From left: Nancy Brinker, founder of Susan G. Komen; Colleen Willoughby, founder of the Washington Women's Foundation; Molly Barker, founder of Girls on the Run International.
From left: Nancy Brinker, founder of Susan G. Komen; Colleen Willoughby, founder of the Washington Women's Foundation; Molly Barker, founder of Girls on the Run International.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WOMENSENEWS)–It may be the season when the national focus on donors turns to the political campaigns, but recently 300 women from 23 states came here to share insight and inspiration about something quite different: women’s collective giving.

Call it giving circles, collective giving or groups of people with similar passions and goals who join together to pool their resources and investigate the greatest needs of their communities. Increasingly, women have recognized their power by using this model for philanthropy with national and global reach that can involve so much more than writing a check. With knowledge of their communities and with careful vetting, they are able to discover nonprofits that can most use help and publicize the necessary work of these under-funded organizations. Together, these giving groups are making an impact far greater than their growing numbers. Women of all ages and income levels can participate by working together.

Pioneers and leaders of this approach recently gathered here for a leadership forum of the . The group represents 46 organizations and more than 10,000 women. Some member groups are quite small and started with a few friends around a table. Others, such as the Women’s Impact Fund of Charlotte, host city of the collective’s 2015 national conference, have memberships numbering several hundred. Their shared commitment is to "support the creation, development and expansion of women’s collective giving nationwide to build women’s leadership and amplify the power of giving together."

Though the idea for the nonprofit WCGN gained traction in 2008, women coming together to give has a far longer history. In the past 20 years, member associations have given nearly $70 million to their communities.

Pioneer ‘Still Energized’

From her base in Seattle, Colleen Willoughby, 81, is one of those who helped spearhead the collective giving movement. "None of us have put our brushes down," she told the gathering, comparing the work to that of a dedicated artist. "You paint until you can’t." Now she said, she is "still energized by the whole idea of women understanding their potential," and "bringing younger and younger women into philanthropy."

To that end, one of the panels at the gathering–which attracted representatives of 29 member organizations and 19 additional groups — offered practical advice on how to bring family members, the next generation, into the philanthropic fold. Others focused on everything from the best use of technology tools and social media to how best to assess the effectiveness of awarded grants.

Willoughby, with four other women, founded the in 1995, which was a model not only for WCGN but also for . The global program was initiated as a research project led by Willoughby and the Marc Lindenberg Center at the University of Washington in 2010.

The Washington Women’s Foundation awards grants in five areas; arts and culture, education, environment, health and human services grants. Past grants include $100,000 in 1996 to Mothers Against Violence in America and $100,000 in 2015 to Path With Art, which expands arts programming to marginalized adults. The foundation, which now has more than 500 members, granted more than $1 million in the 2014 cycle. The global program, Willoughby said, is now taking their message and model of giving to China.

In Charlotte, Willoughby spoke at a panel of inspirational founders called "Fire Starters." Alongside her were Molly Barker, founder of and ; and Nancy Brinker, founder of .

Girls on the Run, which Barker started in Charlotte in 1996 with 13 girls, has reached a million girls 20 years later, she said. Running was her sanctuary when she struggled as an adolescent, she said. "It taught me I’m the boss of my own brain." Now, she strives to give girls "the tools, confidence and courage." She said she felt the world shift when her 16-year-old daughter signed up to be a Girls on the Run coach. Barker said that while "our work is never done, occasionally it’s great to pause for moment and reflect on how the world has changed." And she admitted to having one of those "big-girl crush" moments sharing the stage with Brinker.

Despite all the work she has done to fulfill her promise to her sister, Susan G. Komen, who died of breast cancer at the age of 36, that she would do everything she could to end breast cancer, Brinker said, "I only see what remains to be done; I never see what has been done." The organization she founded in 1982 has since "invested more than $2.2 billion in breast cancer research, education, screening and treatment," says its website. Brinker, a breast cancer survivor herself, said she is now seeing young women not only surviving but thriving years after a metastatic breast cancer diagnosis. "Getting tired is not an option," she said.

Conference Co-Chair Dianne Chipps Bailey is a Charlotte attorney and a founding director of the , a Charlotte-based group that has awarded more than $4 million over a little more than 10 years. In just one example, in 2013 it granted $80,000 to increase the services of in the region. The program helps young adults between 16 and 24 years old who need assistance with education, housing, employment, health and safety and other tools as they make the transition to being independent adults.

St. Louis hosted Women’s Collective Giving Grantmakers Network‘s conference last year and this year the city was well represented in Charlotte. Marianne Baer, of the , said about a dozen members were in attendance. Its website says the Spirit of St. Louis, since 2006, has given the region more than $1,700,000 in grants of about $5,000 to $25,000. This year’s grants include $20,000 to recruit and train volunteer advocates for Voices for Children, which provides legal and social advocacy for abused and neglected children in foster care in the region.

Baer, an artist, said at first she felt like "comic relief" among the lawyers, accountants and business people in her group. Now, she is the group’s membership co-chair, and said she wants everyone she knows to be involved. "Women know how to talk to other women," she said. "Put us in any context, and we can solve problems." She described the conference as "a good, diverse group of women, doing amazing things for different reasons." She was returning home, she said, "driven to follow through."

On a table outside a conference meeting room sat brochures showing the range of organizations represented, from , "dedicated to supporting programs that empower teen girls and women" to Impact to in California which welcomes men and children.

The list of member organizations and grants awarded are certain to grow before next year’s meeting.

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