The Fondue Fund charts its own course

By Liza Roberts

Cecelia Thompson, the 24-year-old executive director of Greensboro’s Guilford Green Foundation, doesn’t follow anyone else’s script.

Neither does The Fondue Fund, the young women’s collective giving circle she helped found that requires only enthusiasm from its members.

“I think we have opened some people’s eyes about the possibilities” of collective giving, Thompson says.

The fund was created in November 2005 when a handful of under-40 women friends from the Piedmont-Triad area got together over a pot of fondue to discuss how they could contribute to their community.

In April of this year, the group, now 35 members strong, distributed its first grants, $11,500 in all, to Forsyth Technical Community College and the Women’s Resource Center of Greensboro.

For these first grants, the group embraced the theme “A Woman’s Dream,” aiming to provide the opportunity to pursue professional and personal dreams to women typically denied that chance.

The $2,500 allocated to Forsyth Technical Community College is earmarked to cover books, fees and tuition for women pursuing non-traditional careers such as plumbing.

The remainder of the grant money will be distributed by the Women’s Resource Center to one or two deserving women who dream of opening a small business, for instance, but lack the credit or capital to get them started.

The theme has resonance for Thompson in particular.

“I come from a family of women in nontraditional occupations,” she says. Her family has inspired her in other ways, too.

“I grew up with parents who were very civically-minded,” says Thompson. “It was part of the culture I grew up in. My grandmother really led the way, and she talked a lot about privilege and how privileged we were to be who we are, where we are.”

Their way

The idea for The Fondue Fund came when two of Thompson’s friends and colleagues, Melissa Johnson and Megan Wilson, attended a conference on philanthropic giving circles and realized they were the youngest people in the room.

They came away wanting to create a circle, but in their own way.

Their way turned out to be extremely informal.

It took a while to come to that conclusion, Thompson says, because the group’s membership is diverse, as are its ideas.

“We all come from different backgrounds, and with different perspectives,” she says. “The question was: Where do these things intersect? There was a lot of process, a lot of talk about what the structure would be like, what type of grants we would make, how we would go about it all.”

A good number of the women involved work in grantmaking professionally, she says, which meant that some wanted to replicate the formal procedures they knew already, while others were excited to try new  approaches.

An informal approach

The latter group won out.

“It is less formal, definitely,” Thompson says. “It’s not the Junior League – there are no requirements.”

The Fondue Fund meets once a month, and some members come just to listen and learn about issues facing their community.

Some members pledge large donations, some none at all, while others are most interested in the one-time volunteer opportunities that precede Fondue Fund meetings, Thompson says.

And many are inspired by the special bond of female fellowship the group has created.

With founders like Thompson, who knows the grantmaking ropes, the Fund was quick to seek advice from the Winston-Salem Foundation, as well as support from NCGives, which matched the Fund’s members dollar-for-dollar in its first round of grants.

Thompson says the Fund’s members are constantly learning — about the community, about what it takes to make a difference, and about each other.

“We did an interesting thing,” she says of a recent meeting. “We put a piece of paper on the wall, and we each wrote the name of a woman in our lives that made us want to give more. There were so many interesting things that people wrote about these women.”

It’s those conversations, as well as the end results, that inspire Thompson and her fellow Fondue Fund members.

“Sometimes the value is in the process of women coming together and discussing the needs of the community,” Thompson says. “It’s in the conversations and the learning.”

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