RALEIGH, N.C. — October can be a great month for the Ladies who Lunch. The food might not be particularly filling, but the stories of people helped by the women sitting around the tables provide much more substantial satisfaction. That was certainly Cokie's experience at a lunch last week with our daughter in Washington, and one this week with our daughter-in-law in Raleigh as local women's giving circles — great groups of women who band together to better their communities — honored their awardees.
In the nation's capital, the well-established Washington Area Women's Foundation gathered close to 1,200 boisterous women of every race and ethnicity in a downtown hotel ballroom where they were greeted by a local TV anchor, saluted by someone from the White House, entertained by a professionally produced video and inspired by women helped by their largesse. In North Carolina, the fledgling Women's Network assembled a couple of hundred women in a suburban hotel ballroom for a somewhat more subdued, but even more inspiring affair.
More inspiring because that luncheon for hundreds of donors grew out of a casual meal three short years ago when four friends asked, "What can we do to make a real difference?" (They call themselves, "The Four Blondes," confiding, "None of us is a real blonde.") The answer was plain to see in the faces of the representatives of grant recipients: a clinic serving poor minority women, a center providing mental health services for poor children, a community college helping foster kids move into adulthood, a hospice establishing an after-school program for the children of dying parents.
The grants (of at least $25,000) were huge sums of money for those organizations, and a check for that amount would have been a huge sum for most of the women at the lunch. But by pooling their resources the women in Raleigh, along with their sisters around the country, are able to raise enough money to make a significant impact on the lives of local women and children.
Women have come together to help each other since the beginning of the republic. In the late 18th century, "the ladies of New York" established the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children, which provided food, fuel and clothing to hundreds of widows and children. And the early 19th century found African-American women forming organizations like the Colored Female Religious and Moral Society of Salem, Mass., which charged dues of a penny a week as a safety net "for the benefit of the sick and the destitute." And that's the basic model for the giving circles of today.
In different places, different rules apply — in Raleigh, for instance, each woman pledges to give $1,200 a year for five years and every member may vote on which organizations should receive their money — but in essence, they are all the same. Societies for African-American women, Latina women, Asian and Pacific Island women, Hmong women, white women all collect from the group as a whole, bundle the money into sizeable amounts and distribute it in the community, often to programs for women and girls.
Most of these giving circles, which have raised more than $100 million and are now estimated to number some 500 strong, cropped up in the last five to 10 years and they are changing the face of philanthropy in America. Though the donors might be listed in a program somewhere, these are essentially anonymous gifts. They don't come from Mrs. Sally Smith. they come from the women of the community.
"Women are looking for relevance, not tax deductions. They want to serve in some way," says Town & Country magazine editor Pamela Fiori who has become an expert on women's philanthropy, "they feel it's their obligation and responsibility." Unlike traditional philanthropists, (read "men") it's not their names on a plaque these women want to see but the smile of the new homeowner helped by one of the programs they fund who jokes, "I don't hang out with renters anymore."
A study conducted by the universities of Indiana and Nebraska released earlier this year reveals that women's giving circles are providing the relevance donors are seeking. The findings show that members of these groups are "highly engaged in their communities," that they "give more and more strategically than other donors" that they "give to areas less often funded by organized philanthropy," and that "they are providing creative opportunities for new ways to give."
So there's much to celebrate here, ladies. Enjoy your lunch.
Cokie Roberts' latest book is "Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation" (William Morrow, 2008). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.