It was a long drive home from the Pyramid Ale House for Paul Shannon and Paul Talbert one night last month.
They had just made their best funding pitch to the giving circle called 100 Women Who Care, but the competition had been stiff: the Millionair Club, which helps homeless people with job training and other services; and North East Seattle Together, or NEST, a community approach to tending to older residents.
Compared to those groups, why should anyone care about the Friends of Seward Park, one of a small army of volunteer organizations working to save the sword ferns that have been dying off all over the 300-acre South Seattle landmark?
“We left going, ‘These other guys were more likely to get the money,’” Talbert said. “The Millionair Club was compelling and the need is clear. And the second … NEST? North East Seattle Together? That’s just great.”
A few days later, though, an email came: The 100 Women Who Care had voted to award the Friends of Seward Park $7,750 with no strings attached.
In the five years since the Seattle branch of the national organization started (there are 11 branches statewide), the group has grown to 77 members and donated $57,750 to 15 charities. The women meet three times a year to hear pitches from three local charities nominated by members. (The three charities are chosen by pulling names from a box.)
Each woman donates $100, listens to the pitches and votes for a charity she thinks deserves the pooled funds. In the past, the group has donated to the Pride Foundation, Athletes as Leaders and The Healing Center, among other nonprofits.
“This is the ‘Shark Tank’ of nonprofits,” said member Marilyn Spotswood.
The organization was founded in 2006 by Karen Dunigan of Jackson, Michigan. She was meeting with members of the Center for Family Health, who told her how new mothers were putting their babies in boxes and drawers because they couldn’t afford cribs. When Dunigan learned that $10,000 would solve the problem, she called a meeting of 100 friends and asked them to donate $100 each. In an hour, they pooled $12,800.
The group continued to meet quarterly as 100 Women Who Care. Dunigan’s rules: Any member can present a need in the community, but it has to be immediate, and the money has to remain local. There are now 900 chapters worldwide.
“I have learned more about the need in the city than I ever did,” said member Ilene Jones. “I’ve written checks to groups that we didn’t even select. The whole room is so moved. It’s like going to church without the God stuff.”
Group leader Paula Rothkopf said that the group has chosen smaller charities, every time.
“It’s great,” she said. “That way, the amount we put together has bigger impact. And when you pool your resources, $10,00 is real money.”
Shannon, a software engineer who is also a volunteer park steward, agreed: “This is way more than we anticipated,” he said, “and 700 times more than we’ve ever gotten.”
The money will most likely be used to support a group of University of Washington (UW) undergraduate student researchers as they collect samples from Seward Park and other places, and use them to do DNA sequencing to determine what is killing the ferns. The work will be done under Tim Bello, a lecturer in environmental biology at UW.
On Wednesday, Shannon and Talbert met some of the of the 100 Women Who Care on a trailhead at Seward Park, where they were presented with a giant cardboard check — and an envelope of small, real ones — for $7,750. Sixty-three members had donated $6,375, and received $1,375 in matching funds from members’ employers.
When Talbert and Shannon made their pitch to the group in a donated space at the Pyramid Ale House, online voting had already started — and Friends of Seward Park was in last place.
“Then you told your story and everyone went, ‘Ah!’,” Rothkopf told Shannon and Talbert. “And that happens every time. It was well-pled.”
Bello was pleased with the unexpected windfall, but not surprised at Shannon’s ability to win the group over.
“Having seen Paul talk about it before, well, this is something he’s deeply passionate about,” Bello said. “He’s not going to let the forest go where it’s going. Not under his watch.”
Shannon led the group up a trail to show them a large area of healthy sword ferns, then led them to the “dead zone,” where ferns have been reduced to brittle curls of brown leaves.
“They’re famously sturdy,” he said. “People say, ‘You can’t kill a fern.’ But here we are.”
Sis Woodside saw the 100 Women Who Care donation as a small, true way to save the environment. Something you can actually see in your own community.
“You sit there and think, ‘What would really make a difference?'” Woodside said. “We all hear about this whole thing with the environment, and we’re trying so hard, reusing bags, recycling and composting. This really feels like we’re saving a small corner of the planet.”