Forty years ago, the Boston Women’s Fund was born out of a desire to do philanthropy differently. That ethos inspired a radically unique way of granting money, questioning the status quo, and even redefining who a donor could be. Even then, our early leaders knew that philanthropy wasn’t just for the wealthy and white to take part in. We are all philanthropists. And in 1991, our then Executive Director, Hayat Imam, developed a new fundraising model based on that very idea. This project would set the fund up for success for decades to come. It was called the 2000 Club.
We sat down with Hayat to learn more about this groundbreaking practice.
Boston Women’s Fund: When did you first become involved with BWF?
Hayat Imam: I was on the board in the late 80s. [Stephanie Borns, the ED at the time asked me to join.] And I said to Stephanie, I'm happy to be on your board. But just don't ask me to fundraise…And since then, I've become a professional fundraiser! [laughs] But you know, that was a pivotal moment. Because, as soon as those words popped out of my mouth, the second set of words that entered my head was, “why not?”
I understand that you were BWF’s Executive Director from 1991-1993. And it was in 1991 that you created the 2000 Club. Can you tell me more about that?
I had left the Boston area and was working in Indonesia, when I received a call from BWF inviting me to come and be the ED of the Boston Women’s Fund. So, I came back and joined the Fund. The Fund was very tight for money at the time, but that was mainly because we had not done the necessary fundraising work. But I knew we had a lot of people who supported us, so I just went to every donor, and everyone was really open to us. In that process, I had a chance to build relationships with a lot of wonderful people. It was around that time that a lot of talk was going on about endowments.
What would an endowment have meant for BWF at that time?
It was worth doing an endowment back then. Interest rates were higher, so we could see that if we had substantial money in the bank, the interest from the principal would be a meaningful sum for the Fund. It seemed like a really worthwhile thing to do. But, only if we could raise at least a million dollars for the endowment. But we didn’t have the kind of donors who could give us anything close to that. So how do we get a million dollars?
So what was the next move?
I don't know how this calculation happened, but I was playing with numbers, and I said: “I can’t believe this, but 2,000 people giving $100 a year for five years adds up to a million dollars!” And lots and lots of people can do $100! The idea was to get a lot of people to give a little bit of money on a regular basis. That would be much easier to achieve than a few people giving a lot of money — and clearly we didn't have the second option.
So, long before AOC and Bernie Sanders figured out that $25 from a lot of people can be a lot of money, we said “hey, this could work!”
How did you decide on the name 2000 Club?
We named it the 2000 club for two reasons. In 1991, the year 2000 was just around the corner, and we thought by the year 2000, we'll have achieved the endowment! Secondly, we were aiming to have 2000 members. So that was the reason it was called the 2000 Club.
For one member it would normally be a $100 donation each year for five years. But we said, many people could be in a membership! Two people could pair up and pay $50 each, and that would count as one membership. Or four friends could give $25 each, so just about everyone could participate! So that was the vision that would allow all of us, grantees, donors, and grassroots folks to be part of building an endowment for the Boston Women's Fund.
Had you seen any other foundation do something like that?
I had not. I think it's a unique thing actually. I don't think anyone had done that then. Now this notion is out there: that a lot of people giving a small amount of money is a lot of money. I sometimes smile and think: “we did that first!”
It’s a brilliant idea, and it really changes the idea of who gets to be a donor, who gets to be involved in philanthropy.
Exactly! It's an artificial divide. We're all donors in our own way. We give time; we give money if we can; we do the work. There was this very artificial division between donors and grantees that I found very uncomfortable. It created a hierarchy. And I wondered if we could think differently about this. Couldn’t we all be donors of the Boston Women's Fund, including our grantees?
So I know the goal was met in 1999. Where did the club go from there?
The next idea was that if we could say that we, as a grassroots community, were raising a million dollars for the women of Boston, we could perhaps go to someone with means and say “Can you join us in matching this first million?” And a Donor did join us, and that match did come in!
BWF was created partly in response to how difficult it was for women and gender-expansive people from persistently excluded communities to get philanthropic funding for the grassroots efforts they were a part of. But BWF, as a team of many women of color, must have experienced the same challenges in fundraising that its grantee partners were facing.
What was that like? How did we overcome that?
We had more individual donors than foundation donors first of all, and we had just one, maybe two, family foundations giving us money at that time. So, I think we had a particular kind of woman who was attracted to us, and many of our donors were women. We had women who were feminists, who were interested in the philosophy and politics that Boston Women's Fund displayed. One of our key supporters was someone who lived in Chicago, and there's a very strong, big, Chicago Women's Fund. But she told us that she preferred to fund us in Boston, rather than Chicago, because of our politics and our strong social justice stance. So we attracted people like that.
And then we did something else. I didn’t start this, but I helped do a couple: We hosted events called, the Women Money and Social Responsibility Conferences.
These were workshops for people of wealth who were concerned about investing their money in good things. The workshop was very technical. It was really about how to invest properly. But, as a result, they got to know us, and many of them became individual donors of ours as well.
We had women investment counselors, who specialized in socially responsible investments, lead the workshops. So, they got some airtime, and at the same time, everybody benefited. There were women out there who were like us, feminists, they just happened to be wealthy. We were able to tap into a lot of that.
Well thank you again, Hayat, for offering your time to chat today! This has been really rich for me. I really appreciate it!
You are most welcome. It was a pleasure for me, too!
After Hayat Imam left the Boston Women’s Fund, she worked with the feminist community in the Philippines on a National Family Violence Prevention Campaign; and as a Consultant to the UNDP. She was on the Board of Grassroots International for seven years, and its Chair for 5 years. Presently she is on the Board of Mass Peace Action.