Why Women Thrive in Political Fundraising

Men still dominate politics, government, and lobbying, but in fundraising, women play on level turf.

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Ann Herberger had designs on becoming “a great Broadway actress.” That’s before she ended up in Washington in the 1980s, and under the tutelage of an accomplished female fundraiser.

Now based in Miami, she raises cash full-time for prominent Republicans—notably the Bush family—and loves her job as a professional fundraiser. “They’re the most powerful people that nobody knows,” she says.

It’s a common tale. While men still dominate top jobs in politics, government, and lobbying, professional fundraising represents an arena in which women play on level turf. Many campaign operatives, lobbyists, and fundraisers say female finance directors and fundraisers are at least at parity with men, and may well outnumber them. Some even say that if there’s only one woman in the room, she’s likely to be the fundraiser.

“It’s a unique place women seem to own,” says Kirsten Borman, a national GOP fundraiser. “Women get a lot more respect and are more easily allowed at the table in this industry. There is no boys club in fundraising. But make no mistake, it’s still incredibly competitive.”

While women account for almost 51 percent of the U.S. population, they make up roughly 18 percent of the current Congress—and that’s a record high. Women occupied only one-third of the top congressional-aide jobs in 2011, according to a National Journal survey; about 40 percent of the Obama administration’s top second-term posts; and just 35 percent of registered lobbyists in 2012, according to a LegiStorm analysis.

Because fundraisers are not required to register, there are no precise statistics tracking gender. But those that do exist point to a field largely populated by women. Women dominate fundraising in the nonprofit and philanthropic world, and account for 74 percent of the membership in the Association of Fundraising Professionals, according to the organization.

“I don’t think there’s a glass ceiling at all for women [in fundraising],” says Molly Allen, who owns a consulting firm and raises money for House Democrats. While noting there are also prominent and effective male fundraisers, she adds, “I’ve never felt that I missed out on a client opportunity because I was a woman.... I guess it’s just because we’ve proven ourselves to be equally successful, and continue to do so.”

Rarely does anyone, man or woman, dream of being a political fundraiser when they grow up. A number of women say their entry into the field was coincidence more than anything. But that has turned into an advantage, as the role of money in politics has grown exponentially.

“It was always the job nobody wanted on campaigns when I started,” says one Republican fundraiser who’s been in the business for decades and raises cash for statewide candidates. “The position [of finance director] has grown in importance. The smart campaigns have always realized the importance of money, but it’s always been a back-burner thing in most cases.”

Another longtime Democratic female fundraiser fell into it after “nobody wanted to do it.” But she quickly took to the job. “I got to do a lot more fun things than everybody else,” she says. “You also get more time with the candidate than anybody else. Everyone wants to do field [work], but the field staff doesn’t get much time with the candidate.”

The job appeals to many women because of the flexibility to work from home and be able to take breaks between campaigns without being penalized. Success as a fundraiser is also objective: You either raise your target amount or you don’t.

“It’s a field dominated by black-or-white results: Did you make your goal or didn’t you?” Herberger says. “That’s all that matters.”

Showing savvy as a fundraiser can lay the groundwork for other political careers, too. Stephanie Schriock led Howard Dean’s 2004 fundraising, an operation that helped change the way campaigns raise cash in presidential cycles. She went on to manage campaigns for Democratic Sens. Jon Tester of Montana and Al Franken of Minnesota. Now, Schriock leads EMILY’s List, which raises money for female Democrats who support abortion rights.

“I definitely, over the years, have seen a lot of women start in fundraising and move on to other activities in campaigns and politics,” she says. “Women really do a great job at the sort of detail-orientedness followed by relationship building that is really important in fundraising. At EMILY’s List, we argue it’s the same ability to relationship-build that is a good reason you should run for office.”

Although women see few gender barriers to becoming prominent fundraisers, women donors still lag behind men. In the 2011-12 cycle, far more men than women contributed money to federal politics, including candidates, parties, and PACs; two-thirds of such donations came from men, compared with one-third that came from women, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

That’s something GOP fundraiser Lisa Spies, who led Women for Romney last year, wants to change. During the 2012 campaign, their directive was to raise $10 million from women, and they ended up raking in $23 million.

“I had women all over the country tell me, ‘You know what? Nobody ever asks me,’ ” Spies says. “They call me and ask for my husband.”

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.