame that when women are doing better we are all doing better.  And in this [COVID] crisis women need to be centered in sustainable equitable recovery — returning to normal isn’t good enough. The crisis has highlighted the inequities and way they make our entire community vulnerable.  We have so much evidence that women re-invest in their families and communities at higher rates than men, that more diverse teams are better for business – qw have many ways to show that investing in women and more equitable opportunities makes our families, communities, businesses in our communities and our state better in every facet.

When we put women at the center we are all going to be better.

Arizona: Gender equity isn’t well-received here.  But we’ve learned from our writing fellowship of women, that show, don’t tell, is most effective.  In conversations with donors we know that everything we do is about gender equity even if we don’t use those words – it’s where are we making the world better, easier, more transformative for women. 

Birmingham: Alabama is a similar place sometimes. Melanie tells story about a foundation leader who used the word “justice” and folks at the rotary table got nervous.  We do use the word equity intentionally and see it as an opportunity to use and educate donors. The word is not well-understood here, and there is a real opportunity that serves dual purpose.  We usually say we are about equity and use a gender lens and a racial lens.

Texas: We are about “stronger women and stronger communities.”  We ‘ve always lead with equity and then we pull in everything else, including racial equity, and that allows us to bring in the two-gen work – if women are doing well than their communities are doing well. So we lead with equity and then intertwine two generation and how it benefits everyone as well.

Q: How do you use data in your donor conversations? Storytelling is one form; do you also use hard data?

Colorado: We are identifying the women who participate in direct service programming, and then also the family members impacted by their opportunities, which really triples that number, so donors can see that investments in women have impacts that have a ripple effect to their families.

Texas: We use both kinds of data to show impact.  Sometimes a story is much more impactful than hard data – it really depends on who the audience is.

Q: How does “whole family” or “two-generation” resonate with donors? Or are there other words that open doors?

Colorado: We use ”holistic, whole family approach” for women and their families to thrive and prosper.  We describe how we support women and moving forward – making sure describe how whole family is doing well and moving forward.  If a mom is trying to complete a certificate program and is taking the next step in her career but everything is falling apart for their kids, it doesn’t work.  Our work makes sure Mom is set up for long-term success and family needs are met so they can move forward together for long-term economic stability and security — that is our goal and vision.

People understand what we are saying if we use more simple direct language.  When we talk two generation donors don’t know how it compares to another acronym.   But the approach resonates even if the acronym doesn’t.

Southern Arizona: Two generation feels like inside jargon.  We look for a way to talk about it in a more holistic way.  It’s really about raising families out of poverty.

Texas: We’ve had internal conversations about what resonates with donors.  For us, it’s more of the whole family, the whole unit – when we break it down and explain that when a family is whole from mom down to the little one, then everyone is good and the community is good.  Two gen is still in there, but explained in a different way.  If a donor has an issue they are focused on, like child care, we can talk about how quality child care makes a mother feel better – then it’s easy to bring in two-generation work.  We always have the opportunity to explain it.

Birmingham: We lead with economic opportunity and poverty disruption.   The more people are engaged, the more you can bring out two-generation work. Sometimes, with those who are deeply interested in the work, we use the gears graphic from Ascend.  For us, it’s important to talk about “entire family,” because “whole family” falls on some ears as the opposite of  “broken family” and we want to steer clear of that thinking.

Arizona: We’ve found with our grantees that asking specific, bite-sized questions about two generation work helps make it real. How do you amplify family voice?  How do you help all members of the family?  In the same way with donors, turning the conversation into a very tangible, practical one can help them understand the approach.

Women’s Funding Network: To summarize, your approach is to start where the donor is, and then you can pull the two generation threads through the conversation using whole/entire family language to describe how the work unfolds, and to help donors understand that those threads are important because without them the work doesn’t have the same impact.

Colorado: We are confident that the two-generation alignment is there with any group, family foundation or individual considering funding the work we are doing.  The conversation always starts with understanding their interests and priorities.  The work of the Women’s Foundation is so focused on whole family – not just as workers, but in their full range of interests outside of work and childrearing.  We know the connections are there, we just have to listen first to what they care about to understand what will resonate. 

Women’s Funding Network: We’ve found similar challenges with other funders, even if they are funding in the mobility or equity space. It can be a very nuanced conversation and donor-centric as well – that to attract funder partners we need to go with what they are interested in.  It’s a parallel conversation to that with individual donors.