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Company of Women : Philanthropy: Spurred on by a research paper, 11 women formed a foundation that has raised $1 million for agencies that serve women and girls.

October 21, 1994|LINDA FELDMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

More than a decade ago, a University of Redlands graduate student was doing her master's thesis on creating a foundation dedicated to women. Liz Bremner's research revealed that less than 3% of corporate and foundation dollars were directed to agencies that served primarily women and girls.

Word of Bremner's work reached the Women's Foundation in San Francisco--the first of its kind on the West Coast--and spread back to Los Angeles. Eventually, 11 women of diverse backgrounds spurred by Bremner's research met and decided they wouldn't simply wait for more money to trickle down.

They created the Los Angeles Women's Foundation to elevate the status of women and girls through what one official called "responsive philanthropy," and Bremner became its first director. This past summer, the organization surpassed $1 million in total grants awarded to agencies that serve women and girls.

"We made up our minds early on that if we wanted to help women and girls overcome prejudice we had to form an organization which lived the ideal, and we've accomplished that," said Belinda Smith Walker, its founding president and a Harvard Law School graduate.

"When we started we had zero dollars in the bank, no major donors and we had to learn how to ask for money and how to give our own. Now, over a million dollars later, we've accomplished that."

Walker eventually passed the volleyball--no gavels for this group--to the next president, Cristina Fuentes. Fuentes, a financial planner for American Express Co., remembered that it wasn't enough to give time and ask others to give money. They had to tap their own bank accounts too.

"One hundred dollars was easy but $1,000 was a lot. I paid it in installments. Women do impossible things--we don't stop to think about it, because if we did, nothing would get done," she said.

Last year the foundation commissioned a report to assess the economic status of women in L.A. County based on their access to jobs, income and education.

"Women will play a vital role in the economic recovery of Los Angeles, so we had to examine the 'sticky floors' as well as the 'glass ceilings' in the workplace," Jean Conger, the foundation's executive director, said at its Miracle Mile headquarters.

The report, called "How Are Women Doing in LA? Looking to the Future," found that between 1980 and 1990, the number of people living below the poverty line increased 50%--the majority of them women and children. Further, it noted, working women have a median annual income of just $16,843--$10,000 less than working men.

The report is the first stage of the foundation's Economic Justice Initiative, a long-term effort to link foundations and corporations and steer large amounts of money to areas where it is most urgently needed.

A few days after the Northridge earthquake, the Peter Norton Family Foundation wanted to find an efficient means to disburse $100,000.

"We have a history with the Los Angeles Women's Foundation of giving them money which is very well spent," said Anne Etheridge, executive director of the Norton foundation. "So when they streamlined the application process . . . and involved me in the awarding process, we never hesitated. Every foundation in town should be giving money to LAWF."

When the O.J. Simpson case opened the subject of domestic violence to a wider audience, the LAWF received scores of calls on the issue from the agencies they already fund. "They were being firestormed with calls from battered women and the media. Many media requests were insensitive, like the one for a 'woman with bruises--and quickly.' The reporter said, 'We're on deadline,' " Conger said.

Within a week of the first Simpson headline, Conger staged a retreat and 45 agencies attended to pool resources and learn about media relations. "We're not a rich-ladies organization. We're interested in relationships with the people in the trenches and sometimes they need opportunities more than money," Conger said.

Since its inception, LAWF has given away $1.1 million, raising more than half that amount in just the past two years. Grants have risen steadily from $26,000 in 1987 to $312,000 in 1994 fiscal year. What is not given away is spent on LAWF programs such as the economic justice initiative, the management assistance partnership program--which matches volunteers to agencies that need specific kinds of help--and a workshop series.

Operating costs for the 1993-94 fiscal year were 17%, well below the 39% allowed under standards set by the National Charities Information Bureau. That included the salaries of five LAWF employees.

A program has been established in which employees of several public agencies--including the city and county of Los Angeles, the Department of Water and Power and the city of Santa Monica--can check off a certain amount each payday to be donated to LAWF.

This year, grants up to $10,000 were awarded to 40 agencies. The Mother's Club Community Center in Pasadena, which received $5,000, typifies the aims of the foundation.

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