Women’s fund grows, looks ahead

Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Formed in November 2003 to give women an opportunity to pool their charitable giving and get involved in local causes, the Women’s Impact Fund at Foundation for the Carolinas has fueled women’s philanthropy and leadership, and generated dollars, expertise, volunteers and staff for local nonprofits.

In its first four years, the fund has made grants totaling $1.4 million, grants its chair says have represented new philanthropic dollars for the community and helped nonprofits leverage additional dollars from other sources.

“Women like coming together and being connected for causes,” says Judy Allison, retired director of community affairs for Wachovia and outgoing chair of the Women’s Impact Fund.

The brainchild of Mary Lou Babb, a community volunteer, and Claire Tate, president of Partners in Out-of-School Time, or POST, the Women’s Impact Fund in its first year enlisted 158 members each giving $1,000, and made two grants totaling $158,000.

This year, membership grew to 455 women, and the fund made grants totaling $443,500 to five nonprofits.

Beyond the numbers, Allison says, the fund has involved its members more deeply in philanthropy and the community, and helped the nonprofits it supports strengthen the way they operate and raise money.

And as it continues to grow, the fund also is gearing up to operate as a separate nonprofit starting in 2010 in partnership with Foundation for the Carolinas.

To participate, women are invited to donate $1,200 a year for five years, with $1,000 earmarked for grantmaking and $200 to cover the cost of administering the fund.

All members may vote on grants and are invited to serve on committees that handle grantmaking, education and membership.

The fund’s annual grants cycle begins with a session any nonprofit can attend to learn about the fund.

Based on letters of inquiry nonprofits then submit, the fund distributes a request for proposals to 20 organizations and invites them to a workshop on preparing a grant application.

Fund members can serve on any of five teams that review grants in the fund’s five priority areas, including arts, education, environment, human services and health.

Before voting on grants, members are invited to “Live Ballot,” where they receive briefings on two applications from a member of each team.

“It’s a great opportunity to educate members about these projects so they will be better informed voters,” says Allison.

The fund also provides periodic reports to members on the impact of its grants.

“They vote it and they want to stay connected to the grant, and they want to know the impact of their dollars,” Allison says.

In addition to involving them in grantmaking, the fund aims to engage members in giving and community issues through a series of events.

The fund, for example, kicks off its annual grants process each fall by sponsoring a community-issues forum featuring experts on each of the fund’s five priority areas.

It also sponsors brown-bag lunches twice a year at members’ homes to talk about community issues, and sponsors an event each winter featuring leading grantmakers or philanthropists.

And fund members often do more than write a check, Allison says.

Many volunteer with nonprofits the fund supports, or serve on their boards, or even join their staffs, sometimes as executive director.

Nonprofits also get more than just dollars, Allison says.

The fund, for example, works with its grantees to set up metrics to measure the impact of the grants they receive, and provides them with software to track that impact.

And grantees report they have been able to leverage the grants and evaluation tools they receive from the fund to secure support from other funders, Allison says.

“Women want to be involved,” she says. “They want to be hands-on. They want to feel it and know what difference their investment is making. It’s personal.”

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