Spirit of St Louis Women’s Giving Fund
Each year 240 women come together to make a difference in St. Louis through The Spirit of St. Louis Women’s Fund (SOS). This collaborative fund grows small nonprofits doing extraordinary work in the St. Louis region and has invested over $2 million in specialized nonprofits since 2006.
“We are the true angel investors of the nonprofit landscape,” said CEO Amy Inman. “We focus on small but innovative nonprofits that are solving a specific problem, but are getting limited funding from other sources. We seed fund them – ‘rocket boost’ them – so they can grow and stand on their own.”
The Spirit of St. Louis Women’s Fund empowers women donors through an innovative “collective giving” approach.
“Education is the first thing for our members. You can’t make an impact unless you’re educated about how best to give,” Inman said.
Members learn how to read financials such as the IRS Form 990, assess community needs, and conduct productive site visits. After her first site visit to a prospective grantee, Amy said she was “absolutely hooked; you find out about great people doing great things that you never hear about.”
SOS is also about creating a community of connected women givers. Women have the option to “do a little or do a lot” as their time and stage in life permits. Members range from younger women with children and careers, to those on the cusp of retirement looking for ways to volunteer and connect. But each person contributes the same amount of funding allowing all members an equal stake in the outcomes.
“The St. Louis Community Foundation has been with us since the beginning,” says Amy Inman. In 2006, co-founders Shelby Schagrin and Susan Block were inspired by the cutting edge concept of collective giving organizations, when there were relatively few in the United States. The Community Foundation provided the framework, administrative and legal support for SOS, and today continues to hold their funding. “The Community Foundation helped us with proof of concept, helped design our review process, gave us the support we needed to make good decisions, and gave us a place to meet. The Foundation staff connected us to people and organizations so we weren’t isolated and became our amplifier. Their local expertise was and is invaluable to us.”
Each year SOS chooses a focus area for in depth education, such as food deserts or the trauma of addiction, and provides education for the community at their annual Discovering Our Community event. As part of their annual granting process, SOS evaluates applications and then invites finalists to submit full proposals. In 2017, SOS reviewed 273 grant applications. SOS teams evaluate financials and strategic plans, ask questions and visit the nonprofits. The entire group has an opportunity to learn more about the finalists at the annual “ballot fair.” Members then submit their votes anonymously for proposals they believe are strongest.
SOS members are so enthusiastic about all of the nonprofits they nominate that they often end up volunteering for the organization or helping them find other sources of funds or in kind donations.
Grantees are celebrated at SOS’s annual Spirit Awards and annual meeting. The Spirit Awards are a chance to celebrate collective giving and learn from a featured community speaker.
The Little Bit Foundation is one of SOS’s success stories and was the organization’s first funder. The Little Bit Foundation provides for students’ health, wellness and dignity needs in resource-challenged school districts. When distributing coats to students with ill-fitting hand-me-downs, Little Bit’s founders soon realized the students were challenged with the very basic needs of clean clothing, safe environments, and school supplies, and some had undiagnosed health conditions and vision problems. Little Bit strove to be the friend in school that respected kids’ dignity and gave them self assurance to start them toward educational success. Little Bit is now caring for over 7,300 students in 27 schools, providing nutritious food, shoes and clean clothing, vision and health screening, and helping to improve classroom attendance, engagement and family support.
SOS has also “kick started” several organizations such as Health Equipment Lending Program (HELP), which provides access to health equipment at no charge, and Home Sweet Home, which provides basic household furnishings for those transitioning from homelessness. SOS has also provided growth funds for Lydia’s House, which trains financially struggling women in the culinary field, and Angel’s Arms whose mission is to keep families of foster children together.
In the future, SOS hopes to grow their funding and membership, assist in capacity building, provide multi-year grants, and form more partnerships around strategic issues.
Schagrin and Block’s enthusiasm for starting SOS was contagious and over 100 women came together in SOS’s first year. Women liked coming together and recognized that they were better givers collectively than working in their individual “bubbles.” “If you aren’t looking to women funders then you are missing the boat,” Inman said. “Women talk and women act together. That is the Spirit of St. Louis.”
For more information about the Spirit of St. Louis, visit spiritstlwomensfund.org.