Impact100 Reinvents Philanthropy for Women

A decade of $100,000 grants changes the destiny of Valley nonprofits.

Story  Jonah Raskin

If liberated women have known for years that “Sisterhood Is Powerful,” they’re now saying, increasingly, that Sisterhood plus generosity not only empowers women, but also helps change the world for the better. One vehicle for that kind of generosity is Impact100, a democratic decision-making and focused philanthropy in which at least 100 women come together in one community, each woman donates $1,000, and that $100,000 (or more) is donated to one local charity.

The idea was birthed in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 2001 by Wendy
Steele, a pioneer in the Women’s Collective Generosity Movement, who reasoned that more good could come from a single, large change-making grant than numerous small ones. The simple model worked. Steele’s inaugural effort raised $123,000 for a low-income dental clinic that was transformed by the grant.

Since then, the model has spread across the country and beyond, and there are now more than 50 autonomous Impact100 chapters across the U.S., the UK, and Australia. To date the collective groups have given away close to $80 million worldwide.

Impact100 Sonoma was launched in 2009, has just closed its first decade, and is now well into its 11th giving year. Lynne Lancaster, one of the group’s founding members and now its co-president, along with Angela Ryan, comes from Minneapolis/St. Paul, which she describes as “an extremely philanthropic area.” Her background was in business, where the bottom line, not charity and compassion, usually comes first. Sonoma isn’t Minneapolis/St. Paul, but it has no lack of generosity. Lancaster ought to know. She’s lived here for 20 years and, as she explains at an outside table on the Sonoma Plaza at Basque Boulangerie, “People are very generous in the Valley. It’s not hard to find women willing and able to give $1,000.” She adds, “You don’t have to be Bill and Melinda Gates to give.”

Last year the 300-plus enthusiastic members of Impact100 Sonoma handed out more than $300,000 to nonprofits, including the annual $100,000 impact grant to the Sonoma Valley Community Health Center’s Vision Clinic, as well as a $50,000 Tenth Anniversary Grant to Vintage House, to expand its programs. Over the years the $100,000 impact grants have gone to Las Luz Center, 10,000 Degrees, the Sonoma Valley Education Foundation, among several others. Smaller grants are too numerous to list, but last year they included $20,000 for Art Escape, Ceres Community Project, the Flowery Elementary School PTO, Legal Aid of Sonoma County, Teen Services Sonoma, and the North Coast Conservation & Development Council. From 2010 to 2020, the organization, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit run entirely by volunteers, has given out $2,689,000.

In the beginning, members tended to be older retirees, but now they cross several generational lines, including traditionalists, baby boomers, Gen Xers and millennials. “We’re bringing in younger and younger women,” Lancaster says.

The busiest time of the year for Impact100 is January to June. Grant proposals are due soon after the start of the calendar year. They’re reviewed from February to April, along with on-site visits. Voting takes place in May after the finalists introduce themselves and make presentations. Awards are handed out in June. The whole process, from beginning to end, is transparent and built on trust. “It comes down to trust,” Lancaster says. “We’re not looking over anyone’s shoulder. Indeed, we’re guided by the notion that the groups and organizations that receive grants will do the best they can do with the money.” She adds that nonprofits “often screw up,” but that it’s “OK to make a mistake.” When that happens, Lancaster says, “You fix it.”

Lancaster didn’t start off as co-president, but rather worked her way up the ranks of the organization, putting time in on various committees. Collaborating with other women gives her a sense of purpose. Giving away money provides a sense of joy. What’s harder is raising funds. “That’s the Catch-22,” Lancaster says. “The time it takes to collect money takes away from the giving.” But nothing can cloud the joy of giving a $100,000 impact grant that members know can change the future of charitable organizations and the populations they serve. It’s an empowering program for recipients, and for the mothers, sisters, and daughters who are demonstrating the power of a Women’s Collective Generosity Movement right here in Sonoma. 

Jonah Raskin has learned slowly that it can be better to give than to receive.

Twenty-five Years of Mentoring Alliance

More than 2,000 mentees with life-changing relationships.

Story David Bolling

It has been said that we will ultimately be measured not be the money we have earned, the businesses, careers, professions we have built, not by the cars we drive or the size of our homes or the honors and awards we have earned, or even by the number of friends we have or the respect and recognition we receive in our communities.

We will ultimately be measured by one simple standard: the quality of the children we raise.

If that’s not your top priority—and let’s be honest, for many of us it’s not—it may be time to thoughtfully evaluate your life a little, examine where you can invest a bit more of your time with the greatest possible return on investment.

And if you have no children at home, if you’ve already done all the raising you were planning to do, perhaps you’d be open to the possibility that there always have been, and always will be children, in every community, who need some extra help being raised. Children from broken homes, children with cultural, economic, educationa, or emotional obstacles to navigate, children who just need an older friend.

Or, consider this. Perhaps your children are still at home, that they’re loved, and happy and doing well in school and facing rosy futures—or futures as rosy as possible in the overheated world we have consigned them to. Let’s say that’s the case in your life. It might still be possible to find one hour a week to devote to a child whose future doesn’t seem so rosy, a child in whose life you could make a major difference without making a major investment in time.

