With Presidential primaries eight months away, candidates have been aggressively pursuing women donors: Hillary Clinton has hosted women-targeted fundraising events from coast to coast; not to be outdone, Barack Obama's wife Michelle has launched a "Women for Obama" initiative. And Elizabeth Edwards has already established her own strong women's following to support her husband's run for office.
These campaigns are all on the right track. Women donors -- and could-be donors -- are an enormous resource that has only begun to be tapped. But while the potential to raise money from women is enormous, there are also challenges, according to a new study my organization released earlier this week that examined trends in women's political giving. Raising women's giving and influence as political donors will require a new awareness among women and political fundraisers alike.
Women have yet to reach their potential as donors; while they are a majority of voters, they contributed only 29% of political donations to candidates in the 2006 elections. The Washington Post recently reported that women made up roughly 36 percent of Clinton's total contributions and about 30 percent of Obama's. And while women make up a significant percentage of small donors, they account for just over a quarter of large contributions of $1,000 or more (single or combined) -- a statistic that hasn't changed in a decade.
What accounts for this "gender gap" in political donations? It's not that women don't have the means to give: women today control half the nation's wealth and are responsible for more than $7 trillion in consumer and business spending. Nor can it be said that women don't care about political issues and the future of the country. We do. We vote in greater numbers than men. We also volunteer as much or more in our communities. And when it comes to giving to charitable causes, women give to twice as many organizations as men.
Yet women's political passion isn't translating to political giving. It should.
For better or worse, fundraising dollars today can make or break a campaign. A candidate's full coffers allow them to speak to the voters directly, whether it's a few hundred dollars invested in flyers for the local town council election or millions spent in TV ad dollars for a hotly contested Senate seat. How much money candidates raise can determine how effectively they get their message and priorities out to us, the voters.
And those who win the most votes wield enormous power. Yet our research found that many women don't necessarily connect candidates to advancing the issues that matter most to them - whether it's health care, jobs or education. When I talk to women who have yet to write a check to a candidate, I often put it this way: You could give $50 to your favorite breast cancer organization. You can also give that same amount to elect a candidate who will then advocate for a $50 million appropriation for breast cancer research. In other words, if you already vote and give to causes, political giving is another way you can actively invest in the change you want to see in the world. And the women we spoke with told us that their political and charitable dollars are totally different pools of money -- so giving to candidates would only expand the pie.
Our findings also show that political fundraisers need to do things differently if they want to succeed with female donors. For starters, to help women connect the dots between their political priorities and their dollars, fundraisers can work to better align their candidates with the issues. The women we talked to also told us that writing checks wasn't enough; it was important to them to feel like part of a larger movement for change. Political fundraisers can help foster this sense of political community by creating more opportunities for women donors to meet and interact with candidates, their campaign staff and party leaders - as well as with donors like themselves.
Even a small increase in women's giving could make a big difference. If women increased their 2006 giving by as little as 22%, it would add another $43 million for candidates running in 2008. Or think of it another way: If every woman who voted in midterm elections donated $27 dollars -- the average price of a pair of shoes in the U.S. -- they would raise a whopping $1.3 billion for their preferred candidates. This is no small sum, considering that the total cost of the 2006 midterm elections (candidates, parties and interest groups combined) was $2.8 billion.
For these reasons and more, women who feel strongly about the future direction of our country should consider putting their money where their politics are. With so much at stake -- from how soon we end the war in Iraq to our flawed national health care system -- the best way to give back may be simply to give. Because so long as women lag behind in political giving, our political beliefs will not be not fully reflected, nor will women's political power be fully realized in shaping our nation's policies.