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Delaware's Fund for Women Marks 25 Years of Community Empowerment

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The Fund for Women offers a promise that many participants passionately ignore.

Prospective donors are asked for a one-time gift of $1,000. No recurring appeals. No requests to give time.

But over the past 25 years, many women and, increasingly, men have chosen to give more money, recruit other donors, and volunteer skills and hours for the betterment of Delaware’s women and girls.

“It doesn’t seem so now, but this was an innovative idea—women concerned with philanthropy,” says Sandra Dull, leader of the fund’s 16 originators. “It quickly became very synergistic. Everyone started to reach out to expand the fund.”

“Our real success has been allowing a broad base of women to influence philanthropy in Delaware and grow into a statewide organization lasting 25 years and poised for the next 25,” says Kay Keenan, fund chair and president of Growth Consulting. “We find ways to help build pride so people can be empowered and have the tools for that.” That tool can be as simple as new sneakers that fit well, which was covered in a grant to Girls on the Run in 2016.

Since its founding in 1993, the fund has given 343 grants totaling more than $2.5 million. Its biggest beneficiary, Survivors of Abuse in Recovery, has received $159,000.

In 2010, the fund set a goal of growing its endowment by $1 million by its 25th anniversary. It reached that goal a year early. The endowment is now nearly $3.5 million, thanks to contributions from more than 1,800 donors. Its goals for 2018 include 2,018 donors.

The fund’s history goes back to 1986, when former Gov. Pierre S. du Pont III led the creation of the Delaware Community Foundation to help the state’s strapped nonprofits. In 1993, several foundation board members asked Gloria Fine to look into establishing a fund focused on female donors and issues.

“You could call it feminism,” says Fine. “This was really about empowering women and girls.” She is especially proud of a Catholic Charities program that subsidizes dental work for women entering the workforce. “They’ve become self-sufficient. So meaningful. That’s what this fund is all about.”

Carolyn S. Burger was Bell Atlantic-Delaware’s first and only female president when she lent the group a conference room for its first meeting. Another impetus, she says, was a request to fund child care for women seeking general equivalency diplomas. “The United Way denied it,” Burger says, “and we couldn’t let that happen.”

The first grants, for $2,500 in 1994, went to the University of Delaware and Girls Inc., for initiatives on date rape and women in science, recalls Lynne M. Kaufman, another originator.

“We were in fortunate positions to help,” says Audrey K. Doberstein, former president of Wilmington University. “We wanted to inspire women to follow their dreams and achieve things that they were capable of. And it would take money to do it.”

In 2017, the fund gave $190,046 to 18 nonprofits, including Children & Families First, to support its education on parenting skills for mothers recovering from addiction, and What Is Your Voice, to support holistic care for victims of domestic violence. In between was a range of programs, including eyeglasses, vegetable gardening, financial literacy and, again, women in science.

“It was mind-boggling for a few women to decide on these grants,” Berta Kerr recalls of her excitement after becoming a founder in the 1990s. “It just grew.”

The Fund for Women marks each year with a philanthropy breakfast. Such events provide opportunities for casual networking. To empower its contributors, the Fund for Women calls every donor a founder. Those who give more than the standard $1,000 are called sustainers. The original 16 are called first founders.

Kaufman says some first founders were “professional volunteers” like herself—women who were busy raising families while trying to improve the community. Others held or would hold high-profile jobs.

The fund, historically dominated by founders from New Castle County, is growing with money from movers and shakers from the business, governmental and nonprofit sectors across the state.

Brew HaHa! owner Alisa Morkides is donating $1 per bag of Brandywine Brewing coffee beans. Don Fulton, a Wilmington financial planner, became a founder a decade ago. “I’m passionate about women’s issues,” especially discrimination, he says.

The fund’s annual philanthropy breakfast included shout-outs to at least 10 elected officials. One was to Jane Maroney, a founder and state legislator for 20 years, who helped mentor fund leaders by teaching them how to lobby.

“These programs save two generations,” says Tracey Quillen Carney, who became a founder a decade ago. As Delaware’s first lady, she recently joined the board as an honorary trustee. “Programs for moms save kids, and programs for kids help parents.”

“All of us in nonprofits are trying to make the world a better place,” says Sam Sweet, executive director of the Delaware Art Museum and a founder. “At least six of our staff members are not just supporters but founders. I looked at its impact and how enthusiastic they were and had to get involved. I could see it was doing good work.”

One of those enthusiastic people is Molly Giordano, marketing and development director for the museum. A founder and fund board member, the 32-year-old also represents a push to turn over fund leadership to younger women.

“My generation is so appreciative of what’s been done,” she says, “but to keep it going, we’ll have to have younger people moving it into the future.” She also supports efforts to increase diversity and diversify geography. There are big recruitment pushes in Kent and Sussex counties, and some donations come from out-of-staters who feel connected to Delaware.

Founders interviewed at the breakfast offered consistent praise for the fund’s approach and goals to help women and girls. Its vision statement, for example, calls itself nonpartisan and nonsectarian and says it “will have the courage to grant a controversial project.”

As the fund’s post-grants chair, Louisa Phillips, a founder and Bayhealth retiree, leads the “serious commitment on credibility and accountability” to evaluate how grants have been spent.

“This is my passion,” says founder Pamela Sharpe, a DuPont Co. microbiologist and grants chair. “I love the impact across the state for women and girls who need help to reach their potential. I read about so many needs,” she says of the 100 requests she reviewed in 2017, “and the hope is to fulfill them.” 

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