Wendy Steele – Impact 100: Empowering Women to Transform Their Communities (406)

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Feeling the nudge to make a difference in your community but not sure how to start? You’re in the right place. Mike’s special guest is Wendy Steele, the incredible founder and CEO of Impact 100, a global nonprofit organization transforming communities by harnessing the collective power of women. This episode is a treasure trove of insights into Wendy’s journey to becoming a catalyst for meaningful change. 

Wendy pulls back the curtain on Impact 100’s unique model which democratizes philanthropy, breaking the barriers of traditional grant-making processes. Wendy opens up about their robust vetting process to ensure the sustainability of their funded projects and how pooling resources can create seismic change in the society. You don’t want to miss Wendy’s enlightening views on the power of thousand-dollar donations, and the ripple effect of such collective action. This is not just about charity; it’s about aligning our hearts and minds with the cause we champion.

Lastly, Wendy and Mike plunge into a thought-provoking discussion on the gender dynamics in philanthropy. Wendy shares how Impact 100 is bridging the gap, equipping women with equal resources and opportunities to make a tangible difference. Learn about her debut book, “Invitation to Impact”, and how you can be part of this transformative journey. Join this inspiring conversation that promises to kindle your spirit of giving. Your community needs you, and together, we can make a lasting impact. Tune in!

Key highlights:

  • Impact 100
  • Challenges in Nonprofit Grant Applications
  • Donation Disconnect and Personal Connection
  • The Vision Behind Women-Only Funding
  • Empowering Women’s Financial Independence
  • The Economic Impact of Community Investment

Connect with Wendy Steele:

Check out the video version of this episode below:

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Episode transcript below:

0:00:00 – Mike Malatesta

Hi everyone. Mike Malatesta here and welcome back to the how it Happened podcast. On this podcast, I dig in deep with every guest to explore the roots of their success, to discover not just how it happened but why it matters. My mission is to find and share stories that inspire, activate and maximize the greatness in you. 


0:00:19 – Mike Malatesta

On today’s episode, I’m talking with the amazing founder and CEO of Impact 100, a global nonprofit that empowers women to create transformations in their own communities. We talk about why she is an unlikely founder, her spiral notebook, where it all started. Loud vs Soft Giving that was a new one for me and a ton more. 


0:00:41 – Wendy Steele

When each of us gets involved in the areas that we feel led, that we feel called to be involved in, the world gets better. Right, when I look at from a business perspective you know it’s back to this economics you look at a community, whether it’s Milwaukee, where two or three hundred thousand dollars gets invested in the community every year from women who are coming together to solve these problems. Now, that’s two or three hundred thousand dollars. It didn’t have to come from private enterprise, it didn’t have to come from the government. Right, that’s new jobs, new employable citizens, new homes, new food, new art, new infrastructure. With a platform like that, it becomes an economic engine. It’s part of the driver. 


0:01:22 – Mike Malatesta

Wendy Steele is an amazing and inspirational woman, as you’ll find out for yourself right now. Hello Wendy, welcome to the podcast. 


0:01:37 – Wendy Steele

Thanks, mike, I’m happy to be with you. 


0:01:39 – Mike Malatesta

Well, this is, I think, going to be one of my favorite podcasts ever because, as you will learn, wendy and my wife, Jamie, have a connection in what we’re going to be talking about, and that connection has made the work that Wendy has been doing for 20 plus years just very front of mind to me, and I’m thankful for it because otherwise I would have no idea how wonderful this work is and the impact that it’s making well certainly in our community and many, many communities across the country and now globally as well. So let me tell you a little bit about Wendy so you can get as excited as I am to have her here. Wendy Steele is the founder and CEO of Impact 100, a global nonprofit organization dedicated to uniting and empowering women to create a transformational impact in their communities. Since launching Impact 100 in 2001, wendy has dedicated her life to encouraging women to see themselves as both activists and philanthropists, bringing them together in order to unite their efforts, support one another and enrich their communities as a team and get this. What began as a grassroots effort in Cincinnati has today collectively granted more than $123 million to worthy nonprofits across more than 65 local chapters, us chapters and four countries. 


