CHARLOTTE, N.C. – In 1916, the Women’s Relief Fund in the north and the Daughters of the Confederacy in the south each contributed $5,000 to pay for the Tiffany windows in the Board of Governors Hall in the national headquarters of the American Red Cross in Washington, D.C.
Now, nearly a century later, women continue to join forces to help their local Red Cross chapters through membership in the Tiffany Circle.
The circle, named for the elaborate windows that still adorn the headquarters building, was founded in 2006 to offer financial and volunteer support to Red Cross branches throughout the U.S.
The Greater Carolinas Chapter in Charlotte was one of 24 chapters added the following year.
Its 14 members, six of whom serve on the board of the local Red Cross, donate $10,000 each annually to help disaster-relief and preparedness efforts in Mecklenburg and Iredell counties.
In its first year alone, the chapter contributed $140,000.
Among the efforts that received financial support from the Tiffany Circle were blood drives, quick response for residential fires and a service that transports patients to doctor’s appointments and treatment.
In the past year, there were about 250 fires in the area served by the Greater Carolinas Chapter of the Red Cross, says Elaine Lyerly, one of three co-chairs of the area Tiffany Circle and president of the Lyerly Agency, a Charlotte-based advertising firm.
“The Red Cross helps families at the fire scene, finds them a place to stay temporarily and provides vouchers for household supplies,” she says.
And a good deal of the circle’s funding goes toward addressing disasters before they happen, Lyerly says.
“Only two in 10 [Americans] say they are prepared for a major disaster, and 82 percent said they would get prepared if they knew how,” she says. “Part of our focus is helping people in our area be prepared through training.”
The national Tiffany Circle, which consists of 37 chapters throughout the U.S., has donated a total of $12 million to Red Cross efforts.
During its pilot program, in which eight initial chapters participated, the Tiffany Circle raised $3.3 million, soaring past its $1 million goal.
The circle also educates people nationwide about the role the Red Cross plays in the community, as well as its urgent need for funding.
“Throughout my life I was very unclear as to the funding sources for the Red Cross,” says Renee Brown, chapter co-chair and director of marketing for capital management at Wachovia Bank. “I always assumed it was funded through the government.”
When she found out the Red Cross is funded privately, her passion to help became even greater, she says.
Though Brown has been working to recruit corporate and professional women to the Tiffany Circle, the bleak economy has been hindering her efforts, she says.
“Women in the corporate world are stretched so thin,” Brown says. “Getting their time has been a challenge.”
But the Tiffany Circle has not let the recession deter them.
“As soon as things turn around, we really have a lot of opportunity to cultivate corporate relationships in our community,” says Ginger Kelly, chapter co-chair and community volunteer.
For now, the circle is easing its members into annual $10,000 donations by allowing friends and relatives to “match” donations for the first two years.
And the initiative also has helped get the word out about the Tiffany Circle to other potential members, says Kate Meier, communications and marketing director for the Greater Carolinas Chapter of the Red Cross.
“It starts a tradition, basically,” she says. “In women’s giving, I think it’s really important to keep it in the family.”
The Tiffany Circle’s upcoming national summit, to be held June 8-9 in Washington, D.C., will include a speech by retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Wilma Vaught, one of the most decorated women in U.S. military history.
Vaught, who presently serves as the president of the board of directors of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation, will educate Tiffany Circle members on the important role the Red Cross plays in the armed forces.
Tiffany Circle members also will speak with former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, and hear a concert given by fellow Tiffany Circle member Amy Grant and her husband, Vince Gill.
By contributing their time, money and energy, Tiffany Circle members aim to honor the legacy of Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross.
They also are part of a growing number of American women taking the torch of philanthropy.
Women in the U.S. hold a total of $6 trillion in assets, Lyerly says, and women-owned businesses are the fastest growing in the U.S.
“There’s a history of women leading in philanthropy, but it will become more and more the norm over time,” Lyerly says. “Women, traditionally, have stepped up when they’ve seen a need.”