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Women Giving–A sisterhood is taking action to foster change

How women give philanthropically and how they connect with one another to do so hasn’t changed. What has changed is that women are not only giving more, they are mobilizing, learning, affecting, focusing on getting it done their way.

More educated, more independent, more purposeful in using their newfound influence to make a difference, this era of women giving with their hearts is often guided by a collective conscious. The environment created by social media and sweeping movements provides more ways to connect and inform. Women-led giving is prevalent at the grassroots level, in communities like the Berkshires, where the individual and the collective are moved to lift up women who are struggling. By supporting and empowering other women—locally, across borders, across oceans—they know they have a fighting chance to overcome the multitude of challenges that all humans face.

Kristen van Ginhoven is artistic director of WAM Theatre—Where the Arts and Activism Meet. WAM produces plays with a focus on women theater artists and stories of women and girls, and then donates a percentage of every performance to organizations that work to benefit the lives of women and girls near and far. Says van Ginhoven: “Women acting on behalf of women—the Berkshires are ahead of the curve on this.” Indeed, Liana Toscanini, founder of the Nonprofit Center of the Berkshires, whose mission is to help nonprofits connect, learn and
grow, reported that the Berkshires has six nonprofits per 1,000 residents.  In terms of employment, about 25 percent of our workforce is nonprofit, the 27th highest by-county concentration in the U.S. (Bureau of Labor Statistics).

One nonprofit with two Berkshire chapters is Dining for Women (DFW), a collective giving circle that funds grassroots projects in developing countries fighting gender inequality. The organization’s initial premise—share a meal and donate your dining-out dollars—guides 480 chapters across the country. The Great Barrington chapter was started in 2012 by Leslye Heilig and Linda Baxter. (The other chapter is in Pittsfield.) Monthly meetings, usually at a member’s home, include a potluck dinner and an educational program shared by chapters throughout the country.

“The concept of shared meals with small groups of women resonates,” says Baxter. “It offers learning and empathy for women living in extreme poverty who may not have much food to share. The presentation shows exactly where the money is going, and our members like the social time as well as an easy opportunity to donate to a well-vetted project.”

“It’s all about community building,” adds Heilig. “Not only does DFW build relationships, but we relate to those women whose lives we are changing.”

A similar model is used by actress and Great Barrington resident Jayne Atkinson and Berkshire native Annie Okerstrom-Lang, who founded 100 Women Now last year. Their approach gathers together 100 women, four times a year, who each donate $100 to benefit a cause that focuses on women, children, the elderly, or the poor in Berkshire County. (A recent recipient was the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts.) Pulling the recipient out of a hat, the women meet for an hour, write a check directly to the featured organization, and have a glass of wine.

“It’s guerilla giving,” says Atkinson. “We are all busy but want to help. We know that it’s time and it’s important. A beautiful, authentic thing happens to women as they get older. We spearhead. We innovate.”

Okerstrom-Lang agrees. “I moved from small community donations, like $20 to Planned Parenthood, to larger, more connected giving. Before, I felt ineffective. Now, we just get it done. Like Horton the elephant in Horton Hears a Who by Dr. Seuss.”

Abbie von Schlegell, lifelong educator, pioneer of the study of women in philanthropy, and author of Women as Donors, Women as Philanthropists, says, “Men are transactional; women are transformative. Women have to connect with their dollars. To see that they are doing good.” She also makes the point that today, more women work, have more individual wealth, and live longer. One of her favorite sayings is, “Give us the dollars, we’ll make the change.”
In addition to having more money to give, van Ginhoven of WAM says today’s women are more conservative givers. “We have a history of doing the books so we know where the money comes from and where it goes. We are careful about writing big checks. We still are fearful that we can lose our jobs, our security, our savings.”

Donna Haghighat, CEO of Springfield-based Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts, agrees. “Women take longer to write the big checks. They want to be connected and aware of what they are giving to. Building and evaluating relationships is key. And women-giving falls into two buckets: major passion giving and community giving.” The mission of the Women’s Fund includes grant-making, partnerships, community engagement, and leadership development. Repeat recipients include Flying Cloud Institute, Elizabeth Freeman Center, and Girls Inc. of the Berkshires.

Being careful about writing the big check, or any check, resonated with Caroline Wheeler, founder of Sisters for Peace in Great Barrington. As a young, single mom, she went through tough times. Once able to give back, she found it difficult to find an emotional connection to the causes she donated to. Reading Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (2009), made the difference. Not only did this book demonstrate the tremendous need of women and girls around the world, but gave her the tools to take meaningful action.

