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“A Crazy Idea:” A Fund for Women Founder Jane Coleman Reflects on 25 Years of Empowerment


Madison365 is proud to be the media partner of A Fund For Women’s 25th Anniversary Celebration.

A Fund for Women founder Jane Coleman remembers a time — not too long ago, in fact — that women didn’t really handle their own finances, especially charitable contributions.

“In some of the focus groups we ran, people would say, ‘Well, I would always, always check with my husband,’ or, ‘My husband and I make all our contributions together,’ or, ‘My husband really makes most of the contributions,’” Coleman says. “That would be from some of what we call the ‘old older women.’ There were also ‘new older women,’ who would be people like me at that point, who had sort of seen the light, and then the younger women who’d say, ‘Of course I make my own contributions.’ And that was very rare when we first started, but that is completely the way it is now.”

Coleman heard from these three different generations of women in focus groups and other gatherings in the early 1990s as she began to build the city’s first philanthropic fund aimed at women. And to Coleman, the fund has always been about empowering women — empowering women to thrive through grants to local nonprofits, but also empowering women to become philanthropists in their own right.

Twenty-five years later, A Fund for Women will celebrate a monumental anniversary on Tuesday, October 9. Tickets are available until September 28.

Coleman started working at Madison Community Foundation in 1986, so she’d been in the philanthropy business for several years when she was invited to a conference on women in philanthropy led by Martha Taylor and Sondra Shaw of Madison.

“They are really the two pioneers of women in philanthropy who happen to be here in Madison,” Coleman says. “Martha was at the UW and Sondra was at Historical Society. And they have become nationally, and literally internationally, known.”

The conference, which was held in Racine, was a real eye-opener for Coleman.

“To be honest I’d always sort of equated philanthropy with men. I’m embarrassed to say that, but I had,” she says. “And driving home I thought, oh my Lord, this is an amazing thing I’ve just learned and I need to do something about this, but I didn’t have a clue what to do. So I called together, I don’t know, ten or so women whom I admired in the community and said, ‘Here’s this whole untapped field and we’re doing nothing about it, what should we do?’ And the consensus was, well, we should probably have a separate fund for women, which is what we ended up having in the name, and they all went away and I thought, well, it’s a wonderful idea, but how do you do that? So I wrote a letter to a hundred women, that I knew in Madison and asked that they each give $1,000 and that would give us an endowment of $100,000 and to my utter amazement, that happened.”

Coleman was able to write that letter because she was already well-connected, largely through Off the Record, a business she had started in the early 1980s to produce a series of lunchtime lectures and discussions for women. (Incidentally, that lunch series continues in a slightly different form to this day. It’s called Vantage Point now, run by longtime Madison Community Foundation fundholder and former Board of Governors member Carol Toussaint.)

Coleman recalls at least a bit of reluctance from inside MCF.

“One of the board members, a fantastic person, a man, who was a huge supporter of the Madison Community Foundation, huge supporter of the community, I mean, a fabulous person, said, ‘Well Jane, okay, if this means so much to you I will approve this, but I would ask that you not invite my wife to join,’” Coleman says. “It was still a very male-dominated world.”

But once the ball got rolling, it couldn’t be stopped, and in just a few months those 100 letters had yielded a $100,000 endowment.

The thing about endowments is that they grow through investments — and philanthropic organizations like Madison Community Foundation use the proceeds from those investments to make their grants, so that they can continue making grants year after year without really worrying about running out of money.

The other thing about endowments is they take a little while to grow to that point, and Coleman didn’t want to wait to start giving out grants.

“So I then went to three local foundations, two of which were headed by men and one by a woman, and asked them to each give $10,000 a year for three years so that would give us $30,000 a year to get started,” Coleman says. “And by then I hoped the endowment would be funded and begin to produce. And they agreed to do that. So we were off.”

Colemans says that $30,000 a year allowed AFFW to start making an impact right away, which in turn got more women excited about contributing.

“We had three goals from the very beginning,” she says. “One was to provide opportunities for women and girls. Number two, which was far more important to me personally, was to help establish women’s personal identity as philanthropists. Because we — and I was in the field of philanthropy — didn’t consider ourselves philanthropists. That was always the most important thing to me. And the third was that we would have fun. And I think all those three things happened through the years.”

Over its first 25 years, A Fund for Women has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to local nonprofits specifically to support women, girls and families like Chara Taylor, whom we profiled last week. Its endowment has grown to a whopping $2.1 million, and is looking to grow more as Madison Community Foundation has launched an effort to find more people to leave bequests to the fund in their wills. And along the way, it’s also empowered women to find their own identity as philanthropists.

Twenty five years on, Coleman remains humble.

“I’m always proud of other people,” she says. “I’m proud of those people who stepped up and said, ‘Okay, it sounds like a crazy idea but I’m with you.’ I’m pleased that I was in a position to be able to get it started and that was because I was at Madison Community Foundation. And that’s because Martha Taylor and Sondra Shaw said, ‘Jane, you gotta get on this wagon,’ and were very helpful in getting it started.”

While she demures from taking much credit for herself, Coleman is excited about what the fund has accomplished — especially when it comes to empowering women at every stage of the philanthropic process.

“I’m excited if the Fund for Women in some small way helped women get a handle on themselves as individuals, as philanthropists, and as people with their own identity, period,” she says. “I guess that’s my pride.”

Jane Coleman will appear with women who’ve found support in programs funded by A Fund For Women at the fund’s 25th Anniversary Celebration on Tuesday, October 9 from 5 to 8 pm at The Edgewater Hotel. Tickets are $85 each or $650 for a table of eight. Tickets are available until September 28. Madison365 is proud to be the Media Sponsor of A Fund For Women’s 25th Anniversary Celebration.