SALT LAKE CITY — Karen Dunigan faced a challenge back in 2006.
She was troubled to learn lots of mothers in her Jackson, Michigan, community were sleeping with their newborns or placing them in boxes or dresser drawers because they couldn't afford cribs.
Dunigan didn't have $10,000 to buy cribs, mattresses and blankets for strangers.
What she did have was a big heart, a little money and lots of women friends. She asked her pals to gather and each bring a check for $100. Those friends asked other friends. Within an hour of their meeting, they had checks totaling $12,800 to meet a serious need perplexing parents and service providers in their community.
As simple as that, they birthed a movement that has spread to distant lands. Each local chapter of 100 Women Who Care launches because someone knows someone else who did "this simple, beautiful thing and changed lives in their communities," said Lisa Evans, who brought the concept to Salt Lake City in 2015 after she was introduced to it by a friend in Dayton, Ohio. Evans invited 20 friends; at the first meeting in Salt Lake, 66 women had $100 checks ready to address a local need.
Evans, a professional singer, songwriter and musician whose daughter Erica writes for the Deseret News, was stunned by the simplicity and effectiveness of 100 Women Who Care. Each chapter is an example of the trend of "giving circles," which empower nonprofits to meet local needs without having to organize galas or launch marketing campaigns. Giving circles don't require months planning events or money for overhead.
Mother's Day might be the perfect day to ponder 100 Women Who Care, Evans said, because she believes the charity they practice nurtures and mothers their communities. The women are diverse, which is one of the reasons people enjoy the meetings. They are mothers and daughters, sisters, friends old and new, with the youngest in their mid-30s and the oldest age 96. Evans describes "a great diversity of women politically, religiously and stage of life ... single and married, lesbian and straight."
Since Evans first convened the Salt Lake group, the women have purchased a van for an organization that helps convicted felons upon release, paid for successful treatment of six local veterans who had PTSD and provided scholarships to an intensive summer camp where children who stutter have their own full-time speech therapist for a fortnight, among other life-altering assists.
The Lilly School of Philanthropy recently reported that giving circles grew threefold across America between 2007 and 2017, and members have donated up to $1.29 billion to community needs. Last November, the Collective Giving Research Group reported in "Giving Circle Membership: How Collective Giving Impacts Donors" that _"_giving circle members give more, give more strategically and proactively, give to a wider array of organizations, volunteer more, and are more likely to engage in civic activity."
"Anyone can be involved with philanthropy. When people hear the word 'philanthropy,' they think they have to have thousands (of dollars) to give to make a difference, and the truth is you do not," said Traci Richards, a 100 Who Care Alliance founder, who also started the northern Virginia women's chapter. "It has been said that giving circles democratize philanthropy by making it affordable for many."
Mothers and daughters
A number of mothers and daughters participate together in the Salt Lake group.
Nurturing their community while spending a little time together is a fund-raising concept that's perfect for busy women like Peggy de Azevedo, a licensed clinical social worker, and her daughter Michelle Wolfenbarger, a former professional ballerina who earned a law degree, teaches ballet and has four children.
The Salt Lake mother-daughter duo love being together, perhaps in part because they spent many years apart. When Wolfenbarger was 14, she went away to study at Canada's National Ballet School. "I was gone most of my teenage years, then got married. I only lived near her the last 15 years," Wolfenbarger said.
Now mother and daughter "intertwine our lives together as much as possible." They share a passion for working with special-needs individuals in Special Olympics and other programs. When de Azevedo, who is the artistic director, is on stage with the all-volunteer Salt Lake Avenues Community Choir during its annual holiday concert at Libby Gardner Concert Hall, Wolfenbarger's there, too, doing American Sign Language as the choir sings. Her daughter, Lily, 12, dances during the performance.
Busy as they are, four times a year the mother and daughter clear their calendar for an hour so they can join forces with other women, including several other mother-daughter pairs, to better their city.
"This is something else we can do together and feel we are making a difference in people's lives," said de Azevedo.
Stephanie Babalis and her mother Maxine are also a proud part of the Salt Lake group, and giving is a family tradition for them.
The younger Babalis describes her mom, 90 and one of the oldest giving circle members, as always a force in the community. "She was the first woman elected to the Parish Council at our Greek Orthodox Church. She continues to volunteer at the annual Greek Festival, as she has for decades. She is kind and compassionate. My mother's example of charity and good deeds has inspired me, to say the least."
This chance to give, though, is special, said Stephanie Babalis. "I can give $100 to a charity ... or we as a group can give $10,000!"
Giving en masse
100 Women Who Care is breathtakingly simple by design: Chapters involve as many women as they can, meeting once a quarter for a single hour to choose the recipient of $100 each to meet needs that are always nearby. Money stays in the community where it's donated.
The organization's growth includes men's chapters, business chapters, youth chapters and co-ed "100 People Who Care" chapters. More than 650 groups are already part of the organization's giant web, while another 250 are getting started.
The groups — many with far more members than the 100 in their title — meet in Mexico, Pakistan, Singapore, Australia and Canada, among other places.
Chapters were blooming like Mother's Day bouquets when the unifying alliance sprouted. Leaders in different chapters had been turning to each other for suggestions on how to handle specific situations that arose, first by email and then in a LinkedIn group. Someone suggested it would be fun to get together; 120 jumped at it. They now hold a conference on odd years: In 2021, they're heading to Nashville, Tennessee, and will meet in Portland, Oregon, in 2023.
Salt Lake's group — Utah has several — meets the first Wednesday of the last month of each quarter, from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. in the City-County Building on 400 South to select a Salt Lake County charity for group largesse. Proceeds from the annual June meeting always go to an arts group that helps kids. One year it was Salty Cricket Composers, an after-school music program at Jackson Elementary. The next year, they wrote checks to a University of Utah program that provides piano lessons at Escalante Elementary and sees that kids with both promise and desire can get scholarships.
Members nominate the nonprofits and marvel how much they can learn about groups in their communities — often nonprofits they'd never heard mentioned before. Then three names are drawn from a bag. The person who nominated each group has 10 minutes to present and try to woo the group — winner take all.
The whole thing is fast, friendly and fun, Wolfenbarger said.
Chapters each operate a bit differently. In Salt Lake, for instance, the two organizations that don't win each get a $100 donation from a corporate sponsor. This year, that's Merrill Lynch. Some women send separate checks to the other charities, too. No one loses when the women gather to give.
In northern Virginia, the group decided to pull the names of the three organizations to be considered at the next meeting a couple of months in advance so nominators/presenters could polish their pitches. All the chapters honor a rule that says the selected charity isn't eligible again for a period of time the groups agree to.
The impact is similar worldwide.
"Our pennies from heaven gifts have helped countless nonprofits in communities where our circles are located," said Richards. "In my own circle, funds have been directed to form new programs or keep existing programs in place. Every single group has an impact story to share about how the collective funds have made a difference in people's lives."