Leading by Serving: The Women’s Foundation for a Greater Memphis

As printed in Memphis Magazine | Author: Erica Horton

This year, the Women’s Foundation for a Greater Memphis (WFGM) had big plans for their quarter-century celebration of community impact and philanthropy. A nonprofit that serves as a “backbone organization,” WFGM’s mission is to improve the well-being of “economically vulnerable women and families annually through philanthropy and grant-making initiatives, leadership, and collaboration.”

Their Annual Tribute Luncheon and Symposium, a signature fundraiser that draws more than 2,000 people over the course of two days and two events, generates a large portion of their over-$2.5 million annual fund campaign. Typically, the 10-member staff, 11 trustees, and 32 board members prepare all year for the event, dedicating thousands of hours to planning, phone calls, and number crunching. Though 2020 marks the organization’s 25th anniversary, they quickly shifted that celebratory energy to serving a community hit hard by covid-19.

Ruby Bright, president and CEO of WFGM, says when the pandemic hit, she had several immediate thoughts and questions as a leader.

“We looked internally and asked, what are our obligations and commitments? How can we operate if we do not raise money for three months?” she recalls. “The main thing was to be sure that grantee partners we supported were okay, and how do we ensure that?”

Bright notes the nonprofit arena was faced with a daunting situation, with many questions to answer, and quickly.

“We couldn’t panic,” she says. “We had to look at the state of the organization. How do we keep our relevance, and how do we continue to be a leader in addressing the needs of the community? Is the team well? Can we pivot from office to remote? How are our organizations doing? How is our community?”

Bright kept a solutions-driven attitude. Ultimately, with the support of board and trustees, WFGM staff decided to focus on addressing food insecurity, ensuring home stability, and bridging the digital divide. They reached out to long-term donors and partnered with organizations that had the resources and expertise to move forward.

Hosted in May 2020, the WFGM COVID-19 Response Project featured the support of many long-term public-private partners. During the event, more than 500 families received over 1,000 household products, food, hygiene kits, and community resource packets stuffed with information on the virus, testing locations, financial literacy, domestic violence, health and wellness, and employment opportunities.

Urban Strategies, Inc., a longtime WFGM partner, played a key role in the COVID-19 Response Project. Eva Mosby, a former WFGM board member and current regional vice president at Urban Strategies Inc., says they worked with the foundation to help determine the community’s most acute needs through an organized assessment.

“The Women’s Foundation stepped up and provided those services to our families,” says Mosby. “One of the biggest things for our families was being able to locate those immediate needs.”

The organization has ample experience to inform its present efforts. Back in 2004, WFGM worked in collaboration with the City of Memphis, Urban Strategies Inc., McCormack Baron Salazar, and the Memphis Housing Authority (MHA) to secure the Choice Neighborhood Implementation (CNI) grant of $30 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). This grant helped fund the development of ZIP code 38126, also known as South City, a mixed-income housing community, formerly the home of the city’s last housing project, Foote Homes (now Foote Park).

According to Mosby, Urban Strategies served as the people’s lead for the CNI grant, working diligently with the foundation to serve 38126. “We worked with families there to provide case-management services. Funds from WFGM help provide services to families that HUD will not allow — for instance, childcare, transportation, utilities — as well as more immediate and personal needs,” she says. “We are both data-driven organizations. They can tell our story and we can tell their story as well.”

Together, the organizations have also focused on the students of the neighborhood.

In July, WFGM distributed laptops and $100 gift cards to every senior from Booker T. Washington High School’s 2020 graduating class as part of the 38126 Digital Inclusion Plan. Within 38126, more than 55 percent of households lack access to the internet or a computer.

Additionally, the organization was named a Tennessee Community Cares Grant Administrator, one of six nonprofits and the only women’s foundation in the state responsible for part of the distribution of $150 million in coronavirus relief funds.

During their first annual meeting ever to be held vitually, WFGM leadership announced $400,000 in grants distributed in March for immediate relief during covid-19. They have already approved nearly $600,000 in distribution for fiscal year 2021, and another $445,000 was allocated for research, responsive grant-making, and special projects.

Humble Beginnings, Big Growth

For 25 years, WFGM’s mission has been to encourage philanthropy and foster leadership among women and support programs that enable women and children to reach their full potential.

In 1995, philanthropist Mertie Buckman (1904-1999) gathered 10 women and invested her personal funds to start a task force known as Women in Philanthropy (now WFGM). During the foundation’s first grant cycle in 1996, they awarded $60,000 to 18 programs. As of 2020, the organization has an annual fund campaign of more than $2.5 million. Since its inception, WFGM has awarded more than $31 million to more than 530 programs involving more than 115 nonprofits.

Ruby Bright, president and CEO, has steered the organization for 20 years now.

“This has been a journey of labor and love,” she says. “I have had an opportunity to grow not only as a professional but also as an individual. My experience with WFGM elevated my ability to step up and step out even more. Our organization has set a model for demonstrating a commitment to support a woman of color in leadership, when they didn’t have to; it has allowed me to create a national and international presence for WFGM.”

