'Transformational' impact: Women’s Fund works to improve the lives of area women and girls
Over its 21-year history, the Women's Fund has awarded more than $377,000 for initiatives that inspire, empower and invest in women and girls in Grand Forks and Polk counties
GRAND FORKS — Perusing the most recent Women’s Fund report, Kristi Hall-Jiran is struck by the range and diversity of projects and programs the fund has supported.
Since the Women’s Fund was established 21 years ago, $377,350 has been awarded to 48 organizations committed to improving the lives of women and girls in Grand Forks and Polk counties.
The impact of the Women’s Fund “has been transformational,” said Hall-Jiran, one of the group’s founders.
She recalled that, when she was serving as Community Violence Intervention Center president and CEO, the Women’s Fund supported the CVIC’s early efforts to help girls to learn about healthy relationships.
Since then, Hall-Jiran said she’s seen remarkable support, for example, to help New American women learn to drive; to nurture girls’ interest in space and technology; and to enhance women’s capabilities through the Women’s Fund Leadership Academy, as well as the formal and informal mentoring and burgeoning relationships that happen, she said. “It was an incredible group effort — something that was very important to me.”
Meeting diverse needs
Jennifer Haugen, president of the Women’s Fund since January 2022, is among the women whose lives were enhanced by the group’s activities, she said.
Through her experience as a participant in the inaugural class of the Leadership Academy in 2017, she became enamored with the Women’s Fund’s mission “to inspire, empower and invest in women and girls,” she said. That experience opened her eyes to the mission of the Women’s Fund and the programs and projects it supports.
In 2018, Haugen joined the group’s advisory committee and has served on its grants review committee. Advisory committee members serve three-year terms and may serve up to three consecutive terms, she said. The group seeks members with diverse backgrounds and socioeconomic demographics.
The grant review committee was one her favorite groups she was a part of, Haugen said, “because it’s fun to hear about all the wonderful things we’re doing for women and girls in our community.”
The Women’s Fund seeks to support a diverse array of projects and programs, Haugen said. Along with diversity in grant funding, she said consideration is also given to “how big of a reach are we going to make with this project and program — and are there other funds available for the program or not, (or) are we the sole funding source?”
“So really our focus is supporting women and girls, and keeping the reach as large as we can.”
‘A shared vision’
The Women’s Fund was established in 2002 by 20 women who “had a shared vision of how we could empower women and girls,” said Hall-Jiran, chief philanthropy and partnership officer for Altru Health System. Each founder contributed $1,000 to start the Women’s Fund.
Looking around Grand Forks at the time, Hall-Jiran said she and others noticed the lack of women in leadership positions in Grand Forks.
“As we thought about those younger girls in our community, and the world view that they had, we just really wanted it to be where young girls could see people that looked like them in some of those leadership positions.
“And so we just thought, let’s start with this idea, and then we can figure out, once we start investing (the funds), what some of those solutions might look like or how we might want to spend the money,” she said. “But it was really just, you know, let’s come together and do something tangible.”
In 2006, the first grants, totalling $10,000, were awarded to four organizations: CVIC, Girl Scouts - Dakota Horizons, Grand Cities Children’s Choir, and The Village Family Service Center, according to Becca Baumbach, executive director of the Community Foundation of Grand Forks, East Grand Forks and Region.
The Women’s Fund, one of 140 funds managed by the Community Foundation, operates with an endowment of $608,413, as of Dec. 31, which is invested with eight fund managers in this community with the goal of granting in perpetuity, Baumbach said.
Each year, the Women’s Fund receives about a dozen requests for funding, she said. The requests can range from STEM programs to mental health-focused and homeless initiatives to after-school programs for girls.
“We’re always looking for more applicants,” Baumbach said.
The Women’s Fund five-member grant review committee narrows down the applicant pool and conducts in-person interviews with finalists, Haugen said. These interviews are important, “because then we can see their passion …. And it really helps us to decide that, yes, this is going to be a sustainable project.”
About four to six grants, each totalling up to $5,000, are awarded each year, Baumbach said. Some organizations have received grants several times.
The Women’s Fund is the only one of its kind in this region; members meet monthly and are “very engaged,” Baumbach said. “(They have) done so much and given in such a diverse way. … This group really thinks intentionally about how to support and advance women and girls right here. So I think that’s been really impactful.”
Enhancing leadership skills
Since 2017, the Women’s Fund has sponsored the annual Leadership Academy for women — except for 2020, during the pandemic. About 20 participants enroll in Leadership Academy classes each year, Haugen said.
During her involvement in the Leadership Academy, Haugen said she enjoyed the opportunity to network with others.
“I met a lot of strong leaders in our community,” she said, noting that she also learned about her personal strengths, through a speaker-led Clifton StrengthsFinder segment, “and how to use those strengths and lead with them.
“I actually have my Clifton Strengths on my bulletin board in my office. It helps me to know what I’m good at — and to work more in those strengths” and apply them.
Making a difference
In retrospect, thinking back to the advent of the Women’s Fund, Debbie Kleven, another founder and a local attorney, said, “We really wanted to support women and get young women involved, and to sponsor leadership events for women so they would become active members of the business community and government.”
These days “you can just see, going to some of the events I’ve gone to in the community, how much (the level of) women in leadership has changed for the positive,” Kleven said. “It’s pretty much to me it’s almost getting to equal grounds.”
Hall-Jiran said, “We were a group of women who had a vision. So I will say we dreamed it could be this big, but I don’t know that I could have ever totally predicted how successful it would be,” she said. “I am thrilled that it is at the point that it’s at. It’s been stewarded so well, and so many people have gotten involved."
She said it's been gratifying to watch it grow and change over the years.
“So I don’t know that I could have foreseen all of that,” Hall-Jiran said, “but I will say that we were pretty optimistic that we could make a difference.”
And have they?
“Absolutely,” she said.