Women’s Impact Fund celebrates 10 years, $3.3 million in gifts to local charities

msprice@charlotteobserver.comNovember 8, 2013 

It started with two gutsy Charlotteans who had a seemingly naive belief that local women would enthusiastically join a group devoted to giving away their money.

Crazier still was the idea that much of the cash would go to experimental projects focused on tough issues like child sex abuse, gang violence and illness among homeless people under bridges.

Claire Tate and Mary Lou Babb assumed they had little to lose in trying, so they sought advice from charity experts, recruited friends to spread the word, and soon began hosting gatherings aimed at creating a women’s “giving circle.”

“I thought, my goodness, wouldn’t it be great for the community if we could find at least 100 women in the community who would willing and able to do this?” recalled Tate.

That giving circle – called the Women’s Impact Fund – celebrates its 10th anniversary Saturday at Foundation for the Carolinas, with a current membership of over 400 women and a record of giving $3.3 million to projects other donors might consider too risky.

The group is now recognized as one of the largest and fastest-growing women’s charities in the nation.

Local nonprofit leaders credit the group with introducing new ways of approaching philanthropy in Charlotte while also saving taxpayer dollars.

“What they created was a model for community, if you want to make a difference,” said homeless advocate Liz Clasen-Kelly of Charlotte’s Urban Ministry Center.

“I’m a big believer that small groups of people can change the world. In this case, there was a small group of women who had a big dream about what philanthropy could look like. They took that dream and made it huge.”

Recent grants from the group have done everything from help veterans win benefits to feeding the hungry through a series of community gardens.

In the case of the Urban Ministry Center, the Women’s Impact Fund provided money to start a medical outreach program that sends staff into the woods and under bridges to find ailing homeless people.

The effort has helped 103 people through June of this year, 23 of whom are either in housing as a result of the program or are on their way to getting a home. Some had been living primarily in homeless camps for the past seven years.

Just under 50 were connected with doctors for needed care, and 44 were treated for issues that kept them out of local emergency rooms. That alone saved the community an estimated $45,000, agency officials said.

“Are lives being saved?” Clasen-Kelly asked. “Absolutely.”

People magazine

In celebrating its 10th anniversary this weekend, the Women’s Impact Fund is also pausing to re-evaluate itself.

Work is in progress on strategic plan for the next five to 10 years, and it could include adding a category focused strictly on women’s issues. There’s also talk of working harder to attract women from outside Charlotte’s older neigborhoods.

However, group leaders don’t expect the changes to include abandoning the current focus areas of arts and culture; education, environment, and health and human resources.

It was an article in People magazine about a women’s giving circle in Seattle, Washington, that gave Tate and Babb the idea for creating a Charlotte’s version.

Both saw it as a way for women to have more impact, because the gift of one would be matched by hundreds of others, creating grants big enough to launch entire programs.

That happened almost immediately, when the group gave $100,000 in 2004 to hire a case worker for child victims of sex abuse and their families. The result is Pat’s Place Child Advocacy Center, which served its first child a year later.

Among the commitments the women make is to give $1,200 a year, with $200 going to operations and the rest going annually to one charity selected from each of the five focus areas.

“We were hoping from the start to get an economically diverse group of women, from those who can give $100 a month easily to those for whom it’s a stretch,” says Tate. “And we wanted it to be new money, beyond what they were already giving to charity.”

Foundation for the Carolinas is among the group’s biggest supporters, having helped supply the expertise to get it launched. Laura Meyer Wellman, an executive vice president with Foundation for the Carolinas, is also a member.

Wellman noted the group’s many successes include creating a new generation of women who are sophisticated philanthropists. “Many of the women get so involved with the organizations in our grant making process that they will go on their boards or begin committing their own dollars to it,” she said.

Recent successes

Among the more recent successes of the impact fund are an environmental project with Friendship Trays and a legal services program for veterans who need help getting their health benefits.

Katherine Metzo of Friendship Trays gives the Women’s Impact Fund credit for launching the Slow Food Charlotte program, which has 1,000 volunteers working in 33 community gardens. The produce goes to citizens in need.

Not only did the impact fund provide $70,000 for the project, but the money helped the initiative attract other donors, Metzo said.

“Essentially, the Women’s Impact Fund put us on the map,” she said. “It’s hard to estimate the ripple effect, but 700 to 750 meals a day go out (to the needy).”

As for the veterans aid project, the impact fund acted on what experts predict will be a major issue for Charlotte as thousands of former service members resettle here after returning from wars in the Middle East. Many will come with injuries, both emotional and physical, experts say.

A two-year grant of $80,000 was awarded to Legal Services of the Southern Piedmont to provide legal help to low-income vets with disability claims. Since June, the project has helped 151 veterans win a total of $248,000 in monetary benefits, officials said.

“What we are trying to do is get involved in critical and emerging issues in Charlotte and kick things off that have an impact,” said Babb.

“We are taking risks and we are touching organizations and places that are somewhat under cover. … But we have always believed that women want to know more about what was happening across Mecklenburg County, including those things that often get swept under the rug.”

Price: 704-358-5245

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