The Fund's impact stretches from commissioning research to the White House.

The Fund's impact stretches from commissioning research to the White House.

The Women's Fund of Central Ohio grew a porch conversation into a multi-million-dollar endowment.

Fifteen years ago, a small group of central Ohio women met on a porch on the east side of town to talk about the need for a local organization focused on the issues impacting the community's women: economic security, women's leadership and supporting girls.

After raising a $3 million endowment, these "Porch Ladies" transformed their vision into the Women's Fund of Central Ohio, an organization that has given millions of dollars and touched thousands of local women in its ongoing mission to create lasting social change and transform the lives of women and girls.

No longer meeting on porches or in kitchens, the Women's Fund will welcome 2,500 attendees on May 10 to the Ohio Theatre for Keyholder, an annual event that gives visibility to issues affecting women and girls, highlights solutions and raises about half a million dollars.

Actress, singer and former Miss America Vanessa Williams will share her journey as an African American and as a woman to break through bias to be recognized for her talents. Williams follows former keynoters, such as Gloria Steinem, who personify the fund's emphasis on creating gender equality.

"If you don't support women and use their potential, the whole community is hurt," says Carol Andreae, one of the fund's 15 founding members.

In 15 years, the organization has given 165 grants totaling more than $2.5 million to programs that aim to create long-term improvements for women. Led by eight employees and 20 board members, the fund also commissions research and spearheads events and partnerships that identify and address the root of the problems the Porch Ladies identified over a decade ago.

"We're gaining momentum for something that we may not see the results of in our lifetime," says Nichole Dunn, president and CEO of the Women's Fund. When she took the helm eight years ago, Dunn was a licensed alcohol and drug counselor working with teens with high-risk behavior. She saw an opportunity through the Women's Fund to become a voice for a different stigmatized population: women and girls.

"The ultimate betrayal of society is what's happening to our girls," says Dunn, who has an 11-year-old daughter.

And the Women's Fund helps create the foundational shifts needed to change this picture. Andreae's favorite illustration is that other groups "were the people standing by the river pulling out drowning people, and that's important. But where we want to focus our energy and our money is on preventing people going into the river."

Many local employers support the foundation's efforts, understanding that economic security for women means a stronger economic infrastructure for central Ohio. From sponsoring Keyholder, to partnering on programs like the group's April Equal Pay Day event, to investing more than $10,000 as a Mission Investor, employers have an à la carte menu of ways to be involved.

The organization's mission appealed to Dunn when she stepped into her role as president, and she continues to be inspired by its partnership-style approach. Donor lists are in alphabetical order, not by amount, "because the intention is we all stand shoulder-to-shoulder for the greater good of the mission for women and girls," says Dunn.

This business model was also a draw for Board Chair Darci Congrove, managing director of tax, accounting and consulting firm GBQ.

"It was a refreshing approach in a world where fundraising, out of necessity, has to focus on where we get the biggest donor dollars," Congrove says. "The Women's Fund focused on a bigger donor pool." As board chair, Congrove says one of the foundation's biggest challenges is helping people understand it does more than grantmaking. "Advocacy, programming, conversation-generating is just as important, if not more so."

Momentum continues to grow for the group's advocacy efforts. Dunn traveled to Washington, D.C., three times in five months this year to share research and start conversations, impacting the work of groups such as the White House Council on Women and Girls related to economic security.

Congrove explains the organization also creates positions on issues such as minimum wage laws and affordability of childcare and transportation.

Its newest research focus, in partnership with the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, is on the race and gender norms and bias in central Ohio and could spur engagement on the male side of the conversation.

Big dreams and a big impact for an organization still in its teenage years.

Mary Sterenberg is a freelance writer.