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In conversation with Wendy Steele

3 February 2020 at 5:13 pm
Maggie Coggan
Wendy Steele is the founder of Impact 100, a giving model dismantling barriers to philanthropy and transforming communities on a global scale.  

Maggie Coggan | 3 February 2020 at 5:13 pm


In conversation with Wendy Steele
3 February 2020 at 5:13 pm

Wendy Steele is the founder of Impact 100, a giving model dismantling barriers to philanthropy and transforming communities on a global scale.  

The idea behind Impact 100 is simple; gather at least 100 people to donate $1,000 each, raising at least $100,000 for a local charity as voted for by the donor group. 

Started in 2001, Steele wanted to find a way to not only raise money for deserving causes in her local area, but to dismantle barriers to philanthropy that women faced by offering an accessible way to give money by pooling resources to achieve real results.     

It’s now been 19 years since the organisation’s first grant of $123,000 was gifted to a cash-strapped dental clinic in Cincinnati, Ohio, and the model has grown exponentially. 

The model has been replicated in 50 cities across America, the UK and Australia, giving away over $67 million to local charities.    

Steele is now back in Australia visiting Impact 100 chapters across the country, and in the wake of the catastrophic Australian bushfire season that has seen 11 million hectares of land destroyed, 1 billion animals killed and nearly 2,000 homes destroyed, is sharing her learnings on how the model can mobilise giving in times of crisis.  

Here, Steele talks about how Impact 100 has grown and developed since its inception, the secret behind its success, and the challenges that come with growth. 

Let’s start with where does the idea for Impact 100 came from?

When I moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, I realised that although women’s roles have evolved rather dramatically over the past three or four generations, women’s philanthropy had not. 

I found there were so many women who had brilliant minds and hearts and even significant cheque books, but they didn’t feel part of the solution, and they didn’t think there was a way for them to get involved or serve their community. 

So in the summer of 2001, I wrote down all the reasons I’d heard as to why women weren’t involved in their community, and then one by one, I worked out a way to overcome each one of those barriers. Women need to feel empowered and we empower them by casting the vision and showing them what’s possible through giving what they have. And that’s how Impact 100 was born. 

It’s a very simple model. We gather at least 100 women, each woman donates $1,000 and then the entire pool gets given away in the same year with a minimum grant size of $100,000. There are five focus areas, with the idea being that there would not be a nonprofit in the geographic region of that impact 100 organisation who is missing out.  

Why do you think it is a model that has worked so well for women around the world?

I think that the model is very simple, it’s transparent, easy to understand, and there is a multiplier effect. I am not an independently wealthy woman, and so writing a cheque for $1,000 every year for my membership at times has been a sacrifice. I can only imagine what it would be like to be someone who writes her own cheques for $100,000 or more and gives it to a charity of her choice. But by being a part of Impact 100, all of us can feel equally part of those gigantic grants that we give out. 

Our grants are designed to transform their communities in a powerful and sustainable way. And I think that’s a concept that is so easy to understand that it resonates with people and they’re ready to jump.

Australia is still a bit behind the US when it comes to philanthropy, what are you hoping to inspire in Australians while you’re here?

I’ve been so impressed with the people I’ve met in Australia during this visit with their commitment and their ability to really mobilise people to give.

During times of natural disasters, such as the Australian bushfires, people feel compelled to do something and the thing about giving is once you start, you really want to keep doing it. Realising that you have enough, you are enough to be a part of the solution to help your neighbours and friends, to help those less fortunate, is like watching a snowball rolling down the hill.

So I’m really optimistic for Australia’s philanthropy and I’m planning on coming back to Australia several more times and visiting lots of people, to help them in every way I can in terms of providing guidance and resources that will help make this work easier. But there are so many big-hearted people who are standing boldly and leading the way right here locally and I’m delighted to play a part in that.  

What role do you see Impact 100 playing in how Australians give in the future, particularly in the face of severe natural disasters such as the bushfires?

I think it’s really important that Impact 100 leaders and members are a guiding light to point citizens to the non-profits that are doing their best work in this disaster relief. Because in these situations, people don’t know what to do and they don’t know where to go and they don’t know what to believe. That is a very frustrating feeling and it amplifies the anxiety that these disasters bring on. 

I believe that Impact 100 leadership here can really be the voice of truth to say, if you want to give, this is where you need to be directing your attention, this is where you should give blood, this is what you should do if you’re going to write a cheque. They are creating the roadmap and allowing people across Australia to understand that they can have a role in solving these issues and in helping make things better. I believe that encouragement will last a long time and the ripple effects from that will be felt for generations.

What are some of the current challenges Impact 100 is facing?

I’m not sure that I would call them challenges because it’s so exciting that we are scaling so quickly, but it does mean a lot of people to talk to and places to go. I’m the founder and creator of the model but it’s getting harder for me to give all the Impact 100 chapters the attention they deserve. 

I would also say that over the years of Impact 100 – in part because of the pace we’ve been growing – different chapters have gone their own way, and have felt a little on their own in terms of sorting out best practices and what to do and how to do it. So part of my challenge now is to ramp up support and to find better resources than they’ve seen before. It’s really important that all the impact chapters are on the same page and singing from the same song sheet. When that happens, it’s taking the collective giving concept of a single chapter where there are lots of members who make their donation and together it’s a very powerful movement.

If each one of those chapters started coming together and doing things together in the same way that we do at the chapter level, that power will really magnify. That’s our challenge moving forward, holding the communities together so that we can amplify our collective voice and really shine the light on the work that is happening in lots of communities across lots of cities, in countries everywhere.

Maggie Coggan  |  Journalist  |  @MaggieCoggan

Maggie Coggan is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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