Parents Talk Back by Aisha Sultan

Women Bridge Political Divides to Give Millions

There’s a little-known group of local women quietly giving away millions of dollars in the St. Louis metro area. Their nearly 240 members include both outspoken liberals and hard-core Republicans.

They call themselves the Spirit of St. Louis Women’s Fund, or SOS for short. Together, they’ve donated more than $2.5 million since 2007 exclusively to small nonprofits in the metro region. At a time when political divides are fraught, many people’s volunteer efforts and charitable giving reflects their ideological values. This makes SOS’ stealth philanthropy to a diverse array of causes even more remarkable.

The group is part of a “collective giving” trend that has skyrocketed since 2007. The idea is simple: Members recognize that they can make a bigger impact by pooling money and donating larger grants than by giving smaller amounts individually.

Shelby Schagrin brought the idea to St. Louis in 2006 after seeing a successful model in San Diego. She recruited her friend Susan Block to join her in trying to launch the same thing here. They started the fund by asking 100 friends to join them by committing to give $100 a month for at least a year.

At first, they weren’t sure if anyone else would be interested. The organization was designed to fly under the radar, and hasn’t had a single fundraiser since it started 13 years ago.

“We didn’t want to fund buildings or have big events,” Block said. “We just wanted to help people.”

 Any woman who commits to the monthly donation can join. There are no other requirements for membership. No one has to sponsor or invite a new member. There are no volunteer requirements, although many of the women do become involved with the groups they end up funding.

They solicit grant applications from area nonprofits with operating budgets under $1.5 million. They have a team of members who commit to reviewing proposals, doing site visits and going over operating budgets. Then, they put around 20 organizations on a ballot and let the members vote on how to divvy up the funds.

“The point is to make it equal,” Block said. “Every vote counts the same.”

They’ve supported more than 80 local organizations with grants ranging from $5,000 to $25,000 each.

Studies show that women at all income levels give more to charity than men. A 2018 U.S. Trust study found that 93% of high-net-worth women -- those earning more than $200,000 or having a net worth greater than $1 million, minus the value of their home -- give to charity. Of the same group, 56% volunteer, 6% participate in impact investing and 23% serve on nonprofit boards. That’s compared to 87% of male donors and 41% of men who volunteer. The same gender disparity holds true at lower income levels, and the proliferation of women-led giving circles may be a contributing factor.

Amy Inman, president of SOS, says her giving patterns reflected what other studies have shown: Women tend to give more spontaneously, in group situations and with their hearts, as compared to men. Before she got involved with SOS, she describes herself as a “knee-jerk giver, willing to donate to whoever is asking and whoever you are standing closest to.”

After seven years with SOS, she has learned to become more intentional about her giving, studying how to achieve the best outcomes for the most pressing needs.

Inman, who is self-employed, said she’s also discovered causes she never would have known about, and she’s developed relationships with women outside her usual circles that she wouldn’t have met otherwise.

The organization does not make donations to political or religious groups. In fact, they try to avoid conversations about politics or religion altogether, Inman said.

“We talk about issues that are for the good for our community that we can agree upon,” she said.

Shawntelle Fisher, CEO of the SoulFisher Ministries (not a religious organization), is one of their favorite success stories. Fisher’s organization serves the needs of youth with incarcerated parents. She applied for a $14,000 grant in 2014 when her nonprofit was launching a pilot project. She was formerly incarcerated and struggling to raise money.

Inman said SOS decided to take a “calculated risk” after they got to know Fisher.

They gave her $10,000 in 2015 to help start up the nonprofit.

“They gave us our first substantial grant, and because of that, it positioned us for others to take a chance on us,” Fisher said.

Her organization has since blossomed: It got a $1.5 million grant from the Department of Education, and now employees eight full-time staff, 12 part-timers, four AmeriCorps Vista volunteers and several students from nearby universities.

Fisher was so moved by the work SOS does that she became a member herself.

“It just feels great. I’m changing lives in my own community through this network of powerful and compassionate women,” she said.

Five other women whose nonprofits were funded by SOS later ended up joining as members in order to help fund the next round.

“Nobody does anything like a woman,” Fisher said. “Having a whole group of us together is unstoppable.”