- By Michael Barnes American-Statesman Staff
During the past decade or so, giving groups have blossomed all over Austin. Moderately comfortable individuals and families pool their resources, invite nonprofits to apply for grants, then they vet those charities and vote on grant winners.
Among the most successful and best documented of these donor-advised funds has been Impact Austin, started for women by charismatic Rebecca Powers in 2003.
Almost unnoticed has been a second wave of philanthropy, inspired by that early exposure to nonprofits during the process of group giving. We talked to four women who started out with Impact Austin but then focused on a particular charity or type of giving. In one case, the Austin experience led to a whole new giving circle in another city.
Social good meets finance
Meeta Kothare first heard Powers speak at a neighbor’s coffee event.
“All I remember is being blown away by her intellect and the thoughtful consideration given to the grants process and philanthropy,” Kothare says. “I joined right away.”
Kothare jumped on board while she was at a crossroads in her career. She had been a finance professor at the University of Texas for a decade when she decided to take some time off to raise her two children.
“I thought I would do some consulting to nonprofits,” Kothare says. “Little did I know how little I knew about the nonprofit world or the Austin community. I had been philanthropic before, but my dollars went mostly to international organizations caring for underserved populations in remote corners of the world. I had no idea of the needs in my own backyard.”
Fortunately for her, Impact Austin filled that curiosity gap. Soon after she finished her board term with the giving circle, Kothare started a consulting firm, Neeva Solutions, for social-purpose organizations. A couple of years later, the LBJ School of Public Affairs approached her to develop a finance class for students interested in social ventures.
“Nobody was talking about impact investing in our community back then,” Kothare says. “But for me it was the perfect marriage between my love for finance and my passion for social impact. I’ve been teaching the course ever since.”
Earlier this year, she helped launch the Social Innovation Initiative at the McCombs School of Business as its inaugural managing director.
“We hope that it will become a center for interdisciplinary learning and practice for students throughout the university who are increasingly excited about doing social good while building their careers,” Kothare says. “Equally important, we expect to be a resource for Austin’s growing community of social innovators. The journey that began at Impact Austin has come full circle and I’m back at the school I left years ago in the best job I could ever imagine.”
What advice would she give to a new giver?
“Find a group with a mission that you feel passionate about,” Kothare says. “Then learn as much as you can and get very good at it. Figure out the best practices. There is no need to reinvent the wheel. And collaborate with other groups as much as possible. You have to think of your group as being part of a bigger ecosystem. You cannot make lasting social change as a single organization, social entrepreneur, philanthropist or impact investor. You have to figure out your place in the bigger system and help make the change along with others.”
The giving model works
Prior to discovering Impact Austin, Nancy Word was an IT executive, a Navy wife and a mother of two children.
“Before it was so ubiquitous, I worked remote,” Word says. “(I was) ‘dialing up’ into my company’s mainframe in the early ’80s to fix program bugs in a software package we sold to insurance companies.”
She met Powers in 2003. As a member of Impact Austin’s founding board, she learned quickly and deeply about local nonprofits, as well as one with a more global footprint.
“It was during this time that I was introduced to a Nobel Women’s Initiative — which was formed by the women who won the Nobel Peace Prize — at an Impact Austin event,” Word says. “I am honored to have supported NWI for eight years now.”
She has traveled with Nobel laureates to Liberia and India, attended a United Nations meeting on peace and security for women and children, met with the Canadian government on similar issues, and advocated for women in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria, Liberia, Guatemala, and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
“I could go on and on,” Word says. “The point is, I would never have had these amazing opportunities without my Impact Austin background.”
She was particularly impressed by the evaluation criteria that the giving circle had developed.
“We held training so everyone could be on the same page when we reviewed proposals,” Word recalls. “It worked and still works so well that I use it when I evaluate my personal giving goals.”
Even before the NWI became a personal cause, Word had stretched out beyond Impact Austin’s primary umbrella.
“Our first year, my committee recommended Family Eldercare to the full membership as our grant recipient,” she says. “We only gave out one grant that year, and they did not win it. But that did not stop us. A group of us got together and raised $10,000 to help Family Eldercare with the completion of Lyons Gardens, a low-income senior living facility, and one of our members volunteered to be on their staff for eight years.”
