On the morning of April 30, 80 women gathered on Zoom. They shared what time they changed out of their pajamas, talked about how they were all doing, and made some announcements.
Then, the work began.
This was a meeting of the Jewish Women’s Giving Foundation, a 125-member program of The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore, and they were there to determine grant allocations for the upcoming year.
JWGF is a collective of donors that funds nonprofits and hosts education programming. Since 2003, JWGF has awarded more than $1.5 million in grants to 58 nonprofit organizations. While the entire organization doesn’t have to be comprised of women, their funds go toward helping women and girls.
In December, a group vetted and narrowed potential recipients to 12 finalists.
During the Zoom meeting, a reporter for each of the finalist nonprofits explained to members how their charity is responding to COVID-19, how it represents Jewish values, and what it accomplishes.
An open discussion in Zoom’s chat feature followed, where members typed 848 messages, including “I wave my hanky” to show agreement. This was a reference to how the members usually wave a white handkerchief in meetings, according to Diane Israel, JWGF’s grant chair.
Director Jennifer Millman said that the virtual format may have contributed to greater participation among the women.
“There was so [much] more participation,” she said. “As an introvert myself, I can see there were so many women who would not have spoken up otherwise.”
Three hours later, the meeting concluded, and members voted through SurveyMonkey for their top eight picks.
“Leading the voting session was a little stressful in that we had not done it before,” said Cindi Topolski, grant chair. “However, through many meetings, all via Zoom, the executive committee were able to plan for and strategize how to proceed.”
The votes were weighted to determine the amounts of money. The recipients are Asylee Women Enterprise (Baltimore); Hillel – the Right to Choose (Israel); Sisters Circle (Baltimore); Itach-Maaki, Women Lawyers for Social Justice (Israel); JDC (Tunisia); Helping Up Mission (Baltimore); Center for Women’s Justice (Israel); Jewish Agency for Israel (Israel); Intercultural Counseling Connection (Baltimore); and the Edward A. Myerberg Center (Baltimore).
The funds ranged from $6,000 to $20,000 and totaled more than $163,000.
Millman said the chosen organizations could be put into “three buckets.” One is of familiar organizations like JDC; a second is of those in advocacy; and a third group is of organizations that responded immediately to COVID-19 disaster relief.
“JWGF gives me the opportunity to [not only] be connected to the Jewish community, but also be part of a group of women who really make a difference,” Israel said.
She also appreciates the ability to be “up close and personal” with the community.
According to business magazine Fast Company, collective philanthropy has grown over the past decade, and much of it is being driven by women.
“To be in a room with 80 women discussing where to put your money to help people best, talking thoughtfully, and listening about charity … you can sign me up for that any day of the week,” Millman said.
Topolski agreed that she enjoys the democratic process.
“Everyone has a vote and sometimes the proposals I like are not chosen, but I’m very confident that each one is important and worthy of our funds,” said Topolski. “The grants do so much good within the Jewish community both here and in Israel and in our local Baltimore home.”
“It’s pretty spectacular to have all these women in the office,” Millman said. “Our democratic process gets a bad rep because people can disagree, but everyone has one vote. And so you can pipe up, but you still have to listen to everyone and everyone has a vote. It’s beautiful, isn’t it? It’s how democracy should be.”