Herding Lionesses: Michigan Women’s Foundation Gathering Power Women, Forming Angel Fund to Invest in Female Entrepreneurs

8/26/10Follow @bbuderi

[Updated and corrected, Aug. 26---see below] Just a few years ago, the Michigan Women’s Foundation was truly your mother’s philanthropic foundation—putting on fund-raising dinners, tapping corporate sponsors like the Big Three automakers, and then giving away small chunks of money to a wide array of charitable groups—totaling some $3.5 million to 420 entities to be pretty exact.

But that was before Carolyn Cassin and her Power of 100 Women movement came to town—or, rather, back to town in Cassin’s case. The Michigan-bred president and CEO of the foundation, returned from executive stints in Arizona and New York, has turned the foundation on its heels, so to speak. She’s reinventing the way the foundation does its job— and in the process, she hopes, showing the way for other non-profits to rethink their models.

Today, the foundation is geared to investing, rather than sprinkling out funds. It plans to make fewer awards, but of greater dollar value. And it plans to provide money to individuals, especially to women entrepreneurs. It’s even putting together a small angel investment fund culled from some of the most powerful and successful women in Michigan. Gone, you might say, are the days only of tea parties and fancy dinners. Enter power breakfasts, due diligence, and term sheets.

Here’s the gist of this unfolding story of innovation. The foundation, which is based in Grosse Points Farm, MI, about 10 miles up Lake St. Clair from downtown Detroit (the area’s zip code 48236 is said to rival 90210 in wealth), was formed back in 1986. Cassin calls it a “traditional, kind of old-school foundation.” It raised money primarily from “the autos” and other big businesses, and then redistributed the funds in chunks of $1,000, $2,500, maybe $10,000, to a variety of do-good groups.

Like many smaller foundations, the MWF was absolutely rocked by the recession, which caused roughly half its funding to dry up. That was basically the situation when Cassin was recruited for the top job in 2008. She was already well known in Michigan non-profit circles, having served for a decade as CEO of what is now called Hospice of Michigan. She had left the state in 1998 to work as COO of VistaCare, a venture-backed, for-profit hospice based in Arizona, and then became CEO of the Jacob Perlow Hospice (now Continuum Hospice Care) in New York. That’s where she was, a national figure in hospice care, when she was approached to run the Michigan Women’s Foundation. Wanting to give back more to the community from which she came, Cassin embraced the opportunity.

MWFlogoIt was immediately clear, says Cassin, that the foundation as it had been conceived was in trouble. “It was hard to figure out what value proposition we brought,” she says. “I had a sense that the old model of running a foundation wasn’t going to work in the new economy that we were trying to create, or we were just going to all die in the old economy here in Michigan.”

Cassin didn’t have the answer herself, so she did what she knew best and took a business approach to her new role. “I went on what I called the listening tour around the state,” she says. “I applied the same model of what I would do had I bought this company.” She talked to people all over Michigan about what frustrated them most about economy and about the business model of philanthropy, trying to get a grasp on how to revitalize the foundation.

One place she turned was the W.K. Kellogg Foundation of Battle Creek, MI. Kellogg gave the Michigan Women’s Foundation a grant that helped Cassin keep things going. But it was really an almost offhand remark by Kellogg VP of programs Anne Mosle that put Cassin on the path to what she thinks is salvation. Mosle challenged Cassin to go out and see if there were women who cared enough about the organization to really step up and help her reinvent it, saying something along the lines of: ‘If there aren’t a hundred women who really care about this, you should really distribute the money and go home.’

That remark stuck with Cassin as she drove back to Detroit. “I know 100 women,” she recalls telling herself. “I can find 100 women.” And that was the birth of an initiative Cassin called the Power of 100 Women. The idea was to gather 100 Michigan power women and challenge them with some fundamental questions. “What should we be doing? Are we going to oversee the death of some of the things we hold dear and cherish about women’s roles and we could accomplish, or are we going to help create the new economy here in Michigan?”

The kickoff meeting was held July 1, 2009, with about 25 women taking part. From there, says Cassin, “It just snowballed. By the end of 2009, we had all 100 women.” She quickly corrects herself: “We had the first 100 women.” The group (full listing here) is now up to 122—on its way to something more like 200, she says.

“They’re presidents of banks, they’re entrepreneurs, they’re businesswomen,” Cassin says. Some are from the auto industry, some from technology fields. And, yes, some are “ladies who do lunch and have lots of money. It’s just a wonderful and eclectic group of women who are willing to step out in front and lead the change that I think this community needs.”

