Wendy Steele, founder and chief executive of Impact100, empowers women to make a difference in their communities by giving back on their own terms.
By Carmen Nesbitt
The past few years have seen women changing a number of industries for the better, from Hollywood to tech to finance. And with women on track to control $22 trillion in personal wealth this year, according to a report released by the BMO Wealth Institute, the philanthropy field is no different.
That’s partly thanks to Wendy Steele, the founder and chief executive of Impact100, a women-only organization that empowers women to give — and make a difference in their communities — on their own terms.
According to the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at Indiana University, gender behavior matters when it comes to motivating men and women to give. Its research shows that women give based on empathy and donate more often than men. However, few organizations foster women’s unique style of philanthropy or accommodate their busy lifestyles.
Steele founded Impact100 in 2001 to bridge that gap. “We intend to democratize philanthropy in a way that involves the entire community,” she says. “And [unlike] some other women’s giving initiatives, we are not women funding women and girls; we are women funding community, from arts and culture to environment to education to health and wellness to family.”
On March 7, Steele will visit Auburn Hills to share her story at an event sponsored by Impact100’s Oakland County chapter (SEEN is also a sponsor). The gathering is fittingly timed to International Women’s Day on March 8. “I’ll share stories to provide encouragement to women to cast a vision of what generosity can do within their communities, their organizations and their families,” she says.
For more than 20 years, Steele worked in private banking — a career that ultimately brought her to Traverse City, where she currently lives. But her job came second to her passion for community service. “I grew up in a family [in which] giving back was just part of what we did,” she says. “It wasn’t special. It simply was how we walked through life.”
After relocating from Connecticut to Cincinnati for work in 2001, Steele realized other women felt that same desire to give — but there were obstacles in their way. Women in Steele’s new community opened up to her, she says, confessing that they didn’t feel empowered to give back. Reasons like having to pay a babysitter so that they could volunteer, traveling too much for work or thinking they couldn’t give enough to make a “real” difference stopped them from getting involved.
Steele decided to find a way to “overcome” those obstacles, she says. While on vacation during the summer of 2001, she jotted down every concern she’d heard on a notepad — and soon she’d sketched out a female-oriented giving model that became Impact100.
The concept has caught on with women worldwide. Since Impact100’s founding, the organization has grown to more than 60 chapters throughout the U.S., the United Kingdom and Australia, and has donated just shy of $80 million to charities.
How it works: Every Impact100 chapter must have at least 100 members who each donate $1,000. This creates a grant pool of $100,000, the minimum amount any Impact100 chapter gives to a local charity. “One thousand dollars is what I call a ‘stop and think gift,’” says Steele. “Regardless of how deep your checkbook is, if someone asks you for $1,000, you’re going to take notice. I want the women to be as connected to the $1,000 they give as they are to the $100,000 we, in turn, give to the local nonprofits.” The more women who join a particular chapter, the more grants it can give (i.e., if there are 200 women in a chapter, two charities each get $100,000).
Throughout the year, charities apply for funding and subcommittees select finalists. Then, at an annual meeting, all chapter members gather to vote on the winner. “It’s one woman, $1,000 and one vote,” says Steele, adding that members cannot earn more voting power by donating more money.
Locally, Impact100 boasts a thriving presence, with chapters in Oakland and Macomb counties as well as Detroit. “There are so many needs here in Oakland County,” says Mary Pat Rosen, a founding board member and past president of Oakland County Impact100, which was established in 2016. “We oftentimes forget that, because a lot of people focus on Detroit.”
In 2019, the 306-member chapter awarded $306,000 worth of grants to Oxford-based Crossroads for Youth, which provides services for at-risk kids; West Bloomfield’s Friendship Circle, an organization that supports individuals with special needs; and Kids Kicking Cancer, which empowers sick children through martial arts. “At first, I thought [joining Impact100] would be a great way for me to be involved as little or as much as [I] want,” says Rosen, a Southfield-based attorney. “But I loved it so much, I got more involved.”
On her own, one woman with $1,000 can do little to make a difference. But 100 women can transform a community. “This is not any kind of exclusive club,” says Steele. “Don’t let anyone confuse you that you have to know a secret handshake or someone on the board [to participate]. We want all women from all walks of life to join us in this work.” Steele also urges nonprofits in all communities the organization serves to apply for Impact100 grants. Or, as she puts it, “Really dream big.”