Giving circle readies for first grant cycle

Julia Vail

FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — When it comes to empowering women in Cumberland County, the Women’s Giving Circle of Fayetteville works on two levels.

While it aims to fund nonprofits that improve the lives of women and girls throughout the county, it also hopes to create a vibrant network of women of different ages, races and professions who are driven to give back.

Launched in January 2008 with help from a grant provided by NCGives, the giving circle’s membership has surged to 64 from 14 in one year.

Members, who are encouraged to make a three-year commitment to the giving circle, give $550 annually. Of this amount, $400 is dedicated to grantmaking, $100 is funneled into an endowment fund, and $50 goes to operations and administration.

So far, the giving circle has built up an endowment of nearly $10,000, as well as a $25,600 pool for its first grant cycle, which begins in February. In a nod to the faltering economy, the giving circle decided to focus on basic needs.

“As you see every day on the news, food pantries are having a very hard time keeping their shelves stocked,” says Alisa Debnam, co-chair of the giving circle. “You see how many people are losing their homes to foreclosures.”

In order to turn its members into more effective grantmakers, the giving circle invites area nonprofit leaders to its membership meetings to share their knowledge and experience.

During its first meeting in November, the giving circle hosted three nonprofits, each dealing with a different facet of basic needs. The Cumberland Interfaith Hospitality Network educated the women on shelter, the Fayetteville Urban Ministry spoke about food, and the Care Clinic shared information on health care.

“We want to educate our members on pressing social issues that face women and girls in the community,” Debnam says. “What we hope is that, by educating our members, they will be able to make more informed funding decisions.”

The circle, which is still laying the groundwork for its grants process, has not decided how it will allocate its funds.

“We don’t want to commit to giving three large grants or 10 small grants,” Debnam says. “We want to see what we get and let that shape the direction we’re going to move in.”

The circle is planning its second membership meeting for February, when it will begin accepting letters of inquiry from Cumberland County nonprofits.

In early March, members will decide which nonprofits will get to submit full grant applications, which will be due April 17.

Paying members will vote on which nonprofits receive funding, and grants will be awarded June 1.

The giving circle, sponsored by the Cumberland Community Foundation, evolved from the foundation’s three-year Women in Philanthropy initiative.

The program, which lasted from 2001 to 2003, held individual sessions to educate women about financial planning and charitable giving.

Though the program had excellent results, something was missing, says Mary Holmes, executive director of the foundation.

“It didn’t create an ongoing relationship with the women,” Holmes says. “We wanted to take it to the next level.”

With the help of a grant from NCGives, a statewide funder that promotes philanthropy, the foundation launched two separate and self-sustaining giving circles, the E.E. Smith Academic Excellence Giving Circle and the Women’s Giving Circle of Fayetteville. The latter brought together women with vastly different backgrounds and skill sets.

Debnam served on the Junior League’s national board of directors, and co-chair Michelle Courie, like Debnam, is the former president of the local Junior League branch.

Other members have been involved with nonprofits such as the Coordinating Council on Older Adults, the Cumberland Community Action Program and the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust.

“You see people in your community, you read their names in the newspaper, but you really never have that personal connection,” Debnam says. “This has given me an opportunity to learn who they are and what they value.”

The giving circle still works closely with the community foundation, which handles administration, bookkeeping, meeting coordination and donor-appreciation efforts.

“The fact that the community foundation is behind us lets people know this is a worthwhile effort,” Debnam says.

Despite the continuing support provided by the foundation, Holmes is quick to redirect credit for the giving circle’s success back to its members.

“We set it in motion,” Holmes says. “Now they’re running on their own.”

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