Give and ye shall receive. That could be the unofficial mantra of a new Boston-based charity that not only empowers women to take on the role of philanthropists but also equips them with the skills and connections they need to serve on the boards of the organizations they’re helping to fund.
The venture, called The Philanthropy Connection, was started last year by Marla Felcher, a 57-year-old former social marketing professor who has taught at the Kennedy School and Northwestern University. Increasingly disappointed by the charitable benefit circuit — which she thought needed to do a better job engaging new donors — Felcher found herself impressed with a giving circle called Impact100 Sonoma that she encountered in 2012 while volunteering as a fund-raiser in California. “You get a hundred women to pool a thousand dollars and give it all away,” she recalls. “I thought, That’s the answer.”
Swiping that simple premise, she returned to Boston and enlisted the help of two friends, Dharma E. Cortes, a grants expert, and Suzanne Carter, a retired commercial banker. Within seven weeks, they had enticed more than a hundred like-minded women to open their wallets.
After putting out a call for applicants, the women formed teams to rigorously winnow 150 potential grant recipients to the strongest few. Last May, the entire membership voted on how to distribute the funds, choosing to award five grants of $26,000 to small, local nonprofits, including Duxbury’s Crossroads for Kids and Somerville’s RESPOND, a domestic-violence agency. “We use our brains,” Felcher says, “so at the end, we can use our hearts.”
Compelled to pony up? Get in line. With 231 supporters in its sophomore year (including high-profile restaurateurs Jody Adams and Joanne Chang) and an 80 percent re-enrollment rate, membership is closed until 2015.
That may be because membership not only has a price tag, it also has its privileges.
Much of the appeal is reflected in the Philanthropy Connection’s credo: Give. Receive. Learn. “We want to give [women] the skills to be a good board member,” Felcher says. Or make that a better board member — the average member already serves on a board or two; of those who don’t, a number want to.
Women are fairly well represented among large Massachusetts nonprofits, making up 35 percent of board members, according to a 2013 survey by the Boston Club. But too often, Felcher observes, board chairs and those making the final call are still men. “Just because women are at the table, they are not necessarily the decision makers and running the organization,” she says. “So many smart, generous women do not speak up and take a leading role. We want to give women the confidence to have that voice.”
Perhaps the best training ground the group offers is the chance for members to serve on a review team, learning to probe for a nonprofit’s weaknesses as well as its strengths. Interest is keen: Last year, 30 to 40 women reviewed applicants; this year, 96 have signed on for training. Throughout the year, the charity also hosts panel discussions and intimate educational seminars called The Philanthropy Dialogues. The most popular tutorial? “Stop Faking It,” which instructed members how to tear apart a nonprofit’s financial statements, or 990s.
“We’re not only giving, we’re receiving a lot of knowledge,” says Sharhea Wade, 27, an assistant vice president at State Street Corp. and a group board member. She chairs the Young Philanthropist committee, a Philanthropy Connection fellowship program for women under 35 whose membership fee is funded by other group members, and she recently joined the leadership team of the National Black MBA Association’s Boston chapter. “Now we can pick up one of these reports and run through the numbers with more insight,” says Wade.
Hard skills aside, Felcher believes that ultimately the best credential is truly “getting” an organization and its mission. “That’s when you become a really good board member — when you understand the challenges the clients are facing,” she says.
Indeed, one of the group’s grant recipients, Adoption & Foster Care Mentoring, is considering several of the philanthropy group’s members for upcoming slots on its board, knowing that the Philanthropy Connection’s exhaustive grant review process created a fan base familiar with and enthusiastic about the nonprofit’s mission. “For us, it’s about looking for people who will be great ambassadors,” says the mentoring group’s executive director, Colby Swettberg. “Women have the skills. It’s about having the confidence — and being asked.”
Correction: Because of a photographer’s error, Jihye Choi’s name was misspelled in a caption in an earlier version of this story.