These debut book Invitation to Impact Lighting the Path to Community Transformation came out in April and in that book she shares her personal journey building one of the most powerful grassroots organizations, like we just talked about. Part business book, part memoir. Invitation to Impact provides insights for catalyzing meaningful change by giving women a seat at the table and a chance to join the movement or spark one within themselves. I love that explanation of your book. So, wendy, I start every podcast with the same simple question and that is how did it happen for you? 


0:03:44 – Wendy Steele

Well, thank you, mike. For me I would say I’m a pretty unlikely founder. I was a banker. I had relocated to Cincinnati from the East Coast and I went there not knowing a soul, and I did what I always do, which is to get involved in the community. Every bank I ever worked for. Part of the litmus test for me of whether I would accept the role is their stance on community service. 


I grew up in a family that gave back, and so I always incorporated community service at some level in my life. I always budgeted the time and the money. Well, I moved to Cincinnati, and Cincinnati is a place where the math really works in your favor. There are plenty of well-paying jobs because there are lots of corporate headquarters there, and yet the cost of living is low. So I was surprised when I started meeting women who didn’t see a viable path for themselves in the work that I was loving doing in that community. And when I dug a little deeper, what I realized is that, although women’s roles had changed and evolved over the last several generations, the avenues for our philanthropy and for our community involvement really hadn’t. And so, on a summer day in 2001, I got out of a spiral notebook. I wrote down all the barriers, all the reasons that women said they weren’t involved, and, one by one, I started to overcome them. When I was finished, what was in that notebook is what we now know is Impact 100. 


0:05:26 – Mike Malatesta

So I’m curious on this banking thing. When you’re applying for a job, you’re basically interviewing the company about their community involvement. So that seems like something that today, in 2023, people might do right, Because there’s much more awareness, I think, and importance in the younger workforce, I’d say, about those kinds of things. But when you were doing that back in your early career, that had to be a little unusual. 


0:05:54 – Wendy Steele

You know, I honestly don’t know how unusual it was. I was always in the good fortune of I work really hard, I’m dedicated to my career and so I want to make sure it’s a good cultural fit. So once you sort of get to the point where you’re looking at organizations and they’re looking at you and they’re asking these questions about how I will fit in, they’re sort of assessing if I’ve got five candidates that I think are pretty good. Choosing one out of those five is going to be based on things that are going to be specific to that candidate and that company. And I was doing the same thing. 


Yes, I needed to have a job, but, knowing that I’d be putting my heart and soul into it in a lot of hours and personal commitment, I needed to make sure we were values aligned and that was not. It was not all that hard to find out if you ask. But, to your point, in those days you didn’t see a lot of it written on their websites or in their promotional material. It was much more of kind of a personal connection. 


0:07:09 – Mike Malatesta

Got it and did this desire or I don’t know. If I don’t know if desire is the right word, you tell me what the right word is. This sort of internal need to be helping the communities. Did that come from your parents, your upbringing, or is it something that just maybe came to you from your friends? Where did that come from, do you know? 


0:07:27 – Wendy Steele

Yeah, it absolutely came from the way I was raised. We were always brought up to understand that our responsibility was to leave the world a little better than we found it, and that played itself out in my young life in a variety of ways. Sometimes it was helping a neighbor or trick or treating for UNICEF. It was doing a little more than what was expected. And so when you grow up in that environment, it’s sort of with you and I often have described it as if you grew up in a family that ate fresh produce at every meal. Now, when you go out on your own and you’re making very little money and your budget is tight, you’re not going to suddenly stop buying fresh produce because you understand it as a key part of how you nourish yourself, how you stay healthy. And for me, that’s what community service, giving back volunteerism, that’s what it meant to me. It was a part of who I was. 


