Women circle round to broaden their philanthropic potential

Philanthropic acts by women for women -- that's the direction a growing number of women’s giving groups are going in the Kalamazoo and Battle Creek area.

And the generosity of local philanthropists who are women is part of a national trend. At every income level women give to charity more often than men do and they often give more than their male counterparts, reports the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. The amount women give exceeds that of men in comparable circumstances, the report says.

Locally, the Kalamazoo Giving Circle was founded two years ago to support existing efforts in Kalamazoo County which address the needs of underrepresented girls and women so they may reach their fullest potential, says Jeanne Grubb, donor relations officer for the Kalamazoo Community Foundation and co-founder of the giving group.

"We were involved in a one-year workshop about promoting diversity in giving and wanted to make an outreach to women of color in our community," Grubb says. "We formed this group of women who would not normally be coming together and created a circle of giving."

The women who form these groups say more women now have their own sources of income and want to give to organizations that mean something to them.

"I would say there’s always lot of energy around this because, as women, we know how impactful collective giving can be in a community," says Donna Lartigue, chairperson of the Battle Creek-based Women of Impact and director of the Catalyst Project, a two-year capacity building initiative at Kalamazoo College. "When somebody comes in to join our group they have all the information and there’s a lot of energy and curiosity about the organizations we talk about giving to. They gain clarity and having a deeper understanding of what they’re giving to."

Grubb’s partner in the formation of the Kalamazoo Giving Circle is Karika Phillips, coordinator of the Center for  Health Equity. Like the majority of women’s giving groups in the area, the 30-plus members of the Kalamazoo Giving Circle meet four times each year and the suggested amount to give is $200, although some members give more than that and some give less.

"We felt like we had to be as open and inclusive as possible," Grubb says.

Since its founding Giving Circle members have made donations to more  than eight organizations, including the YWCA of Kalamazoo County, which partners with the Kalamazoo Humane Society to provide temporary care for pets owned by women who are victims of domestic assault.  Part of the YWCA’s mission is to provide shelter and resources in their building in downtown Kalamazoo.

"They have lots of women and children living there. Lots of times people don’t get out of a dangerous situation because they don’t know what to do with their pet," Grubb says. "We gave a grant to this partnership so these women could get out of these situations. This is huge for those families."

Finding out about partnerships and programs like this is the direct result of the diversity of this group.

Grubb says she and other members of the group want to expand their circle to include people in the community who don’t always feel like they get to the table or have a voice.

"We would like to have more women of color as members," Grubb says.  "This is about learning from other communities."

Women Who Care had its first gathering in February and the 142 women in attendance donated $100 each for a total of $14,200 given to Kalamazoo’s Warm Kids program, which provides boots, coats and other winter clothing to children in need.

The group was founded by Patti Owens, vice president of Catalyst Development, Danielle Redmond-Streed, an attorney, and Nancy Troff, a real estate developer.

Women Who Care now numbers 210 women.  During the group’s August 21 meeting members voted to give the $21,000 donated to the First Day Shoe Fund which provides athletic shoes to children in grades K-3 in Kalamazoo County who qualify for free or reduced lunch.

While the Kalamazoo Giving Circle makes its donations based on input from its members and institutional knowledge from the Kalamazoo Community Foundation, Women Who Care asks organizations selected for potential funding to make a presentation to its members who then take a vote. Owens said her group gives the organizations representatives five minutes for the presentation and five minutes for a Q & A.  She said the brevity of the meetings is attractive to the majority of her members who work outside of the home.

It’s easy to write a check on you own and hope the money will be well-spent, Owens says. The group helps avoid such giving situations.

“Sometimes you don’t have a clue with what’s happening with that money,” she says. “For women to actually connect with the tangible difference their money is making is incredibly important. We tend to hang onto our money and we don’t spend it unless it’s something that touches us.”

Although established foundations play a visible and powerful role in charitable giving, about 80 percent of philanthropy comes from individuals, women, younger donors and members of racial, ethnic and tribal communities, according to the Regional Associations of Grantmakers.

