COLUMN: The women of Impact 100 are investing in positive change

'It's been an awesome experience'

CINCINNATI -- If you ever have doubted the potential of determined women to make a difference, consider the story of Impact 100.

Launched in 2001, the idea was for 100 women to come together and donate $1,000 each to make a collective, transformational grant of $100,000 to a local nonprofit organization.

Impact 100 has been such a success that it now has about 450 members and typically raises more than $400,000 each year -- enough to give grants of at least $100,000 to four local nonprofits. (It has added a $500 per year membership level, too.)

The group has given more than $3.6 million in grants since its inception. And there are now more than 30 Impact 100 chapters across the U.S. and three in Australia.

At 6 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 19, the local group's members will gather to hear how much money they will raise to give away this year and to invite more women to join. See details below.

"We've grown explosively over the past few years, which is really exciting for us," said Clare Zlatic Blankemeyer, Impact 100 Cincinnati's vice president and nonprofit coordinator. "Our dream is over the next two or three years to give five grants."

To understand what Impact 100 has meant to our community, I talked with leaders of two of the nonprofits that have won grants from the organization. Both raved about what a difference the group's money -- and involvement -- has made to their charities.

Challenging nonprofits to do better

Susan Frankel, the president of Crayons to Computers, said Impact 100's gift has changed the way her organization approaches its work. Crayons to Computer won a $108,000 grant from Impact 100 in 2013 and used the money to launch a new mobile outreach program.

Frankel's organization operates a free store in Bond Hill where teachers can get the school supplies that their students need but can't afford.

The Crayons to Computers box truck.

The Impact 100 funds helped the nonprofit outfit a box truck to take free school supplies and resources to the most distant schools in Crayons to Computers' service area.

"The intent was to reach students and teachers at schools that were eligible to use our services but because of the distance to our facility in Bond Hill, it was almost prohibitive for them to come," Frankel said. "Now we can basically in about four hours time go in and serve an entire school."

That's a big change from Crayons to Computers' free store, where teachers visit one at a time to select what their classrooms need.

"I don't know that we had thought through that," Frankel said. "It's really changed how we're looking at what we're doing and the impact we can have."

Teachers shop on the truck.

And because Crayons to Computers has been able to show how efficient and effective the box truck is, the nonprofit has been able to win enough grants from other funders to keep the program going even after using up the Impact 100 funds, she said.

Going through the Impact 100 grant application process ended up helping Crayons to Computers far more than Frankel expected, she said.

"It really did challenge us to think really differently about what we were doing and how we were doing it," she said. "To say, 'if this is successful, how else can we do what we do better?'"

'An awesome experience'

The Columbia Township-based nonprofit May We Help won a $101,000 grant from Impact 100 in 2015, and the organization used more than 90 percent of the money to buy new equipment for its workshop, said Executive Director Terry McManus.

"We got some unbelievable pieces of equipment and tools," McManus said. "It's probably the best workshop outside of a business that you're going to find anywhere."

That's important because May We Help creates custom-designed devices for people with disabilities.

Many of the devices are one-of-a-kind. But the organization also makes "sensory chairs" specially designed for children with autism. They are quiet rockers that help kids cope when they feel overwhelmed by the sights and sounds around them.

Sensory chairs made by May We Help.

The equipment that May We Help was able to buy with the Impact 100 money allows the organization to replicate the chairs very quickly, McManus said.

"We actually did 18 of those chairs last year, and I imagine we'll do 50 this year as word gets out," he said.

The new equipment also gives May We Help's volunteers an even greater sense of pride as they craft devices for their clients, he said.

Winning the grant was time-consuming, McManus said, because Impact 100 has a lot of interaction built into the organization's decision-making process.

A child tries out a sensory chair.

But by the end of that process, McManus felt he had developed a meaningful relationship with the group.

"If you're blessed enough to win, I've really tried to give back to Impact 100 by attending any of their events," he said. "It's been an awesome experience."

That's part of what makes Impact 100 different from other philanthropic organizations, Blankemeyer said. The group's members are from all types of backgrounds -- doctors and lawyers and stay-at-home moms -- and they all get an opportunity to be part of deciding how Impact 100 spends its money.

"I think there's a common stereotype that anything that feels good, we fund," she said. "Women bring an incredibly critical eye to proposals. Is it sustainable? What's the impact it's going to be making?"

With those questions and their dollars, the women of Impact 100 are making our community a better place -- grant by grant.

Details about the Impact 100 2017 Membership Announcement are available online. The event is open to the public. More information about Impact 100 is online, too.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and also shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Childhood poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO. To read more stories about childhood poverty, go to www.wcpo.com/poverty.

To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.

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