I never thought it was unusual, I never thought it was rare, but what I found was for a lot of women and I’m sure, men too, but for a lot of women they didn’t grow up that way, so they didn’t budget it. When you, as a woman, if you take time away and you stay home to raise the kids. Often you don’t you build your budget for the must haves. Well, I had a period of time when I stayed home with my kids, but my budget included the ability to still go out and serve my community and do the things that I do, and so that’s the best analogy that when it’s just a part of what you do and it’s almost something you don’t think about, you can assume that the rest of the world was brought up like you are and believes the things that you believe, and so it took me a minute to realize that actually, this idea of growing up in a family that gave back and talked about giving back and explored ways to do it together was a rather unique experience. 


0:09:44 – Mike Malatesta

Yeah, okay, so you discovered that the fresh fruit or fresh vegetables wasn’t something that most people had been exposed to in their lives just like this, so you had to make them aware of something that was in them, I suppose, but they just had never been asked for it or asked about it. 


0:10:01 – Wendy Steele

Yeah, exactly, and in fact, actually, if you look at Impact 100, about 50% of the women who join and I know we haven’t gotten into the details of how it works, but people, women joined by donating $1,000. About 50% of the women who joined have never written a check to a single charity for $1,000 prior to joining Impact 100. Now, when I first heard this, I thought, well, maybe it’s because it was sacrificial, they didn’t have the financial capacity. But in fact that’s not the case. It’s that they never really saw themselves that way or they didn’t ever have the kind of giving experience that made them want to do more. They would write a check and never know what happened to the money, when it was spent, how it was spent or if it mattered, if it moved the needle. And Through the design of impact 100, it really allows women to be actively involved In the change they want to make in their own local backyard. 


0:11:13 – Mike Malatesta

Okay, so let’s, before I dig into that a little bit better, let’s get into what impact 100 is from a foundational levels, and then we can take it from there absolutely so. 


0:11:25 – Wendy Steele

Impact 100 is a really simple and Powerful model in local communities. You gather at least a hundred women who each donate a thousand dollars. You pool all of that money together and offer it right back to the local communities in grants of a hundred thousand dollars or more across five broad focus areas. So it is women funding community, not necessarily women funding women and girls. So those focus areas are education, environment, arts and culture, family and health and wellness, the idea being that there wouldn’t be a nonprofit whose mission wouldn’t qualify for an impact 100 grant. 


It it was designed to be fully inclusive. In other words, I know that there are women who really care about funding arts and culture, but they might not be all that interested in funding other things. They believe that the money for those other things come from other places. There are women who feel passionately about education and all the other, all the other focus areas, and when we come together with a commitment to fund all five of those areas, what ends up happening is the community gets fully lifted up and Change happens. Now I thought I was creating this thing for a very specific group of women in Cincinnati, ohio, so it was a surprise to me when the idea really started to spread and the thousand dollars. 


0:13:00 – Mike Malatesta

Hundred women, so, so that’s get you your first hundred thousand. Okay, so you, you write the check and we’ll get get into that 50% thing, because I thought that was very interesting but you write the check. What are the mechanics from there? 


0:13:11 – Wendy Steele

Well, that’s probably the most important aspects of how the model works. You, as a member of impact 100, you simply need to write the check and, at the end of the grant cycle, cast your vote. What you do in between is entirely up to you. Women design their own Experiences, you know so much. Women’s philanthropy is very time-based and it’s based on this notion that that women are home and they’re raising kids, and when the kids go to school, they have time, but not necessarily money. So an impact you can get as involved as you want, because the entire process of Getting nonprofit applications to come in into these five focus areas Analyzing, assessing, vetting those nonprofits, making site visits those are all done by members, by volunteers. 


The leadership of impact 100 is all volunteers at the local level. So the idea is that, as a member, if you’re in a season of your life where you can write the check, but that’s all you can do, it’s terrific you have a welcome place within the organization. If, however, you have time or interest or both, you have a passion, you want to get to know the community better, there are lots of ways for you to serve and really hold key roles in determining which nonprofits move ahead to consideration and which don’t, so it really can truly empower women To see their world differently, which in turn means seeing themselves very differently. 