Cassin met with members of this growing group all over the state to learn what they felt were the most urgent things for the foundation to focus on. There were lots of great ideas, she says. “[But] the one thing that just seemed to grab everybody was, How can we help women take a leadership role in this new economy? How can we inspire entrepreneurs? How can we inspire women to build their businesses, to take a chance” so that they might become “the next generation of businesswomen?”

A strategic planning session last October produced three core goals, which I’ve summarized:

1). Change the way the foundation does business.

2). Do that by taking a more active role in rebuilding the Michigan economy and investing new capital as opposed to just giving money away.

3). Work to infuse these new ideas about rebuilding the economy primarily in young women in their mid-20s and 30s.

Cassin says these goals, which the board of trustees made part of the foundation’s strategic mission for the next several years, are central to creating “a new economy foundation” that approaches its mission in an entirely new way.

Carloyn J. Cassin headshot“We looked back, $3.5 million later, and said, ‘Where did this money go? Did any one of those 420 organizations, were they really changing the lives of women and children?’” she says. Some of them absolutely were, and the foundation will keep investing in them. But its whole way of allocating funds and evaluating how those funds are spent will be different. For starters, Cassin says, “We’re going to give larger amounts of money to fewer organizations. And we’re going to do it for multi-year. You don’t solve problems in one grant cycle. You solve them over many, many years.”

What’s more, “Any resources we give away now have to be invested in making a change in some young girl or adult woman’s life that we can trace and look back on and say the world is a different, a better place, because we allocated resources that way.” Did a group reduce teen pregnancy? Are fewer girls caught in a cycle of violence? Groups that can demonstrate real progress in those areas, she says, “those are the groups we are going to invest in because they are making a huge difference.”

But the biggest change, says Cassin, is that the foundation will now dramatically step up its giving “to individual women who are attempting to start a business or grow a business.” She calls this “re-injecting the entrepreneurial spirit to the world of philanthropy.” And, she says, “It just resonated incredibly with women.”

To that end, the foundation is forming its own angel investment fund so that it can take a more direct role in boosting female entrepreneurship. Each woman joining the fund will commit to giving $20,000 a year for five years to the fund (each woman joining the Power of 100 Women group commits to $1,000 per year for three years). She must also commit to work with the program, by helping advise or mentor entrepreneurs, or providing some other support. In other words, says Cassin, “They [must] put their hearts, their minds, and their pocketbooks” into the fund.

[Editor's note, Aug. 26---The above paragraph was corrected to reflect the fact the three-year, $1,000 per year commit is for the Power of 100 Women group, not the angel fund as originally written. Details of the commitment to the fund were also added.]

Many of the details of what I will call the Power of Women Fund, such as how much would be raised, what exactly it would invest in, and how much would be invested in each portfolio company, remain to be determined. “We still have lots and lots of work to do,” says Cassin. Still, she says it won’t be that long. “Within 60 days, we are going to be ready to launch.”

Cassin says it is too soon to tell, but she thinks the fund might ultimately become the core of what the foundation does. But even that is only one step toward what she hopes to accomplish—which is to spread the inspiration for change to other non-profit groups. Cassin expects many of the women in her group to take the basic idea to the “10 or 15 other boards that they sit on.” And, she says, “if you can reinvent one foundation, you can reinvent many, and it just kind of spirals.”

It’s easy be inspired by Cassin—and, perhaps, to forget she still faces a load of challenges to pull off this vision. But the former hospice executive seems well aware of what’s in store, and seems to be keeping a good sense of humor about her task. “It’s been hard to control, frankly,” she says.

“It’s not like herding cats, it’s like herding lionesses.”



Bob is Xconomy's founder and editor in chief. You can e-mail him at bbuderi@xconomy.com, call him at 617.500.5926. Follow @bbuderi

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  • http://www.dailygrommet.com Jules Pieri, CEO Daily Grommet

    Kudos to Cassin for taking this on. I believe business can be the fastest force for positive environmental, social, political and technical innovation in Michigan. Government, universities and non-profits need business to lead–it is faster, more nimble, and more powerful.

    As such, I’d love to see the angel fund become the central force in the Foundation. Women control 85% of the consumer economy (which is the biggest part of the overall economy). Women should drive what products get made too. That takes entrepreneurs and investors, first and foremost.

    One quibble…a $1,000/year angel investment for three years is way too little a commitment to fund serious businesses. Are we damning the investments to marginal, small ideas? I’d love to see that commitment parallel other angel funds, which would be a multiple of at least 25.

  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/bbuderi/ Robert Buderi

    Jules–you are right about small fund investment. It turns out, that was for the Power of Women group members, not the fund. Fund contributors commit to $20,000 per year for five years. I corrected the article to reflect this.

  • Jules Pieri

    Ahhh….that makes better sense. I knew this group was too serious and smart to be fooling around with small initiatives!

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