By Maja Beckstrom
Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.
Four times a year, a group of women gather in Shoreview and get to feel like big-time philanthropists.
They use a fishbowl.
The women are members of The Power of 100 Twin Cities Women Who Care.
It’s a nonexclusive club. You simply show up, learn about organizations in the community, vote and write a check for $100.
On a Monday evening in early December, dozens of women sat around tables in a hotel banquet room. A few women in the corner holding glasses of white wine playfully pounded a table in a spontaneous drum roll as the names of three nonprofits were pulled from a glass bowl.
The name on the first slip was Alexandra House, a battered-women’s shelter in Blaine. The second was Theresa Listening Center, a program for homeless women in St. Paul. The third was Second Stork, a volunteer effort to give free diapers to needy new moms.
At the end of the hour, one would be selected to receive the total of all those $100 donations, plus a matching grant from Best Buy founder Richard Schulze.
“When you multiply your money, the impact is so much greater,” said member Lisa Mattson of Shoreview. “And there is this wonderful synergy in the room of women who all have an interest in doing something for someone besides themselves.”
Every year, individuals in Minnesota give away more money away than businesses and foundations, nearly $3.4 billion in the state in 2012, according to the most recent analysis of tax returns by the Chronicle of Philanthropy.
Getting together to pool money for a cause is a relatively small part of how individuals give, but grass-roots group giving, also called collective giving or giving circles, has received attention over the past decade. The 100 Who Care, which started in Michigan in 2006, is one of the more successful models with 350 loosely affiliated groups nationwide listed at 100womenwhocare.org, including thepowerof100twincities.com.
The Minnesota group was founded in 2012 by Pam Maccani of Shoreview, a working mother who was looking for a way to give back as her two children headed to college and she wrapped up years of volunteering in the public schools. Maccani searched online for “how can women make a difference” and stumbled on a Power of 100 group in Ohio.
“I liked the idea that it was women,” said Maccani. “Sometimes as a woman you’re not taken as seriously. And men have the tendency to take over in a group. I wanted to show what difference women could make.”
Maccani invited 10 friends, mothers she knew from heading the PTA at Turtle Lake Elementary School in Shoreview. They invited others and the first meeting of about 80 women resulted in an $8,000 donation to children’s mental health programs at the Washburn Center for Children. Since then, the group has grown to 200 members, given away more than $200,000 and spun off a Power of 100 that meets in Eden Prairie (powerof100southwest.com).
Their power doubled when Schulze offered to match member contributions of both groups last year. Shoreview’s recent gifts included $20,450 for Accessible Space in St. Paul, which builds and manages housing for seniors and people with disabilities, and $21,125 to support cancer research through the University of Minnesota Foundation.
“He admires what they’re doing,” said Mark Dienhart, president and CEO of the Richard M. Schulze Family Foundation, which is looking into supporting similar groups nationwide. “It’s very much a grass-roots effort and he wants to encourage it.”
“PHO” THE GOOD OF ALL
Giving circles come in a variety of forms and no one tracks their total giving because the efforts are scattered and informal, said Susan Stehling, communications associate at the Minnesota Council on Foundations, who has written about the phenomenon for the council’s newsletter.
“It’s a new spin on the longtime tradition,” said Stehling. “Nonprofits like it because they feel the groups teach people how to give. And it opens philanthropy to people who don’t have a fortune to give away.”
Some groups have a more involved process. Giving WoMN (givingwomn.org), which has donated over $1 million since it started in 2005, asks members for a $1,000 annual contribution, plus $100 for administration expenses. Funds are managed by the Minnesota Foundation for a 3 percent fee.
Other giving circles build on the informal ways that immigrants and minority communities have long helped each other. Building More Philanthropy with Purpose (www.bmppgiving.org) formed in the Twin Cities in 2012 and is one of several dozen circles across the country loosely affiliated with Asian American and Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy (AAPIP.org). Under the tag “Giving Together ‘Pho the Good of All,’ ” six Asian-American families have given $60,000 over three years to efforts including a Hmong farming group, a Lao blogger and Tibetan political activists.
The Power of 100 prides itself on being quick and easy. Any member can nominate any nonprofit in advance, as long as it checks out as having been legally incorporated for at least two years. If it is randomly picked from the fishbowl, the member has five minutes to talk about it. The group votes for one of the three with paper ballots. Checks are written directly to the nonprofit. All in one hour.
Alexandra House was nominated by Barbara Mahr, a financial planner who lives in southern Anoka County. She first heard about the shelter years ago after her daughter’s high school classmate was killed, along with the classmate’s mother, in a domestic violence homicide. She attends the organization’s annual fundraising walks and keeps abreast of its needs.
“They’d use part of the money to improve their security system,” Mahr said in her allotted five minutes. Mahr said an unidentified man had been lurking around the shelter and the staff wants to install more security cameras. The shelter also needs to replace a furnace that failed. “It’s a good organization,” Mahr concluded.
Next up was Elaine Carnahan who gave a pitch for Theresa Living Center, which provides transitional housing for homeless single women and mothers in Ramsey County.
“I have so many people tell me these women made bad choices,” said Carnahan, a social worker with another organization. “Well, how do you make good choices if nobody shows you how? How many of us have made bad choices? These women are really on their own, and this program gives them some stability while they get their life together.”
The final nonprofit was Second Stork, a volunteer effort that gives diapers and cribs to needy new mothers. Before filling out ballots, women asked questions: How does Theresa Living Center measure its success? How much government funding does Alexandra House receive? While votes were counted, the executive director of North Metro Pediatrics in Coon Rapids, which had received September’s donation of $23,777, talked about her clinic’s work with low-income families.
Maccani said voting is the hardest part of the evening because “each one is so deserving.”
In the end, Alexandra House got the votes. Member Pam Kubitschek of Shoreview cheerfully wrote out a check to the domestic violence organization, even though she had nominated Theresa Listening Center.
“It would have been wonderful to get it,” said Kubitschek with a shrug and a smile. “But you know that the other group will put the money to great use. The bottom line is that every single charity is in need. Nobody walks out of here unhappy.” Some women already donate to the group they nominate, but there is no official runner-up status.
“I think what we’ve all learned is that there is so much need in our community” Kubitschek added. “I had no idea these groups existed. My eyes have been opened not just to these organizations but to the need.”
Two weeks later, Mahr and a few other women brought a manila envelope of checks to Alexandra House, totaling $14,788. With the match from Schulze the donation topped $19,000.
“We were very, very excited,” said Connie Moore, executive director of Alexandra House. “We’ve been working at outreach and cultivating individual donors,” said Moore, who plans to add the Power of 100 women to her donor database. “This is a big deal for us.”