Women's Leadership Group

The History of Our Group 

by Fran Stevenson

In  2004 Ellie Beaver, Executive Director of the Centre County United Way, attended a National United Way Conference and learned about the concept of the Women’s Leadership Initiative and the Power of the Purse. She  started receiving and researching the information on the Women’s Leadership Initiatives throughout the country.

I remember standing in Ellie’s office and she said to me “You really need to become involved with this”. She was so excited by the concept of women making their own decisions on charitable giving separate from their husbands. She was equally excited about the concept of a “Separate Campaign” with a separate designated fund with the money being used for issues related to women and children. But along with the excitement was a concern that the money raised through the initiative would not detract one single cent from an annual general campaign.

And since the beginning we have assured the agencies and our board we would not allow that to happen.

To get started we searched the data base to develop a list of women who, both individually and with their husbands and partners, had contributed to the annual general campaigns. We looked to business owners and business leaders in the community. We are in a unique situation of having Penn State and their Administration, Faculty, Staff and Students as community members and who have supported the CCUW in so many ways. Because of Penn State’s history with the CCUW including the successful staff and student campaigns and Trash to Treasures we knew the women on campus were approachable about joining the WLI. The School of Health and Human Services even had their own WLI.

The Dean of the PSU Smeal College of Business was recruited as the first Chairperson of the group. A social event was held at her home to introduce women to the idea of a WLI and to see who might be interested in forming a “Concept” committee.

There were lots of issues to consider:

  • Our demographics were different from other towns and cities that had already successfully formed a WLI.
  • We wanted to be inclusive and not be too restrictive as to who could be a member.
  • We wanted to attract the women in the leadership positions of Centre County. The challenge here was that particularly in the Centre Region, we are a very philanthropic community and those we were looking to attract were already involved with lots of different issues and causes.
  • We weren’t exactly sure what we were trying to accomplish but we did know that we wanted to work on issues related to women and children.
  • We wanted to attract funds for separate projects but didn’t want to jeopardize the gifts to the annual campaigns.

We spent the next year or so inviting women, who we thought might have an interest in and the resources to contribute to the initiative, to social and informational events. After the initial meeting we met at the home of one of the initial members. We then had an outside Tea with a speaker from an established WLI at a local nursery business and this meeting was sponsored by a local bank. The next meeting involved a panel of 3 women who were the Executive Directors of 3 of the United Way Partner Agencies. This meeting was held at The Palmer Museum of Art on campus that had been funded by a husband and wife that were members of our de Tocqueville Society and was also sponsored by another local bank.

We met with the Leadership Initiative associated with the College of Health and Human Development at Penn State. The approximate 30 members of this leadership initiative were in their Junior year at Penn State.

  • The curriculum for the program included:
  • Developing knowledge of themselves and others
  • Defining Leadership
  • Developing Leadership skills
  • Practicing Leadership through service

The mentoring program of the Penn State initiative was considered one of the most important components of the program. Ellie and I were  excited when we found out about the program.

We invited the Director to a luncheon with our members to discuss our Initiative collaborating with theirs. Then several of our members participated in panel discussions for the 2009 Fall semester on topics including “What is Leadership”, “Risk Taking and Leadership” and “Multicultural Woman in Leadership”. I am sorry to say this collaboration did not continue due to changes in the leadership and the focus of the Initiative within the College of Health and Human Services.

So over the years we have held membership meetings 2 to 3 times a year to:

  • Determine the qualifications for membership
  • To learn about community issues
  • To determine on which of these issues we want to focus and how much we want to contribute to those issues

Currently a woman qualifies for membership by contributing $1000 annually or $500 a year for 5 years plus additional support for special projects. This additional support can be in the form of Time, Talent, and Treasure.

In October of 2008 the Centre County Child Access Center was opened in Bellefonte, our County Seat. This is a “Safe Place” where estranged parents can exchange their children for visitation without fear of confrontation or violence.   The WLI was advised that the CAC was looking for seed money to get started. We visited and learned more about the Center as a group and it soon became of interest to our members and a perfect fit for the group. The CAC did receive a federal grant ($400,000) but needed money for things that the grant did not cover such as furnishings, toys and some capital improvements. The WLI provided that money and we continue to provide funds to the Center on an annual basis.

In 2010 the members met with representatives of the five school districts in Centre County. We learned about difficult situations facing some of the students in each of the districts:
An estimated 70 students in the State College SD were considered homeless and were moving between relatives and friends simply to have a roof over their heads. One family had taken in a friend of their son but was having trouble stretching the family budget to accommodate the additional expenses.

  • There were approximately 20% of students in the 5 districts who did not have access to computers after school hours. This made it difficult for them to do homework.
  • There were students who did not have the funds to pay for sports equipment, class rings, yearbooks, class trips.
  • Teachers and Counselors were paying out of their own pockets for things that students and even their families needed.

The counselors at each school district knew their students and which ones needed assistance. And we gave the counselors discretion as to how the money should be used and for whom.

When they had a student who they felt had a need that they could not afford the counselor would notify the UW and the money would be paid to address the need; not to the student but to the counselor or directly to a vendor. An accounting was to come from each school district on a regular basis. And that worked for about a year.

  • We provided the family who had taken in the student with funds to help with the grocery bills.
  • We had intended to provide the school districts with money to pay for having the hard drives “scrubbed” on computers that were being discarded but instead would be given to students who needed them. The school districts never asked for the money.
  • We paid for sports equipment that several students needed to play on school teams.
  • The best story comes from the PO SD. A senior could not afford to sign up for her class trip.

The WLI was going to pay for the trip BUT when the student’s class mates found out they all chipped in to pay for her trip and expenses.

We invite people from around the county to our information meetings to keep us advised on issues and each one of the members is involved with other non-profits. But up until now the main recipient of our funds is the Child Access Center.

Our members participate in Day of Caring each October. Several of our members are on the Committee for a community fund raiser known as Chefs on Stage.

I see our successes as:

  • The funding that we have been able to provide to the CAC and the School Districts.
  • And even the short period of time we were able to work with the Initiative group on campus.
  • Our contribution to Day of Caring each year.
  • And keeping our members up to date on community issues through the presentations at our meeting.

Challenges? We certainly have some.

  • As I mentioned this is a very philanthropic community and many women are involved with many issues and many causes. And because of this we have trouble increasing our membership.
  • People are already very busy and involved.
  • Another is getting some of our members involved in projects. Our members are happy to reach into their pockets but are not as generous with their time and talent and that is because they are already very busy and involved.

For more information or to join the Women’s Leadership Group please contact Leanne Lenz at 814.238.8283.