November 21, 2011

Donor Circle Starts Cycle of Giving

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Before the luncheon, the women milled around chatting about their kids, busy schedules, work changes and upcoming school auctions.

There is a sameness among them: Many coming from similar professional backgrounds, education and age, within a decade or so.

None are headlining, big-time donors, but all are devoted to making charitable contributions.

It is that philanthropic trait bringing them together this time, all combining their money into a giving circle for larger grants.

“This year, I’m part of a $45,000 gift that I can’t offer on my own,” said member Tracy Kennedy. “It goes back to what investment groups were doing in the ’80s. But this is about investing in our community.”

Calling themselves Women Impacting Tulsa, it is the first known organized giving circle in Tulsa.

An Oklahoma City giving circle – Impact Oklahoma – was created eight years ago and is up to 300 women giving out about $300,000 a year.

Tulsans Sharon Gallagher and Karen Davis formed the philanthropic circle last year and recruited 28 other members. The first $30,000 grant went to Women in Recovery, a substance abuse program for women that serves as an alternative to prison.

The grant was used to hire a Workforce Oklahoma employee to train women in resume-building and interviewing skills and develop business partnerships for job placements.

With an additional 15 members this year, the giving circle recently awarded $20,000 to Women in Recovery and $25,000 to EduCareers, an educational program for low-income women who have children enrolled at the Educare early learning program.

“Our goal is to grow,” said outgoing chairwoman Vani Singhal. “The more people we add, the bigger impact we can make.

“From a money standpoint, I could give $1,000 to Women in Recovery and they could buy some items. But together, we were able to staff a full-time and ongoing position to help women get jobs. That makes the bigger impact.”

The circle approaches philanthropy strategically through a competitive grant process and includes a post-evaluation. Through the year, circle members have the opportunity to visit area nonprofits and to hear about trends and needs from local leaders.

“We arm ourselves with knowledge before making the gifts,” Singhal said.

The circle has received 21 applications each year, ranging from the arts to education.

The targeted areas of interest are programs that help women and children and break the cycle of poverty.

“These are women fighting an uphill battle,” said incoming chairwoman Stephanie Royce. “We’re really committed to breaking the cycle. If you educate a woman, you are not only helping her, but you are helping her children and their education.”

There are no requirements or expectations of members, other than making the contribution.

“You can be as involved as you want to be,” Royce said. “Some people just want to give money, and that’s fine. We did have about 25 of our 45 members involved in the review and decision-making on where the money goes. So, we’re going to place more of our educational activities around that next year.”

Any woman is eligible to join the circle, which costs $1,050 a year.

“It’s important to show as women that we are here, we care and we want to be informed,” Royce said.

The account is held at the Tulsa Community Foundation, which invests for a higher return, distributes applications to nonprofits and provides information to donors.

“We have 100 percent control of the money,” Singhal said.

Of the donation, $1,000 goes directly to the grants, and $50 is used for administrative costs, including account fees, newsletters, evaluation and application forms and the annual luncheon.

That luncheon brings together women of the circle, potential new donors and women who needed their boost.

Jovan Crawford, 34, completed courses through EduCareers to become a certified nursing assistant. She is now pursuing a licensed practical nursing certification and plans to complete her education as a registered nurse and bachelor’s degree in nursing.

Crawford explained to the giving circle how she was pulled out of generational poverty with help from their donations. She will be the first in her family to graduate from college.

She is part of a class of mothers who have children at Educare and need support to obtain higher education. It is a partnership with the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa and other nonprofits and private donors.

“It is exciting to know that women want to empower each other,” Crawford said. “These women don’t know us, but they know what we’re trying to do and are helping us out.”

Crawford once enrolled in a for-profit college, but it was not accredited and she ended up $7,000 in debt. Even with the support of her children’s father, she struggled to get by as a teacher’s assistant at Educare.

EduCareers participants are provided with tuition, books, workforce assistance and staff support. Classes are tailored to the schedule of Educare.

Since Crawford became a full-time student, her children question whether her homework is done and make sure her backpack of books is in tow each day.

“My kids look at me and say, ‘I’m going to college,’ and they are 5, 4 and 3,” she said. “I wasn’t talking about that when I was their age. It’s a relief knowing that I can finish without having so much debt and loans. I can worry about my kids and not that financial stress.”

Delia Nacke brought tears to eyes and a standing ovation at the luncheon after telling her story of loss and recovery.

Nacke said after a painful divorce she sought comfort in drug use. She lost her child, home and nearly all communication with her family. Hitting rock bottom and facing drug charges, she entered Women in Recovery and has been sober for 14 months.

Meeting the women who pooled their money to fund the program was moving to Nacke as well.

“Our support system is wide,” Nacke said. “I see things through a different perspective now … With programs like this, there are ways to overcome abuse and addiction and become a woman and support your family.”