With the help of dozens of women, Sisters for Peace tackles the need, from helping at a local nursing home and offering REACH (Renew, Engage, Achieve, Connect, Heal), a 20-week course for local women in need of support, to volunteering on the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Reservation in South Dakota and empowering mothers in poverty in Nepal.

“Our mission has changed over the years,” says Wheeler. “We made the switch from giving to big organizations to providing on-the-ground help to smaller groups.

“Just as important to giving money is giving time. We work with local teenagers, offering mentoring, help with financial literacy, and nutrition guidance.” Even with willing volunteers, there are challenges. “Not everyone understands poverty,” Wheeler says. And that’s where educating those who give and volunteer is equally important to connect people and create compassion and understanding.

Miss Hall’s School in Pittsfield, educating high school girls since 1898, includes giving in its mission. Talking to head of school Julia Heaton and director of advancement Merritt Colaizzi about a recent donation to the school of $5 million—the largest in the school’s history—Heaton says of the generosity of their alums, “It’s no accident. We cultivate an environment of giving back, educating students about places to donate, where they can make the most difference, and the best ways to donate.”

The donor of the historic gift is Theresa S. Thompson, class of ’64, former Miss Hall’s trustee, and current member of the school’s Emeritus Trustee Advisory Council. “One of the ways we can show appreciation for what the school has meant in our lives is to support its important work in meaningful, substantive ways that make a difference in the lives of future women leaders,” says Thompson.

Colaizzi notes that donors such as Thompson are not motivated by recognition, but by a giving spirit of collaboration. “They really believe in what we are doing,” she says, “and their giving is more pointed.” Community is key, Colaizzi adds. “The school provides ample opportunities for students and alums to learn and connect. We host the Philanthropic Round Circle, for example, as a way to engage girls and women to become lifelong philanthropists.”

Kelly Galanis, board president of Women in Philanthropy (WiP) in Springfield, agrees that building relationships and finding causes that are important is the foundation of women-led giving. The internet helps with that.
“We can research and learn about things with the click of a button,” says Galanis. “We can find causes that are important to us more easily.” WiP offers workshops and seminars that help women find those causes. Galanis also points out that older women, due to successful financial planning, may have more to give. Retirement presents a way for women to not only do work that is more meaningful, but also to donate to causes they have become passionate about.

Whether $20 a month or a single six-figure donation, women in the Berkshires give from the heart to causes they connect with. They take time building relationships and make sure that their money is making a difference. They ask questions, educate themselves, and gather with like-minded women to talk things through.

As for the men? While they may have different approaches and motivation to giving, one group is not less potent, or less generous, a point not lost on women who give. Learning from each other can only strengthen the power of giving, compassion, and understanding.

Call to Action Philanthropic organizations with Berkshire connections

100 Women Now
Mission To support women, children, the elderly and the poor of Berkshire County.

Berkshire Baby Box
Mission To facilitate the well-being of all new families in Berkshire County.

Berkshire Taconic Foundation
Mission To strengthen communities in a four-county area through philanthropy and leadership.

Dining for Women
Mission To connect people in creative, powerful ways that assure gender equality by transforming the lives of women and  girls and reducing poverty.

Nonprofit Center of the Berkshires
Mission To facilitate growth for charitable organizations through shared resources, affordable services and creative collaborations.

Sisters for Peace
Mission To empower women and girls around the world through education, training and community development.

WAM Theatre
Mission To produce theatrical events with a focus on women theater artists and/or stories of women and girls, and to donate a portion of proceeds to organizations benefitting the lives of women and girls.

Women in Philanthropy of Western Massachusetts
Mission To support dedicated nonprofit professionals share knowledge and to continue strengthening organizations and the western Mass communities they serve.

Women of Color Giving Circle of the Berkshires
Mission To inspire and provide funding and education to women of color. To build self-respect, self-reliance and resilience from girlhood until womanhood.

Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts
Mission To fuel progress toward gender equity by funding the most promising solutions, collaborating with results-oriented partners, and by elevating the collective power of local women to take charge, and to lead with purpose.


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One thought on “Women Giving–A sisterhood is taking action to foster change”
Cecilia Hirsch says:

Great piece! We also have a Dining For Women chapter in the Northern Berkshires. You can find us via the DFW website!

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