Grassroots philanthropy of Impact 100 boosts Sonoma County charities

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Not every great, potentially transformative idea is an original idea.

Melissa Kelley for years imagined being part of a group of 100 or more women who would each kick $1,000 into a fund, then give that slug of money to a local nonprofit keen to do something meaningful and compelling, even dramatic, with it.

The concept that led Kelley to co-found the Impact 100 Redwood Circle in late 2014 was not born inside the Santa Rosa woman’s head. Kelley, a veteran civic volunteer and philanthropist, was inspired by the many $100,000 grants made by an eight-year-old Impact 100 group several miles to the southeast, in Sonoma Valley.

The Sonoma-area women hadn’t invented the Impact 100 model, either. It was conceived in 2001 by a group of Cleveland women, who traced their act of intimate, possibly game-changing philanthropy to the timeworn cultural phenomenon of members of a community pooling and dispensing resources for the direct benefit of neighbors in need.

It doesn’t bother Kelley a bit to admit she copied the approach to collective, grass-roots giving. She’s just thrilled with how enthusiastically the women in the Impact 100 Redwood Circle have embraced it, and how well it’s working.

“The energy is amazing,” said Kelley, a gracious dynamo who has led the Sonoma County Library Commission and the county Book Festival and currently is executive director of the county Regional Parks Foundation.

By handing $100,000 a year to organizations working creatively to improve lives, she said, the women “can move the needle.”

The Impact 100 Redwood Circle earlier this month made a $100,000 gift, its second since its founding, to the Forestville-based Food for Thought food bank for people who grapple with HIV and AIDS.

“It’s probably the largest grant we’ve ever received,” said the organization’s elated director, Ron Karp.

The Impact 100 annual selection process begins with members nominating nonprofts they believe would do something substantial, perhaps extraordinary, with $100,000. A grant committee chooses three semifinalists, and invites representatives of those three organizations to make brief presentations before an annual meeting of the entire membership.

The women of the Impact 100 Redwood Circle hear the three proposals, then vote on which agency should receive the grant. The organization that receives the most votes is awarded the money.

Delegates of Food for Thought described in their proposal a pilot program that would provide quality food to local people who struggle at home with serious illnesses other than HIV and AIDS, diseases such as diabetes and coronary ailments.

A total of 80 patients perceived to be at risk of malnutrition would receive foods tailored to them. The patients would be monitored to determine if the enhanced nutrition substantially reduces the likelihood of them going to an emergency room or being admitted to a hospital.

Food for Thought’s Karp believes a pilot program pursued in partnership with West County Health Services would demonstrate that health costs go down when seriously ill people are provided good nutrition, and that access to wholesome food should be part of the medical system.

That vision by Food for Thought prompted the women the Santa Rosa-based giving circle to award the food bank this year’s $100,000 grant. Kelley said it’s exciting the gift “will allow the organization to collect solid data in support of their belief that food is medicine.”

Karp said the women led by Kelley are “doing just what they set out to do — helping a small agency with big ambitions make a big impact for individuals and the community.”

Though any nonprofit would love to receive $100,000 to sustain its work, the women of the Impact 100 Redwood Circle are looking for what the food bank gave them: a proposal for an ambitious project or new initiative.

Last year, the women gave their first grant to VOICES, which serves young people who struggle after being aged out of the foster-care system. It is using the money to run a Foster Youth Navigation Program that helps young people served by VOICES graduate from high school and go on to college.

In recent years, the Sonoma Valley Impact 100 group has awarded grants to initiatives of the 10,000 Degrees program that helps young people attain a college education, the Sonoma Valley Parent University, Redwood Empire Food Bank, La Luz Center, Sonoma Valley Teen Services and Boys & Girls Clubs of Sonoma Valley.

Membership in both of the county’s Impact 100 groups has far exceeded 100 women, so both are able to collect and disperse well more than $100,000 a year. In addition to their $100,000 grants, both groups also award smaller grants to local nonprofits, generally of several thousand dollars.

Kelley, who co-founded the Redwood Circle with Deirdre Holbrook, said the simple, direct approach to local philanthropy attracts “an amazingly effective group of women.”

In order to make the group accessible to women are who just starting in their careers or are retired, Kelley and the other leaders created a dyad system that allows two women to join and donate $500 per year each, rather than the customary $1,000.

Kelley heaps praise on the Sonoma Valley group for introducing her to the Impact 100 concept, and for grandly helping the Redwood Circle take root and commence making a difference.

The Sonoma women, she said, “just have been amazingly kind and generous.”

That would seem to be the Impact 100 way.

Chris Smith is at 707-521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

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