The format used by women’s giving groups and the causes they choose to support may vary, but the end result is similar.

Grubb says she isn’t concerned about these groups reaching a saturation point, but as an employee of a foundation she says, "What we struggle with as a foundation is that we’re very interested in taking a leadership role in the community and that’s about collaboration and bringing people together to  work towards  a common goal, instead of having their own fiefdoms.

"When these giving groups give money they want it to go to a specific project or fund. But as long as they’re giving to a nonprofit it’s all good whatever they can do."

Results of a study conducted by the Regional Association of Grantmakers, the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University and the University of Nebraska Omaha found that members of circles give more, on average, than donors who are not in giving circles.

The study also said that giving circle members give more strategically:

"They are more likely to give to advance a vision for change, conduct research to help decide on which organizations to support, support general operating expenses in addition to or instead of specific programs, check organizational performance data, and take into consideration cultural differences and race, class, and/or gender when making funding decisions. Giving circle members are also more likely to make multi-year gifts."

This is the case with Battle Creek's Women Who Care, formed five years ago by Linda Kenyon, a retired teacher, to support arts-related work in Battle Creek. The group has 35 members who meet quarterly during the year and contribute $100 each to arts organizations.

"Cuts to state funding for the arts prompted us to form," says Jean Krohn, a retired elementary teacher was a music and member of Women Who Care. "It just pained me when the first thing that was cut was the music program."

The majority of women in Krohn’s group are retirees.  Since Women Who Care formed, they have given more than $60,000 to organizations including the Kingman Museum, the Music Center of Battle Creek, and the Battle Creek Junior Theatre. The focus, Krohn says, is on providing access and opportunities to experience the arts, especially for the community’s children and young people.

"We have the time and the money to give," Krohn says.

In addition to Women Who Care, Battle Creek also has women’s philanthropic groups such as Women of Impact and the Women’s Caring Program. Women of Impact began informally as the Women’s Giving Circle of Battle Creek and conducted their giving beginning in May, 2010. They have so far given more than $13,000 to seven organizations including Gracious Homes, the Womens Co-op and Community Healthcare Connections.

The group has more than 45 members who meet four times during the year and contribute $100 each per meeting, Lartigue says. A member suggests the name of an organization to which they want to contribute and three names are chosen "out of a hat, if you will," says Lartigue.

"We’re most interested in giving to organizations that improve the lives or conditions of women, children and families in the greater Battle Creek area," says Lartigue. "If a member’s organization is selected they have to make a brief presentation and then the group votes on who they want to give to."

Social standing and income level have little to do with the capacity and willingness to give. Lartigue says these women-driven philanthropic groups represent successful grassroots efforts fueled by diverse membership bases.

"I really truly do believe in the power of giving back," Lartigue says. "In general I think women are much more empowered and they really understand the purpose of giving back to the community and understand the difference we can make. Women in Battle Creek really care about the community and what happens here."

When officials with Women’s Caring focused on expanding the organization’s statewide footprint, Kathleen Mechem and others in Battle Creek began volunteering three years ago to host an annual gathering where everything from the food to the venue is donated. Invitations are extended to women in the community who pay $40 each which goes directly into a pool of funds which are distributed back to the area hosting the event.

Mechem, who was most recently president and CEO of Battle Creek’s Chamber of Commerce before beginning a consulting firm in 2010 called Organizational Solutions LLC, said the Women’s Caring program focuses on raising money to pay costs associated with childcare for low income individuals.

"Many of us worked together in Lansing and this was an opportunity to get together and network with other women," says Mechem, who has worked for the Michigan Jobs Commission and the Michigan Economic Development Corp.  "It became apparent that this group could really do something to contribute to society."

Jane Parikh is a freelance writer with more than 20 years experience. A Kalamazoo native, she is now based in Battle Creek.

Photos by Erik Holladay.   

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