(WOMENSENEWS)--Never underestimate the power of friends and family to influence your life's work; nor for you to do the same.
Taking tea in my grandmother's parlor, when I was around 8 or 9 years old, I gazed at a tea set with the historic words that made a strong imprint on my young mind: Votes for Women.
My grandfather served on the faculty at Yale University, where the women's suffrage movement gained strong support in that progressive setting.
My mother, now 93, was and is another powerful role model: a graduate of Vassar with two master's degrees and a career in education that started with teaching in elementary school eventually led her to establish model libraries in elementary schools across Connecticut. Like my grandmother's, her marriage was strikingly egalitarian for its time.
Fathers are also very important for girls. My own wonderful father encouraged me to be active and involved in the world. He was a fine sailor who taught me to sail and encouraged me to race, which I did for a number of years.
I had the privilege of attending a high school for girls in Richmond, Va., where each day we were reminded by our formidable dean (in her tie-up heels and crepe dresses) that "women rule the world."
Carrying the Message Forward
How could I not carry that message forward in my own, unique way?
On Aug. 26 the United States celebrates the 87th anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which ensures women with the right to vote. That struggle took decades and spanned two centuries, much longer than it might have taken had the suffrage movement been sufficiently capitalized.
What other progress is now held back by insufficient funds?
I am particularly happy that my husband caught my enthusiasm for the Atlanta Women's Foundation. Over and over, you see the reverse in philanthropy: a woman supporting her husband's favorite cause. In this case, my husband decided to join me and it has been an honor and inspiration to see others join us in making their own bold financial commitments to this terrific organization.
The Atlanta Women's Foundation makes grants to community organizations in four areas: advancing economic justice for women, challenging violence against women, promoting women's health and addressing homelessness among women.
Our community has struggled for a while with the problem of homeless women with children.
Helping Women Get on Their Feet
Whereas some organizations have established shelters and other services addressing the problem, the Atlanta Women's Foundation decided to invest in programs--education, job training, child care--that have helped numerous women get on their feet and into homes of their own.
One example is a partnership between a transitional housing program and a senior center that trained women to become in-home caregivers--at a living wage. As a result of that project formerly homeless women are employed, have their own places to live and are supporting themselves and their children.
Winding back the clock a number of decades, after I graduated from college I worked for a while in the Northeast, where I met and married John at the mid-point of his two years at Harvard Business School.
For our honeymoon we went to Europe, bought a red convertible Volkswagen and drove 8,000 miles in nine weeks, guided by Frommer's "Europe on $5 A Day."
In time John and I moved to Georgia, where John and a friend from business school started a building materials business. Eventually John migrated to a somewhat different business: using those materials to build houses himself. That was 34 years and about 34,000 houses ago.
Meanwhile, I stayed home with our son and daughter and also began volunteering for nonprofits and serving on boards with groups that concentrated on issues relating to women and children.
My husband took an interest in philanthropy as well and our evolution followed the success of the family business over the years. In addition to giving to our church and alma maters, we have concentrated our giving in Atlanta and four other Southern cities where we have been building homes. It seems only natural that we would give back in those cities where our work has allowed us to prosper.
Seeding a Women's Fund
Among the nonprofits with which I worked in Atlanta was the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta. Within the foundation was a women's fund that was seeded in 1989 by a group of female business owners who pooled their money. That $10,000 investment has grown dramatically.
In 1998, we left our incubator at the Community Foundation and became the Atlanta Women's Foundation. Less than 20 years later, the Atlanta Women's Foundation has invested more than $8 million in the community funding programs in more than 250 women and girl serving organizations. In 2006 alone, the foundation's grant-making and leadership programs touched the lives of more than 30,000 women and girls. When one thinks of the multiplier effect when women are supported, it improves the lives of their families and enhances the entire community, and the impact is much, much greater.
Soon after she became CEO of the Atlanta Women's Foundation, Deborah Richardson and I had an informal visit and talked about the limitless possibilities for women and girls. That is part of the reason my husband John and I, in 2006, pledged $1 million, payable over two years, to the Atlanta Women's Foundation.
We came up with a bold fundraising goal to inspire the power of women's philanthropy in our community: a $1 million gift from the family business, along with a challenge to the community to join in. The foundation raised $3 million this year.
A hallmark of the work of women's funds is a cross-class partnership that has women of financial wealth at the table, right alongside community organizers whose bank accounts may be lean but whose hearts and minds are full of resources that are a perfect match to the dollars.
Our grants committee is composed of women from all across the economic spectrum. Donors are transformed by seeing their giving translated to changed lives all around them, and the activist leaders who are our partners are emboldened to greater work when their ideas and abilities are validated.
My own hope is that women of wealth all across this nation, and all around the world--women who have prospered because of those who struggled for our well-being--will open our hearts and our checkbooks and give generously to change the world by empowering women and girls.
And if some of us wind up inspiring our husbands to join us in this great adventure, what a wonderful world can be born as a result.
Sue Wieland is involved in community outreach and special projects of John Wieland Homes and Neighborhoods. She and her husband live in Atlanta and have two grown children, Jack Wieland and Lindsey Parker, and two grandchildren, Alden and Lila Parker.
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For more information:
The Atlanta Women's Foundation:
Women's Funding Network: