Women’s Philanthropy Builds Community: A Local Perspective

On January 30, 2021 The New York Times published an article by Valeriya Safronova titled “Wealthy Women Transform Giving.” At the Community Foundation of South Jersey (CFSJ), we applaud the New York Times highlighting women’s philanthropy.

When CFSJ began exploring opportunities to focus on women’s philanthropy in 2015, it was met with energy and some skepticism from trustees and allies. Energy from those who saw a chance to practice a more community-oriented philanthropy. Skepticism arose from those who saw the focus as alienating men and didn’t believe a clear focus on women was prudent or relevant. To our good fortune, these concerns were addressed and overcome. Since then, it has become abundantly clear that women’s philanthropy deserves to be considered fully and apart from how or why men give.

CFSJ’s first Women & Philanthropy community event featured a panel of notable women in the South Jersey region. Panelists spoke about their motivations and inspirations for giving back. Yes, they had male role models and fathers who had generated great wealth and modeled generosity, but rather than create legacies designed to demonstrate their generous nature for posterity, these women-focused specifically on two things. First, they wanted to feel the impact of their giving and they wanted to pass the torch to the next generation. Repeatedly panelists and attendees echoed these themes. It was striking that even though they were themselves givers, they felt the current narrative about “philanthropy” did not apply. This term did not encompass the empathy and volunteerism inherent in their approach. They didn’t see themselves as philanthropists. That word was reserved for someone who wasn’t them.

The enthusiasm of the women in attendance was enough evidence for CFSJ to move forward with identifying and deploying a model of giving that centered around women and their unique approaches. In 2017, CFSJ and group of local women launched Impact100 South Jersey. Impact100 is a particular type of giving circle rooted in participatory grantmaking and community building. The international model strives to bring at least 100 women together in a local community to donate annual gifts of $1,000. These gifts are then combined to award at least one $100,000 grant to a local nonprofit that members choose by voting.

It didn’t take long for this democratic form of giving to show results in South Jersey. Since launching, the local Impact100 chapter has raised $615,000 for nonprofits in Burlington, Camden, Gloucester and Cumberland Counties and has awarded grants of more than $424,000 to date. This June, Impact100 South Jersey’s 200 members will award another $200,000. The South Jersey chapter is one of four in New Jersey. Since the first Impact chapter launched in 2013, New Jersey women have collectively given and donated $3,742,523 to nonprofits in their home communities.

The attraction for many women is the opportunity not only being part of a large transformative grant, but also to be involved in the award process. Many Impact100 South Jersey members take part in the thorough vetting of grant applicants and express great joy in learning about the local nonprofit community and how to assess a nonprofit’s viability. The Impact100 grants are designed to take an organization to the next level. For example, the $100,000 grant to Boys and Girls Club of Cumberland and Salem Counties in 2019 provided funding to purchase a web-based mentoring platform to increase access for mentors in a vast, rural region. Another $100,000 grant in 2020 to LUCY Outreach in Camden supported the organization’s desire to integrate trauma-informed principles and practices into every aspect of their mission. These grants have a long-lasting effect on the individuals served, the communities in which they live and the legacies Impact100 members can now, by example, pass down to their own families.

In 2017, the Women’s Philanthropy Institute reported giving circles raised $1.3 billion nationally. According to Dr. Debra Mesch, a professor of philanthropy at Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy Women’s Philanthropy Institute, the number of giving circles tripled between 2007 and 2017. Seventy percent of giving circles are majority women.

At CFSJ, in partnership with the women of Impact 100 South Jersey, the Foundation continues to celebrate and extol the values of this type of community building. Dr. Mesch was the keynote speaker for “Why We Give: A Celebration of South Jersey Women Who Give Back” held last October. Several charity- and volunteer-focused initiatives joined us to celebrate, learn, and adapt. Dr. Mesch pointed to research that proves gender matters when it comes to charitable giving. She explained that women – across race and ethnicity – are more likely to give than their male counterparts.

The rise in giving circles is evidence of something else. Women enjoy being part of a community of givers. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs postulates that being part of a community is basic to human nature. Giving follows the same rules. Women in giving circles and other movements with charity at their heart feed a need to be part of a group that’s making a difference. Not only is collective money raised, but the participating women build relationships and enjoy fellowship. This is a whole person approach rooted in the love of humankind.

Women and other groups not known for their deep pockets are quiet, yet powerful, forces in charitable giving, although rarely recognized for it. It’s news when Melinda Gates or McKenzie Scott give millions. But women-led charitable groups are emerging as a major factor in how much money is donated and distributed. These women are the true philanthropists of our time – lovers of humanity who selflessly contribute to its wellbeing.

Kyle Ruffin is Vice President of the Board of Trustees for Community Foundation of South Jersey and a founding member of Impact100 South Jersey.

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