0:14:43 – Mike Malatesta

And it’s as I understand it and as I think you just described, it’s entirely a, a democratized process. When it comes to one one member, one vote, so the leadership, while they’re helping to coordinate everything and there’s a lot that gets coordinated, I know firsthand experience they don’t. They don’t choose the winners. This is that and that’s like. So that’s one thing you don’t get from very many philanthropic or Organizations that you can contribute to. You contribute and then they make the decisions as to whom, who they fund, or who gets how much, and all of that stuff. So it’s really exactly. 


0:15:22 – Wendy Steele

Yeah, it is. It does democratize philanthropy, as you say, to the point where, if the women would come into an impact 100 chapter and say, well, you only require a thousand dollars, but I’d like to give you five thousand dollars, she can do that, but she would either buy five years of votes, so five years of her own membership, or she could buy her own membership and then give to the other four thousand to be, you know, part of scholarships that might allow women who otherwise couldn’t afford it to join. In other words, in the depth of your checkbook does not translate to the number of votes the way it does in traditional Philanthropy. And, make no mistake, I don’t have any gripes with the idea that Within traditional philanthropy, if you’re wealthy enough to write a check for a hundred thousand dollars and you give it to the local art museum, you can likely design the room, decide what sort of art is displayed there. You probably could name it. You might even determine the days of the week or the hours that that room is open to the public. If I donate a thousand dollars, I may never know where that money goes, when it gets spent or how it gets spent. Now. I don’t think that that system is a bad system, but the idea is, in order to draw people in who are not otherwise involved, giving them a seat at the table, letting them explore research, discuss, debate. 


When you end up with this broad range of women whose one thing in common is that they they live in the same place and Care about the same you know causes, care about helping their community. When those women sit around a table and they listen to, they read, they try to vet a grant application, you know, sort of at the one extreme you’ve got a seasoned philanthropist. This is the woman for whom a thousand dollars is an easy gift. She has a view from the mountaintop. She knows enough about what’s happening in the greater world, which organizations are doing new things, what’s working, what isn’t working. On the other end of this proverbial table is the newly minted philanthropist. Now, she may not have any idea of the bigger picture, but what she does know is that in order for a grant to be successful, that nonprofit has to work with certain local stakeholders. Maybe it has to be on a certain bus line. She may know people who have either needed these services, needed this outreach, or Having needed them herself. 


Now, when you take those is sort of the two extremes of lived experiences and then you fill up the table with every shade. In between. What happens in those focus area committees, in those grant review committees? There are robust discussion, better decisions are made and Friendships are forged among women who otherwise their paths wouldn’t cross. 


They don’t live in the same neighborhoods or shop in the same stores or work in the same places and those connections Again elevates everyone. It elevates all those who participate, it makes for a better investment in the grants that they choose to fund and the whole community thrives. And the family members, which I think you would know firsthand, but the family members of those women who are involved, they get to watch the evolution of a woman who may have led in other areas of her life or maybe not really step into her role as a community leader, as an advocate, as Someone who is equipping and lifting up other women, and the transformation we see on both sides of the check is Remarkable hmm, and as I’ve intimated a couple of times, and as Wendy so, I’ve had like a fly on the wall experience with the creation of Impact 100, greater Milwaukee, which is one of the I think there are 43 or 45 chapters. 


0:19:37 – Mike Malatesta

I said it’s one of those and that happened about five ish years ago, five or six, and my wife, jamie, and four of her friends got together and they, they basically birthed this thing from nothing and, like I said, as a fly on the wall, it was so interesting to me because it wasn’t this, this was like starting a business. It was very intense. There was, you know, they had to establish themselves as a legal entity, they had to have by law, by laws and whatever they had to do, all the types of things that that you have to do kind of when you’re starting a business. And then they had to go get customers, which which are donors, and Again from scratch because it wasn’t here just kind of like maybe when you started in Cincinnati, except you had no name recognition or anything probably at that time, which they did and then to go through a cycle there they actually got a hundred women. I was like, how do you do that? And then to the work that Wendy was describing of and I’m gonna ask you to go into this more but how you, how you get into the Non-profit communities so that they even know that you are there and get them to. 