In the 25 years since the Sonoma Valley Mentoring Alliance was founded by Kathy Witkowicki in a Flowery School custodial closet, there have been somewhere between 2,000 and 2,100 mentor-mentee matches. At least one match has endured the test of those 25 years, in that Howard Gorbach and his mentee, Matt, are still connected, which means, in effect, it’s forever.

And there are current high school seniors who have been mentored since the second, third, and fourth grade.

Jack and Karen
Brenda and Linda

Lee Morgan Brown, the open-hearted executive director of the Mentoring Alliance, lays out some impressive statistics. The national average for the duration of mentor-mentee relationships, she says, is 5.5 months. The current average for Mentoring Alliance matches is 8 years. There’s a reason for that, beyond the exceptionally detailed and rigorous effort to match the right mentor to the right mentee, and that reason is simple. The Mentoring Alliance is a school-based program. Each relationship is started and nurtured within the secure and carefully structured environment of a dedicated Mentor Center on each of eight campuses in the Sonoma Valley Unified School District. It’s a virtually fail-safe system, with a Mentor Center facilitator present at each site to help guide and nurture the process. And they are very invested in their work. As El Verano School facilitator Annette Giroux-Smith told this magazine earlier, “We are the nurturers, the mediators, the matchmakers, the problem solvers, the hostesses, the secretaries, and the messengers. We provide a sanctuary for matches to meet, feel welcome and safe. We are advocates for children and guides for adults. We are role models for our role models.”

With that kind of support, mentors are never left to their own devices; there is continuous guidance available. The only commitment mentors have to make is to be there once a week for an hour, and to be a friend.

Ava and Danielle

Which leads to the question of time, probably the number one objection voiced by would-be mentors who fear being trapped in a commitment that could disrupt their lives. There’s a pretty simple answer to that concern. An hour a week translates into 8.5 minutes per day. Many of us burn that much time trying to remember where we put the car keys. The truth is, almost everyone has the time.

But there’s another, equally important, truth. As the mentoring relationship progresses it becomes clear, it’s a relationship, not a weekly appointment.

And relationships have a way of leaking outside the box.

It’s totally voluntary, of course, but the odds are good that once you’ve spent that one weekly hour for a few months or a year, that relationship is going to expand into other corners of your life, because you want it to. Because that’s when love rears its head, because that’s what love does. And know this, whether you want it or not, you will be loved, and you will love in return.

Of course, if you absolutely, categorically can’t cough up that hour, there are other needs. It costs approximately $2,000 a year to support each mentor-mentee relationship, including the cost of that mentor center. The Mentoring Alliance budget is about $750,000 a year, and there is no state or federal funding. The money comes from grants, foundations, and generous donors. Perhaps like you.

The difference having a mentor makes in mentee lives is immeasurable. It’s huge. And here’s what a group of grown mentees recently said about the experience.

Isamar: “My mentor has been the one who’s helped me with so many decisions. She never left my side during the fires, when our homes were burned out. I wouldn’t be here today without her… she’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”

Traytce: “My mentor has changed my life forever. Mentoring was a great experience for me. I’m now the New Attendance Director for SVUSD. My mentor made me realize that I could do anything.”

Lucia: “My mentor was so patient with me. Her patience and consistency made me open up to her. I knew that I had someone who truly cared about me. She is my family. I’m slowly giving back in ways that I can. She helped me get into programs, encouraged me. I aspire to be what she is. She helped me become the person I am today.”

Mailani: “My mentor came into my life at the most perfect time. I needed a strong female in my life because I had none. Her consistency was so important to me. She totally supports me in my life’s path.”

Luis: “I want people to know how important my mentor is to me and why kids should have a mentor in there life. The outcome of things for the future is so much better and brighter, believe me.”

These mentee alumni demonstrate what Brown describes as the organization’s bottom line. “Self-confident young adults, who are responsible and interested in giving back, will be the future leaders of our town. Investing in them is investing in the future of Sonoma Valley.

This being the 25th anniversary year for the Mentoring Alliance, a notable watershed, it will be recognized and celebrated in various ways through the 2020-21 school year, culminating with a gala dinner on March 6, 2021.

You can find out more by dropping by the freshly relocated Mentoring Alliance office in the Sonoma Community Center building, at 276 East Napa Street. There is always fresh coffee available and answers to every question. 

The Gift of Music, Heart-to-Heart

The Gift of Music, Heart-to-Heart

Stephan Stubbins takes his leave.

Of all the ways there are for human beings to give of themselves to each other, music may be the most powerful and immediate gift. It is a heart-to-heart transfer, independent of words, explanations, obligations, or interpretation.

On October 1, 2011, a group of itinerant artists appeared in the winery ruins of Jack London State Historic Park and presented a musical gift to some 900 awestruck citizens that hit them right in the heart. There was astonishment on both sides of the stage, nowhere more so than in one of the principal artists, Stephan Stubbins, co-founder and, until recently, co-executive director of the nonprofit Transcendence Theatre Company, which is now woven into the creative fabric of the Sonoma Valley and far beyond.

