by Michelle Cale, WFC Board Member
Towards the end of 2008, I found myself with a new job: the family’s philanthropist. For the first time, I was responsible for doing more than writing the usual $25 or $50 checks in the holiday season. I needed to understand how to engage with the nonprofit sector in a way that would maximize the impact of my donations, while honoring my family’s beliefs and values.
My husband and I knew that we were most interested in supporting people in poverty or difficult circumstances, and those with high potential but limited opportunities, especially girls. But, given that there are well over a million nonprofits registered in the United States, how could we choose where to give? Where on earth does a newbie start?
Luckily a friend of a friend introduced me to the Women of Silicon Valley (now Women Giving Opportunity), a giving circle of the Women’s Foundation of California. Women GO, as we call it, was formed in 2005 by a group of women who believed in the power of collective giving, especially to support organizations advancing the economic security of women and girls. When I joined in January 2009, I became part of a learning community of like-minded women.
Our goals are to educate ourselves in the problems facing low income families in California, calling on the knowledge of expert speakers from inside and outside the Women’s Foundation; to engage in a rigorous process of decision-making about grant-giving; and to move thousands of dollars into the community to support effective solutions. Since 2005, the members of Women GO have collectively donated over $850,000 to nonprofits in Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties.
Over the past four years, I have benefited so much from the rich conversations at our circle meetings, learning from the experience and insights of my fellow circle members as well as from our invited speakers. I have had the opportunity to read and critique grant applications, assess nonprofit balance sheets, and participate in site visits to grant applicants where I’ve met many impressive women, both leading organizations and benefiting from the programs we have supported. And I have had the chance to practice my leadership as chair of the circle, and in ad hoc sub-committees.
What keeps me a part of Women GO? First, I believe strongly in the power of collective giving. I enjoy the process of learning and developing a consensus around our grant making. Giving together enables us to give more: Our money can do more in one large donation than in many small ones. I love the efficiency of that. Secondly, I value the friendship and expertise of the women who make up the circle. We love to eat and socialize and have fun, as well as to learn and try to change the world for the better. And, thirdly, I believe that the culture of the Women’s Foundation of California (WFC) that underpins the work of Women GO has made me a more thoughtful philanthropist overall. It has taught me to see that communities know how to solve their problems—they just need the resources to do it.
The people and organizations that we support are genuinely our partners in change. Being part of a WFC giving circle, you rapidly come to understand the normal dynamic of philanthropy—that donors are always in a position of power because we have the money that nonprofits need—and you learn to move beyond it. Being part of a giving circle has shown me that there is more than one way to work for change. Together is so much better than alone.