Philanthropy group helps women support each other

Circle pools money with goal of empowering teens, needy, others


Andrea Ingram had a problem.

As director of the Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center, a nonprofit service agency in Howard County, she needed to help a family that was about to be evicted. Four women were living together - two sisters, their mother, and the daughter of one of the sisters.

"Two of the folks in the household were disabled and bedridden and the one woman who was supporting the family was doing all the care-giving," Ingram said. "The first thing we needed to do was keep them from getting evicted."

Ingram contacted Arlene Sheff, a member of the Women's Giving Circle of Howard County, who sent an e-mail to about 600 people on the group's mailing list, explaining the situation and asking for donations.

The response was immediate. Thanks to a swift flurry of contributions, Grassroots was able to keep the women in their home by writing a check for the rent, knowing women throughout the county would cover the cost.

"It's sort of like calling on Superwoman," Ingram said of the Women's Giving Circle.

But Ingram said she is careful to limit such pleas. "I reserve my requests for those situations that are extremely dire, and you've got to have some action really quickly or something terrible is going to happen," she said. "I use it when I mean it, so I'm taken seriously."

Ingram knows that choosing her causes carefully is important. She is involved with the giving circle not just through her job, but also as a member. "It appealed to me," Ingram said. "It was a group of women saying they're not going to be second-class philanthropists, and they're going to take the lead and make decisions about what they wanted to support."

The Women's Giving Circle, launched in 2002, works to improve the lives of women and girls in Howard County through large and small donations. The "Response Network" - the e-mail bulletins that saved the Grassroots family from eviction - is a small part of the giving circle. The group also donates money for scholarships, support groups and other things.

Since it started, the giving circle has grown to about 400 donors, nearly all women, and an endowment of about $400,000. On Tuesday, it will look backward and forward during a meeting called "A Portrait of Philanthropy in Howard County," which will discuss and encourage female philanthropy.

"The event is really to talk about women's giving," said Buffy Beaudoin-Schwartz, chairwoman of the group's communication committee.

In some ways, the group is just getting started. The giving circle is working on what may be its most ambitious project - starting a summer camp for middle-school girls that will focus on self-esteem and leadership. The camp is part of the organization's mission to focus on teenage girls for the next few years.

"We are committed to creating a sense of personal authority in young girls," said Linda Odum, a giving circle founder and chairwoman of the circle's advisory board.

The camp will start this summer with 25 girls who will stay for six days at McDaniel College in Westminster. There, they will participate in leadership and empowerment exercises. "This is the project that we believe will be our `profound and lasting change' project," Odum said.

"Our hope is that in 2007 we would have 50; [in] 2008, we would have 100," said Jean Moon, another founder. "This is the pilot this summer, and it will give us an opportunity to see if the outcomes we want are possible. We have dreams of helping build more self-confident, empowered young women who have a stronger sense of self and self-determination."

The spark that started the Women's Giving Circle came in September 2000. Beaudoin-Schwartz was director of the Baltimore Giving Project, a five-year program that ended about 18 months ago, designed to promote philanthropy. She had organized a meeting in Roland Park with Ann Mosle, director of the Washington Area Women's Foundation, as the keynote speaker.

"There were no giving circles in the area, no women's circles," Beaudoin-Schwartz recalled. "I thought, it's so cold and rainy, nobody's going to come out, it's going to be a big bust."

But it wasn't.

Among those who attended were three women from Howard County: Yolanda Bruno, Moon and Odum, who had carpooled into the city together. By the time they returned to Howard County that evening, they were determined to start a giving circle here.

"I think that we were all ready for a message about philanthropy because all three of us were already involved in philanthropy in one level or another, and we were all feminists," said Moon. "The idea of bringing together a circle of women was so appealing to us."

In particular, the women liked the idea of expressing their feminist beliefs through philanthropy. "What [feminism] means to me is acknowledging that there are particular circumstances and societal expectations that still exist that impede women from realizing their full potential," said Moon. "As a woman myself who sees this, I have some responsibility to do something about this."

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