Five years after inception, WFGM grew from being a supporting organization of the Community Foundation to securing its own office. That same year, WFGM was named Foundation for the Year by the Association of Fundraising Professionals.

“That level of momentum incentivized me to engage more and more people, be bold, and really demonstrate that WFGM is a key driver to community change for and by women,” Bright says. “We have gone from having a seat at the table to hosting the table, inviting leaders from across the country to join us, being a thought leader, and being part of change on the city, state and national level.”

By 2005, WFGM celebrated 10 years of service to the community and awarded $367,401 in grants to 21 programs. Five years later, for their 15th anniversary, the Annual Tribute Luncheon grew to 1,500 attendees, and by 2015 they announced the Vision 2020 Strategic Plan.

It Takes A Village … of Women

Under the leadership of Bright as well as vice president Shante K. Avant, the foundation has fostered relationships and partnerships across the country. In 2015, they visited the White House as part of the Women and Girls Economic Security Council.

Avant was part of the team that fostered a partnership with the Annie E. Casey Foundation and helped Memphis become one of seven cities to implement the Evidence2Success framework, which uses an evidence-based approach to promote healthy outcomes for children and youth in ZIP code 38126. The organization has also secured support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in recent years.

Bright says that growth did not come without vulnerability, some self-doubt, and tough conversation. There were times where WFGM represented voices that are not often heard.

“Challenges are strong. Resources are low and raising money is tough,” Bright says. “We have gotten some no’s that were disappointing, but we don’t stop. Per one of our founding board members Dr. Rosie Phillips Davis, ‘We don’t quit, we win.’”

WFGM’s board is culturally and professionally diverse. Bright describes these women as entrepreneurs, executives, philanthropists, and friends who are a formidable force with which to reckon.

“They understood the basic human condition and allowed women to be with and raise their children while getting the resources they needed.” — Nisha Powers

Rosemarie Fair and Nisha Powers serve as current board co-chairs. Both have demanding professional careers: Fair is vice president and mortgage-division head of Brighton Bank; she also founded and leads One Source Commercial, a commercial real estate brokerage company. Powers is president of Powers Hill Design, a local, small, women- and minority-owned civil engineering firm.

Yet, they always have time for the Women’s Foundation. Fair says her lengthy involvement with the foundation has been emotional, challenging, and “hugely gratifying.” She says many WFGM volunteers begin their journey as members of the grants committee. During site visits, potential partners pitch the committee on programs and initiatives for funding.

“I did that in 2005 and with Kleenex in hand, I went to my site visits,” she says. “I was so enamored with the work that the Women’s Foundation was doing in our community.”

Mentored and encouraged by board member Tajuan Stout Mitchell, Fair grew from volunteer to board member by 2010, becoming deeply involved in the grants process and eventually co-chairing events.

Powers was introduced to WFGM through an invitation to the Tribute Luncheon by board member Shirlee Clark-Barber. Powers also served initially on the grants committee.

She says she could not have guessed the impact on her own life from working with the foundation for the past decade. One of her first grantee partner visits was to the Renewal Place, which provides transitional housing for women facing and recovering from addictions. She wept as she listened to the women’s stories and the work of the organization.

“It was a place that preserved family unity. They understood the basic human condition and allowed women to be with and raise their children while getting the resources they needed. It was thoughtful and loving work and it changed me forever,” she says.

Vision 2020

Developed during a board retreat and launched in 2015, the Vision 2020 Strategic Plan is an ambitious initiative to reduce poverty in ZIP code 38126, one of the poorest areas in the city, by 5 percent with investment and support from more than 60 partners. The 1.2-square-mile community is bounded by Beale Street on the north, East and Neptune Streets on the east, McLemore Blvd. on the south, and Second and Third Streets on the west.

The neighborhood is predominantly African-American, and when Vision 2020 was launched, the area had a population of approximately 6,000 residents. Poverty statistics collected at the time by the University of Memphis Center for Research in Educational Policy revealed that 62 percent of adults and 76 percent of children in 38126 lived at or below the poverty line, almost triple the citywide rate of 28 percent. The 2015 median household income for South City was just $15,303.

Vision 2020 focuses on five key investment areas including case management, employment training, early childhood education, youth development, and financial literacy.

Over the course of four years, the organization and partners have invested $5.8 million into 38126, with significant results. More than 1,431 more residents are employed, 90 individuals started businesses or micro-enterprises, and 14 residents purchased homes. Average household income increased by 51 percent, 151 resident-support programs received funding, and 2,654 individuals benefited from special projects and initiatives. More than 782 children were enrolled in early education and childhood programs, 996 caregivers and parents engaged in early childhood development and parenting education, and 3,635 young people participated in programs supporting positive youth development.

With all their accomplishments, WFGM board, trustees, and staff know there is still more work to do. covid-19 has only highlighted the work that remains.

“We are at the 25-year mark, an incredible milestone,” says Powers. “The work is like none other I’ve witnessed as a volunteer or otherwise. I want to say, ‘More of this.’”