Carving a niche in the “old boys’ club”: opening dialogue on female foundation leaders’ lived experiences

Wednesday 8 December 2021

by Morgan Brooke-Johnson

Despite women occupying a central role in the history of philanthropy, gender has remained an under-utilised lens in philanthropy research. A particular blind spot has been female leadership in philanthropy. Distilling primary data of a pilot study exploring the lived experiences of female leaders in UK philanthropic foundations, we can see a vocational potpourri and a diverse range of performative selves emerging.

‘Jacqueline of All Trades’: female foundation leaders’ eclectic roles

While leadership roles in general are notoriously eclectic(1), female foundation leaders face additional complexities. Involving a diversity of operational, strategic and project-based endeavours, participants conceptualised their role as: ‘a little bit of everything’, a ‘complex operation’ and incredibly ‘hands on’. As a vocational potpourri, philanthropic leadership was portrayed as a combination of high-level management, including strategy and operational ‘firefighting’, and sector specific tasks, such as trustee governance and grant making decisions.

Participants also drew distinctions between the philanthropic and seemingly private sector characteristics of their roles, suggesting that balancing an inward governance and an outward grantmaking function leaves them feeling ‘torn between the two’. As a result of this role divergence, the notion of performativity emerged as a key theme, with participants suggesting that there are ‘a number of different selves’ they must bring to their position. Being a ‘Jacqueline of all Trades’ is thus not only a role for women philanthropic leaders, but also a personification of the multiple performances they are required to enact to meet vocational expectations. What is left unanswered so far, however, is whether this is illustrative of just women philanthropic leaders or philanthropic leadership in general, providing scope for further research.

‘Sitting in both Camps, Belonging to Neither’: difficulties of balancing power parity personas

In addition to balancing a multifarious role, female philanthropic leaders also recognised the role of power in their role conceptualisation. Whilst the findings are largely synonymous with the wider literature on women’s leadership, the unique context of the philanthropic sector led to the discovery of a leadership ‘power parity persona’. Relying on metaphors to illustrate their experiences, some female leaders suggested they were ‘conductors’, ‘dancers’ or ‘filter paper’, demonstrating a dynamic persona that must act as a medium through which power flows. Other participants conceptualised their role as a ‘buffer’, ‘conduit’ and, on bad days, ‘blancmange’, where it is their role to distil information and absorb power dynamics between the board, employees and grantees. Whether dynamic or absorbent, the power parity persona for female foundation leaders further points to the performative elements of their roles and the perception that they need to sit in all camps yet belong to none. If so, their lived experiences could be understood as an incessant balancing act where they are required to juggle a complex dichotomous, and on occasion trichotomous, power dynamic of foundation stakeholders. Further research is needed to unpack this concept and understand if this is unique to women philanthropic leaders or evident across the sector more broadly.

‘Luckiness or Pluckiness’: serendipity as a perceived career chronicle of female foundation leaders

In the literature on female leadership progression, reference to serendipity is highlighted as a recurring theme(2). This, too, was found across interviews in the current pilot study. Every participant pointed to a perceived relevance of luck in their respective rise to their leadership role. They described their promotion as ‘fluky’, ‘serendipitous’ and highlighted an element of ‘right place, right time’. While this finding resonates with informal recruitment practices present in the nonprofit sector(3), it was perceived as quite negative. Participants suggested that sectoral patterns of ‘giving jobs’ could lead to a perceived lack of legitimacy, and given that recruitment can be ‘a bit of a bungled process’ it can be a cause of distress. Thus, the question arises as to whether stronger recruitment practices in the foundation world, and addressing perceived elements of luck, could be beneficial.

‘Looking Backwards to Move Forwards’: female foundation leaders’ reflections on improving their working contexts

The final theme emerging from this project touches on the necessity of engaging those with lived experiences in the area to inform future research agendas. When reflecting on their past, female foundation leaders identified barriers to inclusion, such as parental responsibilities, imposter syndrome and a lack of networking for female philanthropic leaders. These issues were then cast as catalysts for potential solutions, with participants suggesting a need for better networking of female leaders, more research on their experiences and better workplace policies which encourage shared parental responsibilities. In sum, female leaders suggested a wider overhaul of common policies in place across foundations to support female foundation leaders more strongly: a ‘mixture of everything is needed’ including ‘policy support, peer support, trustee support…and recognition that we’re all individuals that have lives and we function best when were supported’.

Continuing the conversation

As an exploratory pilot, the purpose of this research was not to define women philanthropic leaders’ lived experience but to ignite a conversation for, with and across women in philanthropy, with the aim to build stronger knowledge in the area. Unsurprisingly, this research has ended up with more questions than answers so far: How does the inherent complexity of women philanthropic leaders’ role affect their lived experiences? What policies and procedures can be put in place to better support their eclectic roles? How can female philanthropic leaders’ lived experiences be used to widen opportunities for future women leaders?

Having started the conversation, the theme of women in philanthropy is now the subject of my PhD research and will be explored in more detail over the next couple of years. If you are a women in a senior role in philanthropy and interested in participating or if you are keen to hear more about the project, please get in touch.


(1) Modulative, T.T. and Silvia, C., (2015). Fostering affective organizational commitment in public sector agencies: The significance of multifaceted leadership roles. Public Administration, 93(3), 557-575.

(2) Ottsen, C.L., (2019). Lucky to reach the top? Gendered perspectives on leadership acquisition across Qatar and Denmark. Gender in Management: An International Journal, 34(7):541-553

(3) Abzug, R., (2017). Recruitment and selection for non-profit organizations. The Non-profit Human Resource Management Handbook, pp.87-100

Photo by Luiza Sayfullina

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