Philanthropic pioneer: Marla Adams

Liza Roberts

ASHEVILLE, N.C. — As the number of women’s giving circles grows and the idea picks up steam across the state, much can be learned from the pioneers of this philanthropic phenomenon.

Marla Adams, a founding member of Asheville’s 300-member-strong “Women for Women” program, is one such pioneer.

The long-time lawyer and community leader believes that Women for Women, launched in 2005, is a success largely because it has been a collaborative effort from the beginning.

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together,” she says, citing an African proverb. “It is very much a team effort.”

The fund, which will give away more than $300,000 this year in the form of a handful of $35,000-$100,000 grants, has met a need, Adams says, both within the community of fund members as well as among grant recipients.

In its first year, Women for Women, which is aimed specifically at improving the lives of women and girls in the Asheville region, snared 213 members, all of whom pledged $1,100 a year for three years.

That was more than twice as many members as the founders had hoped to attract.

The next year, the number jumped to 270, and now there are more than 300 members.

A full $1,000 of each member’s contribution goes directly back into the community in that same grant cycle, while the remaining $100 helps offset the expenses of the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina, which operates the fund.

Adams believes part of Women for Women’s success is due to its focused agenda.

“We felt that if we were going to rally women together, it made sense for us to be rallying together to help other women,” she says. “Otherwise, why make it single-sex? All of our funds go to women and girls.”

The fund’s grantees to date include programs that transition women from prison to productive lives; programs providing aid and support to victims of domestic violence; a project that educates childcare workers about the earned-income tax credit and other financial matters; and support for a fiscal- and legal-services organization that helps needy women who come into the hospital system.

“Women like the idea of collective giving and of having an impact,” Adams says.

They also like to know that their monetary contributions will be responsibly administered. Adams credits the support and credibility of the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina for helping Women for Women in that regard.

“The Community Foundation has helped enormously,” she says. “It’s a known quantity, with great credibility in the area.”

Adams notes that other successful collective giving circles, including those in Charlotte, Winston-Salem and Raleigh, are also affiliated with their local community foundations.

Recruiting members

From the beginning, Adams and her four fellow founding members put a huge emphasis and effort on recruiting.

“I can’t even tell you how much discussion went into getting the word out,” she says. “We decided small-group settings were the best, and came up with a list of prospective members, both from the community foundation records and our own circles.”

A series of small gatherings were held: lunches, coffees, after-work wine-and-cheese get-togethers.

Almost all were held in someone’s home, because “it was much more personal that way, much better than going to a big meeting somewhere, much more opportunity for questions and answers.”

Another factor in the fund’s success, Adams believes, is its lack of onerous membership requirements.

“We’ve made it very clear that women can be involved as much or as little as they like,” she says. “If they want to be part of the giving, but due to other involvements can’t do more than that, that’s fine.”

Adams, a community leader since her high-school days, knows well how other involvements can accumulate for busy women who care about their communities.

Her nonprofit work began in earnest in about 1980, when she arrived in Asheville.

“I was a woman attorney, and there were not that many of us,” she says, noting that she represented a “two-for-one” bonus for nonprofit boards.

Adams also cared enormously about her community, was interested in learning what it needed and how she could help, and quickly found herself sitting on a number of local boards, from the YMCA to the American Cancer Society.

“If you name it, I went through it,” she says.

Just do it

She found time for these nonprofits even during her career as a civil litigator, and finds the time now, six years after she retired from the practice of law.

In addition to her work with Women for Women, Adams is involved with the North Carolina Center for International Understanding, the North Carolina Arts Council, the Nature Conservancy, as well as the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina and other local foundations.

“You just do it,” she says. “It sounds trite, but if it’s important, you do it. Certainly I was realistic, and I think you do have to learn how to say no. But it’s just one of those things that you can carve out the time to do, like you carve out the time to brush your teeth every day.”

As Adams looks around her community, she says she is encouraged by the young people she knows and meets.

“I think if anything, the young people today are more engaged than they were when I came along – more involved and more engaged,” she says.

And perhaps they would agree with Adams when she says her community work is something she does because she has to.

“I strongly believe that it is important to do something for the public good,” she says. “I can’t imagine doing anything that did nothing but benefit me.”

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