Power of the Purse

local women use collective giving to support community

by Lauren Fisher, photos by Andrea Paulseth

The Eau Claire Women’s Giving Circle Gift of Giving Breakfast at the  Eau Claire Golf and Country Club
The Eau Claire Women’s Giving Circle Gift of Giving Breakfast at the Eau Claire Golf and Country Club

Dozens of local women gathered Dec. 6 for the Eau Claire Women’s Giving Circle Gift of Giving Breakfast, where the organization awarded more than $40,000 in grants to eight local community support programs. Thanks to the participation of 265 active women members and more past contributors, the Women’s Giving Circle, a Fund of the Eau Claire Community Foundation, was able to surpass last year’s total donations by more than $5,000.

There are two Women’s Giving Circles in the Chippewa Valley, operating as funds of the community foundations in Eau Claire and Dunn counties. These women-founded and -operated organizations combine donors’ efforts to increase the power of contributions in a practice called “collective giving.”

Women are collaborators, women are networkers, and when women see a need, they want to affect change for women and families.” – Marianne Klinkhammer •  founding member of Women's Giving Circle

The Eau Claire Women’s Giving Circle was founded in 2006 by 103 women who all pledged to donate $1,000 in annual installments of $250 over four years. Of contributions to the Circle, 50 percent are placed in an endowment fund (a pooled investment account), 5 percent is used to cover administrative costs, and 45 percent is distributed annually through a grant process. A percentage of the endowment account, approved by the Eau Claire Community Foundation Board of Trustees, is added to the granting dollars each year. Any funds not awarded are carried over for the next year’s granting cycle.

Four organizations that support women and families earned awards totaling $10,000 from the Eau Claire Circle during its first distribution year in 2008. Since then the awards, and the number of services and programs that receive them, have grown each year. Now, the endowment holds nearly $350,000, and continues to increase thanks to member and nonmember donations and accumulative earnings.

Five years after the first Eau Claire awards were given, Debbie Labs of Downing brought together a group of women to begin the Dunn County Women’s Giving Circle. Using a similar system, the group was able to distribute $3,500 in grants during its first year. This year, the organization broke the $50,000 mark to qualify to become an endowment, making it eligible for earnings to be used in conjunction with the pass-through.

Women have significant philanthropic power, according to multiple studies compiled by Grosskickle & Associates for The Giving Institute. Not only are women more likely to give money to charitable causes, but they hold 51 percent of all wealth in the United States. In heterosexual marriages, women are more likely to be responsible for charitable giving, and because they have a life expectancy that is on average six years longer than men, they are more likely to finish accounting for what happens to a couples’ assets after death.

Organizations like these serve to increase giving power among groups as well as to provide community to women, according to Susan Bornick, executive director of the Eau Claire Community Foundation. The Giving Circle often welcomes women who are new to the area as members, giving them the opportunity to learn about the Chippewa Valley and forge new friendships.

“It’s all about empowering women, and the purse is rather powerful,” said Marianne Klinkhammer, a founding member of the Eau Claire Circle. She was selected to speak at the Dunn County Circle’s inaugural event and served as the 2014 chairwoman of the Eau Claire Circle.

“Women are collaborators, women are networkers, and when women see a need, they want to affect change for women and families,” Klinkhammer said. In her experience, women think longer about giving – and do more research about the causes they contribute to – than men do.

When Klinkhammer assumed the chairwoman role, she saw a need to increase membership and invest in engagement among current members. She established a newsletter, a book group, and a membership outreach event called Wine, Women, and Chocolate in order to maintain a connection between the organization and its members, reminding them and the community about the spirit of collaboration that brings them together.

Klinkhammer and Ryan Ruegnitz, the incoming chair of the Dunn County Giving Circle, both emphasize the growing power of women’s giving circles. They allow women to pool their funds for greater community impact and act as a gateway for education and expansion of philanthropy and volunteerism.

“They’re already incredibly generous people, but participating in the organization allows them to learn about their community,” Ruegnitz said of giving circle members. Many women who participate in collective giving organizations find they act as gateways to more involvement. They learn more about local nonprofits, sometimes redirecting or increasing their giving or volunteerism to maximize their effect.

“It doesn’t just end with the Women’s Giving Circle,” Klinkhammer said. “It spreads the web even wider.”

Georgina Tegart, executive director of the Dunn County Community Foundation, believes that the Women’s Giving Circle is an approachable organization. “They feel like they’re coming to a group of women, rather than coming to a board,” she said of grant applicants. Klinkhammer says that women have a “heart connection” with their giving, which is felt throughout the community.

Perhaps the most important aspect of a giving circle is its permanency. Endowment funds are forever, according to Klinkhammer, meaning that local charity programs can benefit from contributions to a Women’s Giving Circle in perpetuity. “That legacy is what we as a group of women are excited about,” Klinkhammer said.

More information about local Women’s Giving Circles can be found online at the Eau Claire and Dunn County community foundations’ websites (eccommunityfoundation.org and cfdunncounty.org). The Eau Claire Women’s Giving Circle currently offers a young philanthropists program, which allows women ages 22-39 to purchase a membership at a reduced rate.

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