“It’s not about being a generous person, it’s being an informed and intelligent investor in your community.” ~ Barbara Thrasher, Co-Founder, WRWF
What began as a conversation between two women on a Sun Valley, Idaho chairlift in 2005 has transformed into a diverse, thriving community of 300+ women with a shared commitment to informed grantmaking.
In 2006, the Wood River Women’s Foundation created a collective giving pool of $30,000 between 30 members. Today, that pool has increased by ten-fold, generating powerful ripple effects in the nonprofit sector.
Read on to hear from Past President Barbara Thrasher about how the women’s funding movement got its start and found lasting support in the Wood River Valley.
This is the first in a series of articles from our Past Presidents—extraordinary women who helped shape our organization.
Barbara Thrasher reflects on the early days of the Wood River Women’s Foundation...
For Wood River Women’s Foundation co-founder Barbara Thrasher, few things compare to whizzing down Baldy with fellow Mountain Masters.
“I never had as much fun skiing as I did on zero-visibility days, going about 50 miles an hour,” she joked.
Thrasher credits the Mountain Masters ski program at Sun Valley Resort for helping her make lifelong connections in the valley after moving to the area from Seattle in 1999.
Between the group’s 9 a.m. meets at Lookout Restaurant and daily terrain challenges, faces quickly grew familiar, she said. One of those faces was Jo Murray.
“Jo and I got to know each other well by riding a lot of lifts together. One day, going up, she asked if she could introduce me to the head of the Idaho Community Foundation, Cathy [Silak],” Thrasher said. “So, they came over to my house for a cup of tea.”
Conversing with Silak, Thrasher was surprised to learn that there were only two women’s foundations in the state: the Idaho Women’s Charitable Foundation in Boise and the Women’s Gift Alliance in Coeur D’Alene.
“I said, you’ve got to be kidding me! I was amazed that we didn’t have a women’s giving pool organization here,” Thrasher recalled. “Well, Cathy [Silak] told me if I would start one, she’d help me with banking and operations.
“Jo turned to me and said, ‘If you do it, I’ll do it with you.’”
For a manual on how to operate, the women looked to Washington Women’s Foundation. Thrasher knew the group’s founder, Colleen Willoughby, who got the Seattle-based organization up and running about a decade earlier. She was acquainted with founding member Gail Ransom, too. Similar to the Washington Women’s Foundation model at the time, Murray and Thrasher initially decided on a $1,000 membership fee that could be distributed however members preferred.
One summer afternoon, Thrasher printed out a stack of invitations to a tea hour at her house. Murray and Thrasher mailed the invitations to several women they thought may be interested in joining. To her surprise, about 35 people showed up for tea. At some point, the topic of mail flyers came up.
“We started talking about how we were all getting letters in the mailbox every week asking for donations, but we weren’t really sure about these charities’ intentions and what they would do with $100,” Thrasher said. “We agreed that giving has got to get smarter and more organized, and that if we pooled money together, we could see more of an effect and [vet] where it would go.”
Before the meeting ended, two prospective members–Melissa Williams and her mother, Camille McCray–approached Thrasher. McCray had a $1,000 check for membership in hand.
“I said to Camille, we haven’t even started yet,” Thrasher said. “She said, ‘You must.’ And I thought if Camille was willing to stand there and commit–she was around 85 then–we all had to.”
Over many more cups of tea, a board was assembled, bylaws were written and members picked up tasks based on their strengths. Founding member Joanne Wetherell, a real estate broker, handled checks and financial records, while Marcia Liebich, a former United Way chapter president, handled grant applications.
“We had lawyers, teachers, financiers and past board presidents who offered up their talents. I was stunned by all of it,” Thrasher said.
The Wood River Women’s Foundation grew to 30 members in its first year just by word of mouth. Founding members recruited friends at Atkinsons, at the post office and on the mountain.
“[Murray] and I used to joke that if you got on the lift with us, you weren’t getting off without being a member,” Thrasher said. “We were still very much at the grassroots level at that point. Somewhere around then we realized we had to put on more events to grow our membership, and we basically put on a lot of tea parties and guest talks.”
To help inform members about the community’s needs and draw in prospective members, Murray and Thrasher started a public lecture series at the Valley Club.
“One of our first talks was from a poverty researcher. She really brought home the fact that we are truly not a wealthy community, that we have a very impoverished side and we needed to address that problem,” Thrasher said. “The series of wonderful talks became less about being social and more about being educated.
“It’s not about being a generous person, it’s being an informed and intelligent investor in your community.”
In 2006, the Wood River Women’s Foundation created a collective giving pool of $30,000 between its 30 members.
“I was naively worried that no one would ask us for money. That’s how little I really knew about what was going on in the community,” Thrasher said. “I was thrilled when letters of intent began to come in.”
Two of the first grant applicants were NAMI Wood River Valley–the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness–and the Bellevue Public Library. NAMI requested funding for a part-time administrator; the library asked for a grant to remodel their shelves.
“NAMI’s presentation opened our eyes to how little help there is with mental health in the valley and how frightening it can be for someone dealing with mental illness,” Thrasher said. “In the Bellevue Library presentation, we found out their shelves were so unstable that they were going to fall down on people.”
The Wood River Women’s Foundation ended up funding an administrative position for NAMI and new shelves for the library that year. Thrasher said both grants had positive, lasting ripple effects.
“I ran into the NAMI director in Atkinsons later–she said without the grant they would have ceased to exist,” she said. “And a librarian at the Bellevue Library, who has since passed away, said they would have had to close without our help.”
Thrasher took a moment to lament the fact that while women (on average) give more than men, they often do so through their wills.
“Let’s change that. Let’s give during our lifetimes—why wait?”