Marla Felcher, a 56-year-old former Harvard University professor, is typical of a large and growing segment of women: highly educated, successful, affluent, and generous. She often wondered how she could help address issues such as poverty, income inequality, and discrimination, and figured many other women wrestled with the same questions.
"If there's a woman sitting in Wellesley or Weston or Cambridge or Boston," said Felcher, "and she reads the paper in the morning about all the disparity and the depressing news, and she wants to learn more about the issues firsthand and she wants to do something about them, what's her next step?"
Felcher decided to provide that next step, partnering last year with Dharma E. Cortés, a public health researcher, and Suzanne Carter, a businesswoman-turned-nonprofit-executive, to launch a new charity that would raise money from successful women and target their philanthropy at small, local nonprofits. They decided to start by recruiting 100 women who would each give $1,000.
Less than a year later, the charity, the Philanthropy Connection, has enlisted 130 women and completed its first round of grants, awarding $26,000 each to five nonprofits providing services to women, families, children, and young adults. The charity will launch another round of fund-raising next month, with the aim of increasing the network to 200 women donating a combined $200,000.
"One of the biggest surprises has been that people really love giving," Felcher said. "All you have to do is ask."
The Philanthropy Connection targets nonprofits with annual operating budgets of less than $4 million. The key attraction for donors, according to a member survey conducted in June, is they get to ensure that their contributions go to effective organizations.
They do this through a rigorous, yearlong selection process, which allows members to evaluate and collectively hand-pick the most worthy organizations, while learning about pressing social issues affecting their communities.
Donors can participate as much or as little in the selection process as they choose. For instance, this year members could have joined a small committee that evaluated letters of intent from 100 nonprofits applying for grants and whittled the field to 26 semifinalists. Or they could have participated in other small committees that evaluated the 60-page proposals of each semifinalist and conducted detailed reviews of their financial statements.
Finally, they may have been among the small group that conducted site visits with 10 finalist organizations, meeting with their staff and beneficiaries. Ultimately, eight fully vetted organizations were presented for a vote to Philanthropy Connection members, who selected five to receive grants.
One of women making site visits was Anna C. Vouros, a 46-year-old physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and mother of three young children. She said she was attracted to the Philanthropy Connection because she could work closely with nonprofits and see the impact of her donations.
"It's not just give your money and go away," she said. "It's give your money and then be a part of it."
The Philanthropy Connection is tapping a large and growing source of charitable giving, according to the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. Women increasingly fit the profile of a typical donor: affluent and well educated, with a desire to give back to the community and society, according to the center.
Women in the baby boom generation, born between 1946 and 1964, are in their prime giving years, too. Although they earn less than men on average, and have less money in retirement accounts, they give nearly twice as much to charity as men, according to a 2012 study by the center.
The Philanthropy Connection's members include doctors, lawyers, professors, students, writers, artists, business owners, nonprofit executives, and teachers. Most are 50 and older, working full or part time.
Five of the group's members are in their 20s, a target demographic for nonprofits, according to conversations that Philanthropy Connection founders had with nonprofit leaders. "Everybody said, 'We want young women to become involved; we want young women to become board members,' " Felcher explained.
As a result, the group created a Young Philanthropist Fellowship program for 18- to 30-year-old women who want to learn about philanthropy, but can't afford the $1,000 donation to join. The founders raised additional money from other members to subsidize their contributions. Twenty young women applied for five fellowships.
Kerlyne Jean, a 25-year-graduate student training in global health management at Boston University, won a fellowship this year.
The daughter of Haitian immigrants, Jean joined the group because she wanted to give back, she said, having benefited from others' generosity through programs such as free summer camp and college scholarships.
She said the intelligent, passionate, and generous women she met through the Philanthropy Connection have inspired her.
"I learned so much about how I give and why I give," she said, "and [about] other nonprofits that exist that I want to know more about and volunteer for."
The five nonprofits selected for the Philanthropy Connection grants are the Family Nurturing Center of Massachusetts in Dorchester, a 20-year-old organization that provides support services to parents of young children, particularly in low-income neighborhoods; Crossroads for Kids in Duxbury, a 77-year-old agency serving at-risk youth; REACH Beyond Domestic Violence, a 32-year-old Waltham group that helps domestic violence victims; RESPOND, a 35-year-old nonprofit in Somerville, also helping domestic violence victims; and Adoption and Foster Care Mentoring in Boston, a 12-year-old organization serving youth.
Lonnie Shekhtman can be reached at Lonnie.shekhtman