Julianna Thibodeaux

Kelli Norwalk was interested in finding Indianapolis women who had the heart to give but perhaps never considered themselves having the means. Thus Impact 100 was born - an initiative of collective giving.

Giving time to charitable causes used to be largely the purview of women. But times have changed, and so have women's choices: As men have become more active as volunteers, women have become more formidable wage earners, and their choices have expanded accordingly.

Women, after all, can also write checks.

Kelli Norwalk had a hunch that Indianapolis was a place where women could write checks - ones big enough to make a significant difference when combined with the checks of other women. There were already plenty of heavy-hitters in town, powerful women who have made and continue to make significant financial contributions to the city and, in many cases, also give generously of their time and expertise.

Norwalk was interested in the women who have the heart to give but perhaps never considered themselves having the means. Or maybe they were never asked. Thus Impact 100 Indianapolis was born - an initiative of collective giving whereby 100 women each contribute $1,000 and the resulting $100,000 is donated to a worthy cause that each woman has a vote in determining.

Eighty-nine and counting

The seed was planted two years ago when Norwalk was visiting Pensacola, Fla., and saw a headline in a local paper: "Who Wants $100,000?" A group called Impact 100 Pensacola Bay Area had collected $1,000 from 100 women and was looking to put that money back into the community.

"I took the article home and I probably read it about three or four times," Norwalk recalls. "I thought, $100,000 is a lot of money." Norwalk then set up a luncheon with Debbie Ritchie, president of Impact 100 Pensacola Bay Area, and another board member. "They were so dynamic and so giving. They said if we can do this, we'll help you do it too." That initial group of women has since expanded, and this year has the membership on tap to award two grants of $125,000 - a measure of the program's phenomenal early success.

Before Pensacola, Norwalk learned, there was Cincinnati; and before that, the Washington Women's Fund in Washington State, a group that has awarded nearly $5.8 million in grants since its founding 10 years ago. And in the works are women's giving circles in San Antonio and Tulsa.

Back at home, Norwalk put in a call to Rob MacPherson at the Central Indiana Community Foundation (CICF) who gave the idea the thumbs up. CICF signed on as the fund's administrator.

Meanwhile, Donna Oklak, who had recently earned a master's degree in philanthropic studies from the Indiana University School of Philanthropy and had been instrumental in organizing a giving circle at Ball State University, had contacted CICF to see about starting a women's giving circle in Indianapolis. Oklak learned in school that giving circles were a growing, and highly effective, philanthropic trend. This synchronicity prompted Oklak and Norwalk to join forces and start Impact 100 Indianapolis.

Now, with its initial goal all but met after just three months of recruiting members - 89 have given $1,000 to date, with other commitments on the table - it's time for the hard part: deciding who will receive the $100,000. You could call it a philanthropic lottery - except there's no chance involved. Organizations representing any of five service areas - arts and culture, education, environment, family and health and wellness - are encouraged to apply. (For more information, visit

The beauty of Impact 100

The members of Impact 100 Indianapolis can choose their level of involvement in the decision-making process. Organizations applying for the funds will have their proposals reviewed by committees representing each service area; and each contributing member can decide what area interests them most - or not. They may also choose to simply wait and vote next June.

That's the beauty of Impact 100, believes Norwalk, who volunteers her time as president. "You don't have to do anything if you don't want to. All you have to do is send your check. As a former small business owner that really appeals to me."

On the other hand, women who want to learn more about their community can do so in earnest; and that is one of the goals of Impact 100. "We really do want women to get more educated about all the diverse issues and needs in our community because then we really are becoming stakeholders," Norwalk says. "Every woman who joins has a choice to serve on a committee focus area. Then they read all the applications that come in, then they do the site visits, then they choose five finalists, one in each of the five focus areas."

And this is where the circle truly widens.

In other Impact 100s, women who have participated in the decision-making process at the committee level have gone on to volunteer or donate to organizations they've learned about. "When you're educated about what's out there, you want to be part of it all," Norwalk says.

Norwalk, who raised a family here with her husband while building a successful business (she sold her retail clothing store, Tarkington Tweed, three years ago, but plans to open a home decor retail shop in Broad Ripple this spring), believes that women should have choices - and they should have the opportunity to make a difference, no matter what their means.

Fifty percent of the wealth

Kim Robertson has chosen to do more than write a check. Robertson, who moved to Indianapolis from Florida almost three years ago when her husband took a job here, is in charge of the Friends fund for Impact 100. Women who don't have $1,000 to give can contribute any amount they're able, or provide in-kind support to the all-volunteer effort. The money from Friends goes to support administrative costs.

"I felt like this was an opportunity within our community to have a lot of women be involved in making a huge impact," Robertson says. "I felt like it wouldn't be the same people who are doing charitable work, not just in Indianapolis, but in the greater Indianapolis area."

Robertson, a stay-at-home mom, wants to make the most of those years. "I think that life comes in so many chapters and right now, this is my kid chapter, and I have to be there for them. But still I have a philanthropic side that wants to feel like I'm contributing to my community again."

This kind of choice is what makes Impact 100 programs a success, Norwalk believes. Overall, she says, the member retention rate is over 80 percent. "This giving circle is obviously serving the needs of a lot of women. There are many women that it's the very first time. They said no one's ever asked. They're getting on the on-ramp for the first time."

Women are said to hold over 50 percent of the wealth. "And yet traditionally," Norwalk says, "women have not been at the center of their family's giving. Women really haven't stepped up to the plate; they haven't been asked. You think historically about women coming together around the kitchen table and talking about social problems, talking about their communities - that's how our whole women's movement started. I think that we are collaborative by nature."

Impact 100 serves two core purposes: It serves the needs of the community - especially at a time when those needs are so great, and its funds are so limited. But it's the other purpose that will ultimately serve the first one over the long haul. "The whole premise was to get more women involved in philanthropy. You give $1,000 and you're a philanthropist," Norwalk says. "It really puts you in a different classification." And that creates a ripple effect all its own.

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