The Women's Fund at Nineteen:
Strong, Focused, Growing and Ambitious
From an individual thought, to a community strong; the Women’s Fund, with your help, has staked out a role as a regional leader in women’s issues that invests over $150,000 annually to create economic opportunities for women and girls.
Our origin story is a tale about turning ideas and goals into reality: from those first founding mothers to the work of today’s LifeWork Project participants and the members of the Task Force on Pathways for Women to a Living Wage. We set our goals high from the beginning, and we continue to aim high in order to have a lasting impact for women and this region we all call home.
When Attorney Bettina Borders learned she’d soon be appointed to Bristol County’s bench, she contacted Anne Beaulieu, Community Foundation president. Donations are restricted for judges, she explained, so she wanted to make a gift right away. And she wanted that gift to make a sustained difference for women.
As a former women’s crisis center director and single mother herself, she knew the value of the right support at the right time. Yet she also knew that organizations were struggling to sustain funding for women’s programs. Helping to bridge that gap, she told Anne, was the role she wanted her gift to play. So they brought together a cadre of committed, philanthropy-savvy women to help chart the course.
2001-2003: Principles & Presence
Those “founding mothers” quickly put their grassroots organizing skills to work. They assessed the area’s needs and the resources available to address them. They researched and interviewed Women’s Funds in other areas. They developed a clear mission and governance structure. They designed a brochure and looked for start-up grants and donors.
Yet they did all this guerilla-style – resolving not to “go public” until they’d raised $50,000. Once they reached $100,000, the founders declared, they’d start giving out grants.
In 2003, after reaching their initial goal, they launched their first public fundraising campaign. The Mother’s Day appeal suggested that instead of buying Mom flowers, gifts in her honor be made to the Women’s Fund. Nearly $6,000 was raised. The next year, that appeal would raise 40% more.
2004 – 2007: Staff, Structure & Sustained Support
As the Women’s Fund neared its targeted $100,000 milestone, there was a clear need for a dedicated resource to manage grant-making, fund-raising and the growing volunteer energy. However, despite many interviews, the right person had not emerged.
Commiserating over lunch at Candleworks one day, members of the hiring committee spotted someone they knew at a nearby table. Sparks flew! In June of 2004, Kate Fentress became the Women’s Fund’s first Executive Director.
Kate focused first on connecting with other women’s organizations in the community to leverage their combined strength. Next came several soon-to-be-signature “firsts.” The first public Networking Event took place in January of 2005. About 50 people were expected, nearly 300 showed! That year also saw the first Giving Circles, co-sponsorship of several political debates, membership in the national Women’s Funding Network, and the first Fall Appeal.
Most importantly, having reached the $100,000 target, the Women’s Fund began awarding grants, making its first Action Awards in June of 2005.
The following year, with support from UMass-Dartmouth, the first Leadership Breakfast was held. At the same time, Lara Stone, an Advisory Council member who later became the first Development Officer convened a “dream team” including Liz Ackerman, Krissy Arsenault, Ilana Feinerman, Kristie Garcia and Kyra Lawton to work on a Mother’s Day race. The Women’s Fund Tiara 5K quickly became our largest fundraiser.
And, as 2007 gave way to 2008, the Women’s Fund staff doubled (from one person to two) with the hiring of all-star administrative assistant, Jeannette Doyle.
2008–2011 Relevance & Results
With the “Women & Girls Can’t Wait” campaign, the Women’s Fund increased its capacity to fund projects and underwrite programs. By 2011, the fund had granted over $700,000 to programs benefiting 5,000+ women and girls in the SouthCoast area.
Among these programs was Bristol Community College’s Women in Successful Environments (WISE), a job training and employment program for low-income women. In 2008, the Women’s Fund granted seed money to help launch the program. When state funding was cut in 2011, the Fund stepped up to fill the gap and ensure its continuity.
With an 80% success rate, the program had demonstrated the value of just one semester’s support. For Kate and Lara, it also highlighted the challenges facing working women who were not earning a living wage, including their struggle to afford the child care, transportation and other essentials that would allow them to continue working and build a career.
Along with BCC and several other partners, the Women’s Fund began to focus on a follow-up to WISE that could provide more comprehensive wrap-around support to help young women complete their education, land a job and earn a sustainable wage. Mentored by the Crittenton Women’s Union in Boston, the Women’s Fund galvanized a community collaboration to enable low-income women with families to receive the education and life skills necessary to move beyond poverty.
In 2011, When Lara took a new role at UMass-Dartmouth, Traci Calabrese joined the Women’s Fund to write the grants and raise the funds to bring this new program, the LifeWork Project, into being.
2012-2015 Triumph & Transition
Based on the Crittenton Women’s Union’s Bridge to Self-Sufficiency® model, LifeWork brought several community organizations together to improve and coordinate support for low-income women pursuing higher education. A 3-year LifeWork pilot was launched in the fall of 2013, providing training, mentoring and cohort support to foster economic mobility. Still in pilot, LifeWork is already catalyzing strong results for participants: better grades, improved credit ratings, higher rates of graduation and educational continuation, increased employment, and a greater sense of agency - the ability to actively direct their lives.
With LifeWork in place, Kate Fentress retired, turning over the reins to Valerie Bassett in early 2014. Val, an active Women’s Fund supporter, was a fairly recent transplant from Boston where she’d been a public health policy leader for the state. When Jeanette Doyle also retired, Dez Savoy joined as Administrative and Marketing Officer, completing the team.
Together, the staff and Leadership Council set out to define the next level of success for the Women’s Fund: raising the regional percentage of women earning a living wage. They also decided to expand the Fund’s advocacy action, weighing in on policies like Equal Pay, Paid Family and Medical Leave, and Universal Pre-K, that create economic strength.
To determine how best to move the needle on women's economic independence, the Fund convened the Task Force on Pathways for Women to a Living Wage in the fall of 2014. Co-chaired by Val and Jean Fox, the Task Force studied key barriers and best practices and identified 27 concrete recommendations for future action. These were delivered at the 2015 Fall Leadership Breakfast.
"When She Earns More, We Are All Stronger."
2016+ Future Focus
The Task Force recommendations have set a bold, shared agenda for regional partners who care about economic justice for women. In 2016, we initiated collaborative Working Groups to carry forward the action plans.