The Power of Women's Funds
By focusing specifically on helping women and girls, women’s funds hope to make substantial inroads into improving the lives of families.
A few years ago, while sitting around a table in Alabama, a dozen women came up with an unusual approach to the problem of domestic violence. Recognizing that women often confided in their hairdressers, they decided to start a program that would train salon workers to identify telltale signs of abuse and provide customers an emergency hotline number. The program, called Cut It Out, became a success, and has since been launched in more than 20 states.
The women who started Cut It Out were on the board of The Women’s Fund of Greater Birmingham, a 10-year-old community fund that works to promote economic self-sufficiency for women and girls. The innovative nature of the program is germane to women’s and girls’ funds, which address societal challenges like illiteracy, inequality, and violence by supporting groundbreaking solutions to complex problems. In recent years, women’s funds have grown significantly in funding, scope, and prominence.
Women Helping Women
By focusing specifically on the impact to women and girls, women’s funds hope to make substantial inroads into improving the lives of families. They lend both financial support and technical expertise to their partner groups, helping to recruit and educate professional staff. “The approach that women take in general to problem-solving and our ability to connect and see the whole is really needed in local communities, families, and neighborhoods throughout the world,” says Ann L. Coffey, Executive Director of Women 4 Women, a fund based in Louisville, Ky., and partnered with The Community Foundation of Louisville.
The inroads women have made in the workforce have helped create a generation of successful businesswomen who can now devote their resources to crucial issues. “There’s a whole group of women who earn their own money, have good careers, and are in a high income bracket, yet abhor the chasm between the haves and have-nots,” explains Virginia Sweet, Executive Director of The Women’s Fund of Greater Birmingham. “Women want to support other women and give back.”
Many of these funds are supported by the Women’s Funding Network (WFN), a membership organization of women’s funds that provides tools and resources that include capacity building, media outreach, and networking. Founded in 1984 with 34 members, it now includes 113 funds on five continents that award approximately $50 million in grants each year. One highly effective fund-raising technique is donor circles, in which a donor engages a group of friends to raise money and direct it to a women’s fund. “Women like to get together and pool resources, which works to the advantage of the funds,” says Anita Daley, Communications Co-Director of the Women’s Funding Network.
Innovative Approaches Can Meet Community Needs
A women’s fund is usually started with a seed grant, often a gift from an individual or a private foundation, part of which might be used to commission a study on the needs of women and girls in the community. During its initial study, the Women’s Fund of Greater Birmingham found that in 1990, female-headed households in Alabama accounted for 60 percent of families in poverty (the number now is closer to 70 percent). Women in Alabama earn 63 cents for every dollar men earn and many are spending more than half of their income on childcare. “Increasingly, women are the face of poverty,” Sweet says. “They can’t get out of the rut.”
Birmingham also has the second-highest percentage of teen mothers among large American cities. To reduce teen pregnancy rates, the Women’s Fund of Greater Birmingham supports innovative projects like Media Smarts, a program that teaches filmmaking to at-risk teenage girls. Over the course of a year, the girls learn every aspect of making their own feature film: They write the script, build the set, operate the camera, direct, star, produce, and advertise the film, and even sell popcorn at the screening. “They come out with marketable skills, improved self-esteem, a sense of self-worth, hopefulness, and a future,” Sweet says.
Starting a New Fund
The Women’s Foundation of Oklahoma was established three years ago with a challenge grant from the Chambers Family Fund, which agreed to provide $100,000 in matching grants per year for five years in order to build a million-dollar endowment, plus an additional $75,000 per year for grant-making and administration. Hence, the Women’s Foundation was able to begin supporting programs immediately.
One issue it tackled was women’s incarceration and recidivism. “Oklahoma leads the nation and the world in the rate at which we incarcerate our women,” says Susie Graves, Executive Director of the Communities Foundation of Oklahoma, which houses the Women’s Foundation of Oklahoma. The fund supports a project called F.O.R.C.E. (Female Offenders: Recovering, Conquering, and Educating), led by a board of ex-offenders, that helps women coming out of prison reintegrate into society as they return to their families and communities. In so doing, it hopes to break the cycle of recidivism by strengthening family ties and improving the women’s chances for having a career after prison.
By working within a community foundation, Graves says, the Women’s Foundation benefited from the resources already in place, such as an established donor network, credibility in the community, and the infrastructure to process gifts and run reports. But, says Graves, the reverse was also true: The women’s fund has also become a powerful asset for the community foundation and has brought in new donors and interest. “They coexist very well and together tackle some really tough issues,” she says.
A Powerful Tool for Giving Back
Women’s and girls’ funds are an increasingly powerful tool in fighting the root causes of poverty and inequality. Not surprisingly, they are often an example of women leveraging the power of their social networks and professional relationships. “Women today are more successful and more likely to be managing their own finances and running their own companies,” Coffey says. “I think they’re stepping up and want to give back.”
Morgan Jacobs is a freelance writer based in New York City.
Copyright 2006 Community Foundations of America
Used with Permission