When a family member or friend is getting married, often there is a shower, a chance to lavish gifts on the bride-to-be. You could arrive, on your own, with an array of choices for gifts: tea towels, coffee mugs, cookie sheets or bathmats. But if the women in your family pull together and collectively purchase a KitchenAid mixer or a high-quality dutch oven, that gift might mean more to the bride than what you individually are capable of gifting.
The Baltimore Women's Giving Circle brings Le Creuset to the Baltimore community party.
In 2001, Shelley Goldseker and Pam Corckran, along with 52 other women, started the Baltimore Women's Giving Circle with seed money from Baltimore Community Foundation and a bold vision to make the biggest impact for women and families in Baltimore. Today, with eight times the membership and a multi-faceted engagement strategy, their impact has been staggering.
"It's the collective nature of what we do," Dawna Cobb, co-chair of the Giving Circle, said. "I joined because I was tired of writing these $50, $100 checks. But when you ban together with 400-some-odd women, we gave away $491,000 last year to 25 organizations."
GBMC's Sexual Assault Forensic Examination (SAFE) program was one of the 25. The Giving Circle's process for distributing grants is incredibly systematic. To tackle the more than 100 grant applications they receive a year, women divide into 15 teams to review select grants in- depth. The initial review is to determine which ones meet the mission, and subsequent site visits are scheduled for the next round of selections. From there, members present to the full circle an even smaller pool of possibilities and votes are tallied.
"I know the people who put forth your program loved it," Dawna said.
The review committee for GBMC's application was "impressed by the understanding, commitment and sensitivity the SAFE team demonstrated in talking about the program and how they deal with victims of sexual assault and domestic violence."
They said, "SAFE provides a safe and secure setting for treating victims, gives them the opportunity to talk about their experience and works with them to set up a safety plan to help them stay safe in the future. The SAFE Emergency Fund allows the program to take its efforts a step further, giving victims the materials and financial support they may need to take immediate action, which could make the difference between leaving a dangerous situation or returning to it."
With the Giving Circle's mission of helping women and children to achieve self-sufficiency, GBMC's SAFE program certainly fits the bill. The initial meeting with Giving Circle members, as well as ones that followed, illustrated the depth to which members are passionate about addressing this issue and many others that plague Baltimore City.
In speaking with Dawna and her Giving Circle co-chair, Susannah Bergmann, the level of enthusiasm in solving these issues goes beyond grant-making to education and advocacy.
"The importance of the immediate need is very real," Susannah said, "and there's also an importance on advocacy, to look at 'Hey, we need to change things that are fundamentally setting the system not to work like we need it to.' And then there's that group in between, which is typically what we grant to, that focus on things we can do that are proactive."
An Education Committee looks at systemic issues, in addition to experts in the chosen field the Circle might be connected to, to create educational opportunities for its members. Topics are culturally relevant and broad enough so they don't alienate based on views or beliefs. The Circle's ability to present broad-based opportunities for learning, growth and friendship serve to strength connectivity and equity within the Circle.
"As an organization, we have decided thus far that we would not pick our voice to try to represent all women, but our women could take their voices and represent themselves," Susannah said. "It wasn't necessarily under the Giving Circle, but there's a lot we can do to educate to take this down another level."
In addition to empowering women with knowledge to propel their civic engagement individually, the membership requirement is neutral for all women, regardless of capability.
"It's not a benevolent dictatorship," Susannah said. "It's a very collaborative, decision-making style. We check in with everybody a lot. And what we decide in these two years while we are chairs, that might not be true with the next set of chairs, and you have to allow the space for that to evolve. That's fantastic. It's vibrant. It's a living, breathing organization that's only defined by the people who are in it."
It is clear Circle members care a great deal. Their involvement in programs like SAFE and other women- and family-centered organizations elevates each program not just because of the Circle's investment, but because of their reputation.
"If you care about Baltimore, you know Baltimore's been through some very rough years and coming out and meeting folks like you and other folks in the city, you find all these people working so hard and doing such great stuff to help people," Dawna said. "It really makes you feel like it's not a hopeless situation, lots of good things are happening."