Rebecca and Claire Powers holding hands

Women pool their money to give away millions of dollars to local nonprofits

When Rebecca Powers picked up a copy of People magazine in early 2003, she had little idea that one of its articles would have such a profound impact on her life, her family, and her community. But that’s exactly what happened. What came next was a story of numbers. A story of impact. And a story of heart.

The article, titled “A Grand Hand,” was about a group of women in Cincinnati, Ohio, who—through collective giving—pooled their $1,000 donations to give $100,000 grants each year to local nonprofits. “It really resonated with me because I’d never been involved in philanthropy, besides the PTA and my place of worship,” Rebecca says. “I certainly didn’t consider myself a philanthropist! I thought philanthropists had to have tens upon hundreds of thousands of dollars to give back; it had never occurred to me that by pooling financial resources, we could make a sizable impact.”

The more she considered starting a collective giving group in Central Texas, the more enchanted she became with the prospect. She knew she could come up with $1,000 to donate, and she figured there had to be 99 other women in Central Texas who would be able to participate as well.

At the time, Rebecca’s sphere of influence was limited to her fellow parishioners and the parents of her kids’ friends, but she knew that each person who joined the effort would come with her own circle of friends to call on.

Rebecca and Claire Powers

Over time, she put together a board of six determined women, none of whom had previously been involved in philanthropy. “We had never been on a board of directors, we didn’t know what that role looked like, but we knew we could learn,” she says. They named the organization Impact Austin, but it could easily have been named Impact Central Texas since it provides services to public charities in Hays, Williamson, Bastrop, and Travis counties.

By its fifth year, the organization had grown to include 500 members and was giving away five $100,000 grants each year to nonprofits in Central Texas. Now in its 15th year, Impact Austin has given away 73 grants totaling more than $6 million dollars and has launched Girls Giving Grants, a smaller-scale collective giving group for girls. At Girls Giving Grants, each girl is responsible for donating $100 to fund one nonprofit grant totaling a few thousand dollars.

Girls Giving Grants

“Our daughter was 13 when Impact Austin was founded,” remembers Rebecca. One Christmas, Rebecca’s daughter, Claire, surprised her mom with a stack of bills totaling $100 that she’d saved up from babysitting and doing extra chores. “Mom, when I grow up, I want to be a member of Impact Austin,” she told Rebecca. “I know that you spend a lot of money putting this together; and Mom, I’ve never seen you happier.”

Rebecca and Claire Powers sit at the kitchen table

Touched by the thoughtful gift, Rebecca asked Claire what she thought about starting her own collective giving organization geared toward girls. “She’s kind of my thinker,” says Rebecca, “so she sat back and said, ‘On three conditions: We get to name ourselves, we get to pick our own logo, and no mom can be involved!’ Because they wanted to own the decision making!”

In the year that Girls Giving Grants was formed, members recruited 22 girls and donated $2,200 to the Austin Children’s Shelter. Most recently, they awarded $6,800 to the Center for Child Protection’s Canine Courtroom Accompaniment Program.

To determine grant recipients, Girls Giving Grants members go through a process that is similar to the process Impact Austin uses: They invite nonprofits to submit letters of inquiry, go through a thorough grant review process, and conduct site visits, all the while whittling down their stack of applications until they’ve selected a grant award winner. Throughout the process, Girls Giving Grants advisors teach the girls how to read and evaluate grants and budgets.

“I’m so impressed with the nonprofits themselves,” says Lisa Apfelberg, acting executive director of Impact Austin and a former Girls Giving Grants advisor. “It’s one thing to be up for an $85,000 or $100,000 grant like the larger Impact Austin group gives, versus something smaller like the Girls Giving Grants group, where they’re applying for a $7,000 grant. But the nonprofits take it equally as seriously.”

The 2014 grant was awarded to Youth River Watch

Social impact

Impact Austin continues to experiment with a variety of focus areas through which nonprofits may apply for grants. This year, the organization updated the categories to include Community, Education, Health & Well-being, and Catalyst—a capacity-building grant that helps nonprofits with overhead and infrastructure. If previous years are any indication, Impact Austin can expect to receive more than 100 letters of inquiry from nonprofits throughout Central Texas; of those, four nonprofits will be awarded substantial grants.

“Something significant to Impact Austin is our one woman, one vote principle,” says Lisa. “Each woman knows that $1,000 of her donation will go directly toward high-impact grants. And her vote is worth as much as everyone else’s.”

This type of giving is incredibly meaningful, continues Lisa. “I don’t have the ability to write a $100,000 check like I wish I could because I chose to be a social worker and nonprofit professional. But Impact Austin lets me be a philanthropist who’s helping in a really large way because my money gets combined with money from other women.”

Over the years, Impact Austin has awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars to Hill Country-area nonprofits to help them grow their organizations. For many of these organizations, perhaps particularly for the younger nonprofits, these sizeable grant awards can be game-changing.

Drive a Senior was the grant recipient in 2015

“College Forward was a young nonprofit at the time, and getting a grant of that size to expand into a strategically important area was a catalyst moment for us,” says Austin Buchan, chief executive officer of College Forward, a nonprofit aimed at helping level the playing field for first-generation and low-income college students. The nonprofit hires AmeriCorps volunteers to lead afterschool programs on local high school campuses and offers services that extend all the way through college graduation. It was founded in 2003 and got its start at Hays High School.

“When we won that $104,000 grant in 2007, we were only a few years old and were probably serving just over 300 students, all told. Fast-forward to just a decade later, and in any given year we’re working with between 8,000 and 10,000 students in the state of Texas,” says Austin. “It’s pretty wild. And Impact Austin was an early investor in our success.”

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