The organization was the vision of Jo Murray and Barbara Thrasher, pictured here at an anniversary celebration. Photo by Judy Cahill
The Wood River Women’s Foundation leads the way with collective philanthropyBy Winslow Brokaw
Collective-based philanthropy is based on a simple but sensible idea. By pooling smaller amounts of money with lots of people, the impact of a shared fund is much greater. Yet this strategy for making a positive difference in our nation’s communities is a surprisingly a recent trend, only gaining traction in the last decade.
According to the Collective Giving Research Group supported by the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, the number of collective giving circles increased from 220 to 1,313 between 2004 and 2017 and currently grants an estimated $1.29 billion annually to organizations in the U.S. What’s more, women are driving this movement. And why is this noteworthy? Because in our very own Wood River Valley, a strong community of women is trailblazing this style of philanthropy.
What started as Baldy chairlift chatter between two friends is, today, the Wood River Women’s Foundation (WRWF), a vibrant giving circle of 350 plus women. In granting over $333,000 to local nonprofits in 2018, these women are a low-profile powerhouse in the Valley.
In 2005, the organization was the vision of Barbara Thrasher and Jo Murray who were new friends in a masters ski class on Bald Mountain. They discovered their shared admiration for successful women’s foundations in Coeur d’Alene and Boise. They agreed that Sun Valley should launch a similar endeavor. With the support of Cathy Silak from the Idaho Community Foundation, they organized an informal tea for women interested in philanthropy. Thirty-six women came. This was the genesis of the Wood River Valley’s collective philanthropy movement.
In their first year, the women’s giving circle granted $60,000 to small nonprofits, including the Bellevue Public Library, the Senior Connection, and the College of Southern Idaho’s off-campus location in Hailey. This was a significant sum of money considering that, in 2005, the average grant in Idaho
was approximately $3,000.
Thrasher, founder and former president of the WRWF, recalls, “We brought people to the table who weren’t otherwise there. We offered (and continue to offer) Q & A sessions to our nonprofits in an effort to assist them in preparing a clear grant proposal and in becoming successful grantmakers.”
Since then, the WRWF has granted over $2.3 million to nonprofits within Blaine County, allowing the county to significantly bolster support in the areas of arts, education, environment, health, recreation, and social service. And in direct correlation to the power of pooled giving, the WRWF has always been able to grant between $5,000 and $25,000 to its selected grantees. This year, in fact, they will boast $35,000 grants thanks to their passionate, committed, and growing membership.
How does the WRWF measure its impact? First, its two-month vetting process is extremely thorough and ensures that grantees are well qualified to carry out their respective mission, vision, and goals. Kathleen Bean, of the Lava Lake Institute for Science and Conservation, says, “The WRWF is one of the most professional grant-making organizations we have ever worked with. It’s a rigorous process, and, as a consequence, it’s a real honor to be selected as a grant recipient.”
Executive director of the Senior Connection, Teresa Beahen Lipman, further attests to the quality of the WRWF vetting process: “A gift from the WRWF is an endorsement of our organization’s work. It has greatly helped us leverage procuring funding from other sources. When you can list the WRWF as a supporter and donor, magic happens with the credibility that accompanies their grant.”
Additionally, the WRWF conducts site visits at the beginning and end of the grant to understand the depth of their impact and build relationships with their grantees. At their site visit with Flourish Foundation, for example, the WRWF members learned that their grant helped support Flourish Foundation’s Mindful Awareness Program that teaches important life skills, including managing stress, building positive relationships through kindness, and regulating emotions through meditation and mental awareness. This program is taught to nearly 1,200 students and 50 teachers within 47 classrooms in nine Valley schools. The far-reaching impact of this program is extraordinary and highlights just one of the WRWF’s many grants.
The magic of the WRWF is not only in its grants, but in its membership community. Its members are vivacious, passionate, and open-hearted all-stars who have diverse skill sets, interests, and backgrounds and range from 8 to 96 years old. Some families can even boast multi-generational membership, a commitment to the idea that passing the power of philanthropy to the next generation is critical for building stronger communities.
Regardless of whether the members are full-time or part-time residents, or from different walks of life, the common denominator, as Kit Wright sums up, is that all the women “believe in the power of teamwork and coming together in the spirit of supporting the health of our beautiful Valley.” Wright joined the WRWF in 2014, inspired by “all the positive things being accomplished by this collective body of women in Blaine County” and wanting to put her skills and knowledge to work. Not only has the grantmaking been fulfilling, but she has built friendships that “have deeply enriched my life,” she says. The proof is in the numbers. While the national average of a giving circle is 116 people, the WRWF is 350 strong.
The WRWF is a testament to its motto—Inspire, Educate, Collaborate—and to the power and success of collective giving. Like its logo, the aspen leaf (that is interconnected with every other aspen tree in the neighborhood), “one person can make a profound impact by asking another, and another person,” says Thrasher. She adds, “pooled giving has a huge reach.” While members pay $1,000 each year to participate in the group (with an option of paying $500 for their first year), their $1,000 quickly becomes $1,000 times 350. And, in fact, many of the women give far more than $1,000 each year, which is a trend that The Collective Giving Research Group found to be true in a recent study. WRWF member Joyce Fabre, who joined in 2017 echoes this trend: “I love being part of this group of kind and dynamic women. I have many close friends in the WRWF, and I find that I am inspired to give more of my time and resources.”
The WRWF is undoubtedly a vibrant and progressive organization that is here to stay. With an intelligent and bustling member base and a new endowment as of 2016, the WRWF is a model for collective philanthropy and is committed to passing this knowledge and tradition from one generation to the next in Blaine County.
As past president Marcia Liebich says, “One of our primary goals is to educate women about philanthropy because men have forever controlled the giving. Women leave far more money to charity in their wills than men, and we want women to see their impact in their lifetime. We want women to be empowered as decisionmakers of themselves and their communities.”