Stubbins has taken his leave from Transcendence, to return to his creative roots in New York with new wife and fellow Transcendence performer Libby Servais. He will stay on the board and return to perform with Libby in this season’s Gala production. But for now, there’s a new life chapter to explore.

“It’s been a life-changing journey,” he says. “From the very beginning, the wild and wonderful exuberance, the energy that was in our hearts, to go through three years or so of just believing and working toward it, not seeing it come true until we walked into that space and the amazing community of
Sonoma embraced us.

Steven Stubbins Singing
Steven Stubbins

It’s been one of the proudest things that’s ever happened in my life, that this whole community can come together, can open up their hearts and really dedicate themselves to making a difference. I’m amazed by how many lives we’ve influenced and inspired and touched, starting with so little.”

In fact, when they staged that first, trial production in 2011, they had $83 to their names. They have since built a $4 million company, have sung and danced to more than 200,000 people, have produced 50 or 60 different productions, have touched lives young and old, and drawn thousands into the Transcendence vortex in which any dream is possible and anyone can have the best night ever.

“There are certain things we’ll never ever be able to fix,” says Stubbins.

“We’ll never be able to stop hunger, we’ll never be able to get every child with parents that will make them feel loved. We’re never going to get there fully. But we have to continue to plow forward, and we have continued to try to make a difference, because we’re making it better.”

One recent memory—singing Christmas carols at Sutter hospital—captures how quickly a difference can be made.

“We were singing ‘Silent Night’ in the baby wards, and mothers came out of doorways, crying, holding their babies. And we were in another ward, I think it was post-surgery, and somebody just opens this door, and we just see a hand come out, with a thumbs-up. We never even got to see the face.

“So I feel like music is just energy, and it’s being able to take that energy that you can generate in your heart, and through those vibrations, send it to somebody else. And I think that’s the power of music. And that’s what can be so transformative.” 

A Vintage for All Seasons

Priscilla Essert touts Sonoma’s home away from home for citizens 55 and over.

Story  Jonah Raskin

Photos  David Bolling

Before Priscilla Essert stepped into the role of executive director at Vintage House last year, she played the flute for the Mexico City Philharmonic and the Berkeley Symphony. She also went on tour with the famed Russian-born dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, a highlight of her musical career. Essert’s years in the world of dance and music taught her the imperative of working with others collaboratively. “My job at Vintage House feels like making chamber music,” Essert tells me in her distinctly uncluttered office, just off the main corridor, on a Thursday afternoon near the start of spring. A sketch of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo looks down at her as a guiding spirit.

If Vintage House feels like a chamber orchestra, it can also feel like a mini-university, a job-training center, a soup kitchen, and a nonprofit that sustains music, jazz, and the arts. A bustling community, it provides a home away from home for hundreds of Valley residents 55 and over. Just don’t call Vintage House a “senior center” and slam the door shut. Whatever you call it, it’s more ambitious and more effective than any other comparable organization in the county, though Sebastopol and Healdsburg offer somewhat similar, albeit more limited, services. For Essert, Vintage House provides a space for recreation and re-creation.

High-energy, optimistic, and “happily 61 years young,” as she puts it, Essert is a perfect fit for the position. “I love community building,” she says. “I love helping people.” Married to her longtime husband and the mother of two sons, she has lived in Sonoma for seven years. Like many of her contemporaries, she doesn’t care for the word or the concept of “seniors.” She tells me, “We try to avoid it. We don’t care for the word ‘elders’ either, and the phrase ‘senior moments’ is a misnomer.” For many of the members who are 55, 65, 75 and up—Vintage House encourages membership—life is just beginning.

Priscilla Essert

Last year, Vintage House conducted a survey of Sonoma Valley residents who worked for much of their lives, raised families, and found that retirement wasn’t as wonderful as it was made out to be. One surprise was that many in the demographic group were struggling to make ends meet. “Twelve percent don’t feel confident about the future,” Essert says. “Many of them live alone after the death of a spouse and feel lonely.” They tell Essert that they don’t know how to meet people, make friends, and what to do with themselves. Some are itching to get back to work and want job training and help dusting off résumés.

Vintage House provides something for nearly everyone, whether it’s hot jazz, nourishing soup, exuberant Zumba classes or the veritable feeling that they’re staying young in spirit even as they age in years.

Many of the activities are free, though there’s also a sliding scale. Last year, Essert says, Vintage House provided 5,000 free rides for Sonomans. That’s a lot of miles. The organization has a contract with the City of Sonoma, and the city in turn provides funding. Additional revenue comes from fees, grants, private donations, and more.

Essert, who is bilingual and multicultural, wants to reach out to, and be more involved with, the Latino community. “We need to translate flyers into Spanish,” she says. “We could have Mexican food along with ESL classes for men and women 55 and over.” Essert leans forward and looks at her watch. “Americans might reexamine what ‘aging’ means, especially at a time when boomers and millennials are working longer than their parents and grandparents. Here at Vintage House, we have the opportunity to do really innovative and creative things. The sky’s the limit.” 

At 78, Jonah Raskin feels young at heart.