Still, the Impact Austin core model remains an attraction she recommends to others.
“It makes so much sense that my $1,000 becomes $400,000 to $500,000, depending on membership levels,” she says. “The power of collective giving really shines with the Impact Austin model. Plus, there is the added bonus of meeting so many amazing women who want to make a difference in our community – all ages, all professions, all races.”
She says that members’ families also tend to become invested in the process.
“My sister, sister-in-law, daughter and niece have all been members at various points in time,” Word says. “They live in Ohio, Boston, Dallas and Austin. We have shared perspectives about different grant opportunities and helped each other during the evaluations. My daughter joined the board of one of our grant recipients. Once an organization receives an Impact Austin grant, it is like getting the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.”
Follow your heart
Claire Powers grew up in the lap of philanthropy. She is the daughter of Impact Austin founder Rebecca Powers and was a founding member and first president of the group’s youth initiative, Girls Giving Grants.
Yet she started branching out right away.
“After my first year with G3, I started volunteering at the nonprofit that received our first grant, Austin Children’s Shelter,” Powers recalls. “Also, the skills and knowledge I gained through G3 led me to join the Engineers Without Borders chapter at my university, where I became the project leader on our first international project, building latrines in rural El Salvador. Since graduating, I continue to visit the same community in El Salvador and continue to develop their community in as many ways as I can.”
From the start, Powers was daunted by the sheer volume of Austin nonprofits, estimated at well over 3,000.
“I’m looking for an organization that makes a profound impact on a large quantity of individuals, both directly and indirectly,” Powers says. “A group like Impact Austin can open your eyes to community needs that you may have not known even existed. Once you focus in on a specific nonprofit, it allows you to dive even deeper into a specific need in the community, hopefully putting down your philanthropic roots for a cause you care deeply about.”
She thinks it’s an obvious progression.
“Once a member locks in on that, it is often a natural transition to extend their philanthropic efforts to other organizations, while continuing to be a member of Impact Austin,” she says. “Ultimately, you follow your heart. Your heart will show you what group or groups you are passionate about.”
From Austin to Chicago
In 2011, on a trek to Machu Picchu in Peru, Allison Bacon met the founder of Womenade Boston, a New England giving circle.
“She had been mentored by Rebecca Powers and, knowing that I grew up in Austin, asked if I knew her and Impact Austin,” says Bacon, who has lived in Chicago since 1989. “When she learned I didn’t, she made an introduction, and Rebecca and I met for coffee. For no other reason but to have an excuse to come visit my hometown on a regular basis, I signed up for Impact Austin and traveled monthly from Chicago for the meetings.”
Simultaneously, Bacon chatted with a weekly walking buddy in Chicago.
“Our conversations went from ‘I’m involved in this cool organization in Austin’ to ‘We need something like this in Chicago’ to ‘Let’s start this in Chicago.’ And so in 2012 we did,” Bacon says. “Our last cycle, we had 436 members and have given over $1.5 million in grants. Throughout, Rebecca has been our mentor, our cheerleader and our friend. Impact Austin may have made an impact in Austin, but it’s also made an impact in Chicago.”
As a bonus, Bacon learned about the new Austin that had grown up since she left in 1989.
“I saw this as a way to get an education in my hometown,” Bacon says. “I learned there was much need, but at the same time there were also strong organizations that make a meaningful impact.”
How do the committees in giving circles decide which group is worthy?
“Sometimes there aren’t tangible reasons but rather a feeling that ‘This one really matters,’” she says. “As you do this more and more, you can tell who has a strong plan and organization. When it comes to a final decision, I look at whether the program is life-altering or life-enhancing and lean toward the life-altering.”
Bacon is particularly pleased with the way group giving has opened up opportunities for women, an idea she helped transplant from Austin to Chicago.
“It was scary and thrilling,” she says. “The concept is compelling to women. We want to make an impact. We want to have a voice. And we want to invest in our communities with knowledge and intelligence. We launched in October 2012 and had 126 members in a little over two months. Whenever we had a question or issue, Impact Austin was our huge cheerleader and resource.”
So in the end, group giving or individual charity?
“I like doing both,” Bacon says. “I learn from the collective experience, and I support those causes that mean the most to me personally.”
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