South Charlotte

This network gets down to business

When Lisa Miller, 44, moved to Charlotte in 2004, she transitioned from a high-powered job as a Washington, D.C., attorney to staying at home with her two young daughters.

"I missed working and the intellectual challenge that it provided," said Miller.

When Miller heard about the Women's Impact Fund, she was delighted to find what "seemed like a good way to network with other women and learn the lay of the land of the nonprofits."

Miller is now one of 425 members of the Women's Impact Fund, whose purpose, according to its website, "is to engage and educate women in philanthropy to strengthen our community."

WIF's genesis can be traced to 1998, when Claire Tate, a board member of Foundation for the Carolinas at the time, saw a People magazine article about a women's foundation in Seattle. Intrigued by the concept of a women's philanthropic fund, Tate joined forces with Mary Lou Babb, also an FFTC board member. They launched WIF in 2003 with 158 members and the goal of pooling resources to address emerging issues and meet critical needs in the areas of arts and culture, education, environment and health and human services.

The membership is open and inclusive, and new members are welcome.

"There is no limit on the number of members because our intent from the beginning was to be an inclusive and diverse group open to all who wished to join," said Kim Cornelson, the WIF grants chairwoman. "And new members enable us to continue to develop and maximize our grant pool."

Members agree to a five-year commitment of $6,000, payable annually in the amount of $1,200, with $1,000 going directly into the grant pool and $200 used for educational and other program expenses.

There are no limits on time or service requirements for membership, but there are plenty of opportunities to get involved on a variety of committees, some of which only meet once or twice each year.

The Grants Committee, which requires a nine-month commitment, researches and assesses all the grant applications.

The WIF Education Committee plans events designed to offer WIF members a range of opportunities to learn more about community issues and critical needs, particularly in its five funding areas.

Through the power of collective grant-making, WIF has provided more than $2.5 million to 34 nonprofit organizations serving Mecklenburg County in the past eight years.

Each year, the grants committee for each focus area winnows down the list of applicants to two that are then presented to the membership for a vote. This year's winners, all of whom are selected for their ability to "provide creative solutions to address critical community needs or emerging issues," were announced at the WIF's annual meeting May 17 and received a record $420,000 in grants.

The recipients include:

Arts & Culture: $70,000 to Actor's Theatre for production of an annual new play festival for emerging American playwrights;

Education: $75,000 to Elon Homes and Schools for Children for Kennedy Charter Public School's Summer Bridge Program, an intensive academic and skills development program for rising ninth-graders;

Environment: $85,000 to Yadkin Riverkeeper for Operation Medicine Cabinet, which addresses the emerging environmental threat of contamination to N.C. waters from the flushing of prescription drugs;

Health: $90,000 to Mecklenburg County Health Department in collaboration with Black Women's Health Network for a Farm to Family Faith Based Nutrition Program to address the lack of access to healthy food in some areas of the county;

Human Services: $100,000 to W.I.S.H. (Workforce Initiative for Supportive Housing) program for an additional social worker to provide services to 16 homeless families as they become housed and self-sustaining.

Not all recipients are fully-funded, but they all receive far more sizeable grants than they would have accumulated from individual donations.

Melissa Mummert, 37, a founding member of WIF, appreciates that WIF provides "such a good use of my charitable dollars."

As someone who works in a nonprofit, Mummert says she knows firsthand that "$60,000 is life changing for an organization."

It can be equally life-changing for those responsible for giving the grants.

"It is more than just check-writing," Miller said of her role with WIF. "There's a real investment of time and effort. It has been a very hands-on experience."

And one she has relished.

"It is such an impressive collection of women," she said. "And I am so glad to have met them."