by Liz O’Donnell (Boston)
After a career in the non-profit world and a master’s degree from The Kennedy School of Government, Susan Priem heard about the Washington Women’s Fund in Seattle and was inspired to start her own women’s giving circle in Boston. She felt that a group of women acting collectively could make a greater impact than several individuals. So in 1999 she talked to a few of her friends and the following year along with eight other women, she started what is now known as the Hestia Fund. The group is named for Hestia, the Greek goddess of the hearth.
Priem’s vision was that each woman would give an equal amount of money to invest in a cause of their choosing and would make a three year commitment to the organization. Early on, the women of Hestia agreed to a mission: to positively impact the lives of low-income women and their children living in Massachusetts. The women carry out this mission by giving primarily to after school program.
The original group agreed to each give $5000 and set a goal of increasing the group size to 20 women. By the end of the second year, the group was 40 strong. Last year there were 60 active members and eight members who contribute financially but are not active in the decision making.
What makes the group work so well and able to sustain itself after this many years, is mutual respect and commitment to the mission says Priem. As the founder, Priem still serves on the board and offers counsel to the group, even though she now spends her winters in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
The women have also organized in a way that allows them to leverage their time and expertise. They created a grants committee made up of eight women. The grants committee has the full authority and trust of the larger organization to screen prospective organizations and make funding decisions. “This committee is the heart and soul of Hestia,” says Priem. Each year four members step down from the grants committee and four new members are added. Hestia has also formed a Steering Committee focused on long term planning and they have created the position of chair and vice chair each with a one year term. The vice chair assumes the chair position the following year, providing the group with consistent leadership.
One of the remarkable things about the Hestia Fund is that the group operates completely by consensus. They have never taken a vote or ruled by majority. “This idea worked well because there were all women in the room,” says Priem. Linda Nelson, one of the original members of Hestia says that Priem intuitively appreciated how the group would evolve.
For Nelson, both the philanthropy and the friendship are important benefits of belonging to the giving circle. In fact, Nelson also owns a second home in Santa Fe and is working with Priem on starting a group out west.
The social aspect is also important to Mary Akerson, current chair of the group. Even though the membership has increased, the women still try to meet in member’s living rooms whenever possible. Akerson likes connecting with the other women of Hestia as well as with the community.
“Women want to make a connection with the larger world beyond their families,” she says.
Nelson agrees. “My involvement with Hestia has allowed me to really get inside Boston neighborhoods and institutions that weren’t on my radar.”
For more information on The Hestia Fund, please contact them at Hestiafundboston@gmail.com