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Women’s History Month: When a Woman is “The First,” can she also be “The Best”?

I struggle when I write about Women’s History month.

For while I love the opportunity to honor the women who stand out in the history of our industry, particularly my mentor and friend, Kay Partney Lautman, all too often the word used to describe their accomplishments is “first.” Rarely do we see the term “best.” And therein lies the struggle.

Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

Kay’s history—as well as Sanky Perlowin’s and a few others’—marks her as the “first woman to own a fundraising consulting company.” The accolades about her rely upon a word that does not connote excellence, merely presence. The reason is simple: Kay had no choice but to be first, because the field she was entering simply didn’t have a place for her.

Kay did not start in fundraising by responding to an ad that read “copywriter wanted” or “fundraiser wanted.” The ad she responded to read “Help Wanted– Female.” The position was a stenographer at Oram Group Fundraising (it’s telling that it was only in 1968 that the New York Times stopped dividing help wanted ads by gender). Through a combination of luck and nothing less than perfection, her talent was identified, and she had a chance to be a “first.”

Kay rose in an industry that was both casually and structurally sexist. Women were relegated to a pool of secretaries, not to an office of writers. In describing her accomplishments, what Kay wore often appeared next to an accounting of how much money she raised to build such institutions as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Kay raised millions of dollars based on her incredible ability to understand what connects donors to a mission and craft a case for support that moved donors to action. She was a generous teacher, sharing everything she learned to guide others. She was a passionate traveler, dinner and theater goer, and one of the funniest people I ever met. She literally wrote the book on direct response fundraising – Dear Friend.

One of my favorite memories of Kay brings me back to a cab ride during which she crafted a fundraising letter on the back of a scrap of paper. Arriving at the organization, Kay read her letter only to be told by the Executive Director that it was “too emotional.” Kay said “well, if you want to raise less money, I can write you a less emotional one.” Needless to say, the letter she wrote in the cab went in the mail.

But you find few of those stories when you read about her history – the focus is on the extraordinary work it took her to open her own fundraising firm, or an accounting of the men who broke tradition to help her succeed.

In this month when we look back at our history, I hope for a better future.

I want the women of my generation – those of us who don’t have to be first because of people like Kay – to make it easier for the next generation to be the best. Unfortunately, the sexism Kay faced has not disappeared. The Association of Fundraising Professionals published research on International Women’s Day this year that indicated gender accounts for a 10 percent difference in salaries between male and female fundraisers. Systemic racism, anti-immigration sentiment and biases against non-Christians means that too many women today are still the first in their positions. I want all of them to have a chance to be the best.

But for that to happen we need to make big changes. We need to pay women in fundraising as much as their male counterparts. We must change a system that accepts – or ignores – sexual harassment of fundraisers by donors. We need to prioritize equity for women of color and change the system that has prevented that from being possible.

I’m proud that so many people today are committed to making those changes. I think Kay would have been as well. Kay was a passionate champion for what she described as “the good, the true and the beautiful” and the work we have in front of us fits that vision. Together we can all commit to recognizing the best women during this month, and I believe Kay’s name will be on that list.

Tiffany Neill

Tiffany Neill

Tiffany Neill, CFRE, is co-owner and partner of Lautman Maska Neill & Company, an award-winning full-service direct response fundraising firm specializing in nonprofits.

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