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Women aim for impact

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By Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A Charlotte fund operated by women who pool their charitable dollars and make grants to local causes has nearly doubled in the three years since its creation, and plans to grow again by at least two-thirds by the end of the decade.

With each member contributing $1,000 a year for five years, plus $100 a year to support programming, the Women’s Impact Fund has grown to over 290 members, up from 195 a year ago and 158 in 2004.

The fund wants to grow to 330 members by the end of this year, and to 450 to 500 by the end of 2010.

Judy Allison, retired director of community affairs for Wachovia and chair-elect of the fund, says members’ desire to increase the fund so they can make “high-impact” grants to more groups has turned a growing number of them into active recruiters for new members.

In a survey, members say their participation has influenced how they practice their personal philanthropy and helped them learn about community issues and network with a diverse group of women, says Nikki DeVillers, assistant vice president for client services at Foundation for the Carolinas, which houses and administers the fund.

They also like the fact that individual women can have a greater charitable impact by working together, and can participate as much or as little as they choose, DeVillers says.

This year, based on a process that identifies local needs, and solicits and screens funding requests to address those needs, the fund’s members voted to award grants totaling $263,000 to four groups, up from three groups a year ago and two groups in 2004.

The fund has identified five priority areas in which it wants to make grants, including arts and culture, education, the environment, health, and human services, DeVillers says, and aims to recruit more members so it can make grants in all of those areas.

Efforts to expand the membership include an annual recruiting event in the fall and a series of education events, such as a forum on community issues that addresses each of the fund’s priority areas.

The fund’s grantmaking process begins late each summer with an orientation for 40 to 50 members of the grants committee who are divided into five teams, one for each priority area.

Each team studies its issue, accepts letters of inquiry about funding, sends a request for proposals to three organizations, visits the groups that submit proposals, and then recommends two groups to the full grants committee at a “grants garden party” in the spring.

Based on a committee vote, all fund members get a ballot listing at least five groups, one in each category, with detailed summaries of their proposals.

This year’s grants will fund a Youth Homes program to prepare children aging out of the foster-care system at age 18 to live independently; a full-time pharmacist to help MedAssist serve more uninsured people; a national Citizens Schools after-school program at two Charlotte middle schools; and a greenway program being developed by Catawba Lands Conservancy and The Trust for Public Land.

The fund, says Allison, “is the most rewarding, meaningful, stimulating volunteering experience I’ve ever had.”

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