CHARLOTTE – Two women interested in new ways to give back to their community found inspiration in a magazine story about a Seattle giving circle. That was in 2003. Since then, the Charlotte-based Women’s Impact Fund has grown to nearly 400 community leaders awarding 49 grants totaling more than $3.7 million – and it has become one of the largest women’s collective giving groups in the country.

As its members met this past week to celebrate successes and award yearly grants, the emphasis was on plans for the future. Mary Lou Babb, who with Claire Tate founded the group, said, “I sit here and I’m amazed.” She said, “It’s not just giving money, it’s giving time. We love being can-do — making an effort to make it better. Women get so passionate about our needs in the community.” It’s time, she said, “to make an effort to make it better. This group can continue to enlarge itself.”

The fund is a member of the Women’s Collective Giving Grantmakers Network, a national network of 38 independent collective giving groups whose vision says, in part, “We believe that women can change the world by pooling their intellectual and financial capital for the common good.”

That vision fills rooms across the country, as women use their collective power to change communities.

In Charlotte, the Women’s Impact Fund provides vital support for creative community initiatives. It focuses on five areas: arts and culture, education, environment, health and human services. During the group’s annual meeting it granted five Charlotte nonprofits a combined $377,500. After 100 organizations were evaluated during a competitive application process, the Charlotte Children’s Choir, Child Care Resources, TreesCharlotte, Barium Springs Home for Children and the Salvation Army were chosen.

From left: Jeanette Sims (Women’s Impact Fund board chair) with grant recipients Deronda Metz (The Salvation Army), Dave Cable (TreesCharlotte), Nancina Pope (Charlotte Children’s Choir), Janet Singerman (Childcare Resources, Inc.), John Koppelmeyer (Barium Springs Home for Children), and Kathy Mansfield (Women’s Impact Fund grants committee chair). (Courtesy Women’s Impact Fund)

Initiatives made possible by the grants range from Barium Springs’ Court Psychological Program, which provides on-site comprehensive psychological assessments and consultation services for children referred through Mecklenburg County’s Juvenile Court, to a program to replenish and sustain Charlotte’s tree canopy in deforested and under-served areas.

In a social media twist, members also used their phones to vote by text message and award a flash philanthropy prize of $5,000 to a grant finalist, the Community Culinary School of Charlotte.

Nikki Emanuel Jarrell, children’s choir board chair, said a two-year $52,000 grant would help jump start SingOut!, its summer and after-school choral program that serves at-risk youth.  The accountant reflected many of the women in the room, juggling work inside and outside the home with their time spent on community projects.  “We struggle with reaching out to the community,” she said, and the money will allow the organization to hire a part-time education and outreach coordinator, and purchase a piano and teaching supplies.

The executive director of past grant award-winner Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte said a $70,000 grant from the Women’s Impact Fund had funded a “nuVoices for a nuGeneration” festival, filling a void in the theatrical landscape by cultivating emerging American playwrights. Dan Shoemaker said the festival, which draws hundreds of entries as it takes a play “from page to stage,” has shared the work of new writers to audiences in the region and across the country.

McClintock Partners in Education (McPie), another Women’s Impact Fund past grant recipient, has shaped a middle-school based program that has drawn dozens of visitors – including school superintendents from British Columbia — hoping to replicate its success. The partnership between the Christ Lutheran church, the community, and the school has developed a regular family night – bolstered by more than 100 volunteers, with age-appropriate tutoring and enrichment for students and siblings and parenting skills classes. The comprehensive program also provides transportation and a hot meal.

Women’s Impact Fund members give $1,200 a year and can take part in community issues forums and luncheon learning events. Incoming chair Carolyn Meade is an attorney with 10- and 12-year-old sons – “it’s better to be crazy and tired than bored and restless.” Charlotte, she said, has always had “a core of strong leaders who set a course to take us forward.” She said she the goal of the fund is “to create informed people who really care.”

Dianne Bailey, a fund member, described the April meeting of the Women’s Collective Giving Grantmakers Network in St. Louis, which featured discussions on best practices, new program ideas and membership recruitment and retention programs – and a speech from Sonja Nichols, billed as “membership builder extraordinaire from Charlotte.”

Bailey said giving circles across the country can range from “10 members sitting around the kitchen table” to much larger groups  “from diverse perspectives, with a shared passion for community.”