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  • Impact Austin

Philanos PowerUP Conference Inspires!

By Becky Austen, Class of 2010

Impact Austin is a member of Philanos, a national network of women's collective giving organizations. Three of us have been recently active with Philanos, and we attended their national PowerUP! conference in Baltimore on Nov 5-7, 2023: Demetria Caston (Philanos Board and Affiliate Engagement Committee member), Val Kirk (former Philanos Board member and Treasurer) and me (Philanos Affiliate Engagement Committee member).

I was honored to be a panelist in a session on innovative concepts in collective giving, where I shared our experiences with the Impact Austin Strategic Advisory Council. I made wonderful connections, learned a lot, and came back energized and inspired. Here are a few of my key take-aways from the conference.

Our reputation: I was uplifted every time I met someone and said I was from Impact Austin! The responses were always so positive, with praise for our structure ("we used Impact Austin as the model when we started our circle"), how we innovate ("Impact Austin is always on the forefront of new ideas"), and what we deliver ("I love your website, programs, Girls Giving Grants," etc). Sometimes we marinate in our own challenges; it made me really proud to see us as others see us, and to represent Impact Austin.

Trust based philanthropy and unrestricted giving: These were major themes throughout the conference. Impact Austin has made a lot of progress along the journey to trust-based giving, and we can challenge ourselves to do even more. In conversations with attendees, I was reflecting that when we give as individual donors, it's always trust based and unrestricted. We fund the mission (not programs) based on our research or our experiences with an organization's services, and then trust the leadership to spend our donations wisely. Why do those rules change when we give collectively? We should consider funding high impact mission-based work rather than (or alongside) specific programs and initiatives. Many affiliates at the conference shared how they are doing this. Impact Austin innovated with the original Catalyst Grant, and applicants can now choose to fund programs or capacity building - it's one more step to unrestricted giving. We do a disservice when we call this "operations" funding, as if it is distinct from programs and services, like office supplies or utility bills. Funding the mission means investing in programs, outcomes and impact.

Focus areas: There's a lot of innovation happening in grant focus areas, with different themes, place-based grants, and more. Our focus areas in education, health/wellness and community have stood the test of time; that said, we should consider evolving in ways that can have an impact on the greatest needs in Austin. The Strategic Advisory Council has challenged us to think about this as well. What about an "affordability" category that could address housing and homelessness, child care, workforce development, economic opportunity, poverty, transportation, and food deserts? A "safety and justice" category could encompass abuse, domestic violence, human trafficking, families impacted by incarceration, and equitable access. Blend education and the arts. Hone in on mental health. Invest in Austin’s eastern crescent. There are many possible lenses to explore.

Sustainability of collective giving groups: Many participants talked about how to sustain and grow membership and maintain a steady cash flow for their organizations. One giving circle takes a small fixed amount of each member’s dues and allocates it to the endowment. Some have a "lifetime" member category, graduated levels, or "give what you can" (with a minimum floor) to embrace a broader spectrum of members and create headroom for larger donations, while keeping the principle of one member, one vote. One group is testing a concept of awarding grants every other year, and focusing on member engagement in the alternating year, allowing them to give from a larger grant pool while alleviating pressure on volunteers running grants and engagement programs.

These are a sampling of ideas to test with members, through the board and strategic planning process, and with the Strategic Advisory Council. As a Philanos affiliate, we can also tap into a wealth of resources and connections to learn what other giving groups are doing and share best practices. I’ve experienced a lot of forward movement over fourteen years with Impact Austin, and I’m excited to see what’s next!


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