I mean, literally apply for Grant and then go through the whole review process and then, finally, the annual awards Celebration the first. I’ve been to several, but it’s just such an amazing. That’s like the Super Bowl for you, for your, you know, you’re, you’re gifting cycle in impact and anyway. So I, I have had that experience and if, if you’re out there and you have a chance Whether you’re men or women to get involved with this and and witness that experience for yourself, it’s, it’s kind of humbling because of all the work that goes into it. You kind of I kind of feel like man, I haven’t done anything, but it’s also super inspiring as well. So let me go to the nonprofits then. So so these, these hundred women get together that give, or more than a hundred women I think there’s three or four hundred in greater Milwaukee area that are presently members. 


They put their money together, they go, they have these five focus areas. They go out into the community, make the nonprofits aware of Impact 100, aware of this and, by the way, $100,000 grant to almost every charity any charity is like a huge deal. That’s a game-changing deal. So, wendy, how does the recruitment of nonprofits work? How does the application process work at a high level and, ultimately, why is it so important to these nonprofits? 


0:22:18 – Wendy Steele

Yeah, thank you. So I’ll start with why is it so important to these nonprofits? Part of the reason that Impact 100 is known for having these significant grants, these $100,000 grants, is that even back in 2001, when this was an idea on a spiral notebook, I had been hearing from law and profits that were telling us that when they go out and you get a grant of 10,000 or 15,000, it’s awesome, it’s like manna from heaven you eat for the day. But that doesn’t allow the executive director, the senior staff, to lift their head off their desk, to look to the horizon and fully execute on a strategic plan they needed. They were actively looking for bigger grants that in many communities simply didn’t exist. So that’s sort of the why. But with that as a backdrop, one of the things that I think surprises most Impact 100 founding teams is this notion that you spend all this time I love how you said finding your customers, finding those women who want to join. As a side note, Milwaukee was one of the first chapters who skipped right over the 100 members when they launched. I think they launched with 218 or 214 anyway. So year one they gave away two grants, which is remarkable. Now you think you spend all this time bringing the women in. All you have to do is put up a website, send an email and tell the nonprofits we’re going to give away two grants of at least $100,000. Come and apply. That they would beat a path to the door. But they don’t. It is nonprofit leadership. They are busy, they are pulled in a million directions, they’re understaffed, they’re underfunded and the promise of a big grant isn’t enough to get them to apply. So we really chapters, have to spend as much time, effort and energy inviting, recruiting those nonprofits to apply as they do inviting and recruiting the members to join. One of the things I say all the time is that Impact 100 is only ever as powerful as the women who join and it’s transformational at the nonprofits who apply and they have to be actively invited From there. 


What we try to do in every community is we try to first start with the grant application that other funders are using. We want to make it easy enough for the nonprofits. We don’t want to create extra work or questions worded in a way that seem unfamiliar. So we want to make it easy. So we start there Now. 


Because we give significant grants, we do ask for some additional documentation, the leadership of every chapter and certainly I as the creator, the founder of all this. We take stewarding our members’ money very, very seriously and for those women who write a check and entrust the process to the other volunteers, it’s critical that we do our level best to fully vet the applications that come in so we not only go over them in these focus area teams, where we will score them with a rubric and we’ll discuss them. We then will go and make a site visit to sort of kick the tires, meet the people, make sure everything adds up, and then there is a finance team that makes sure, after a deep dive of the numbers, we’ll train members to vet a nonprofit, to understand their application, to understand the budgets, etc. But we really want financial experts to give it the final set of approval before bringing them to a potentially finalist. 


The idea is that we’ll end up with one finalist in each one of those five focus areas and when we do come together at the annual award celebration the Super Bowl if you will we not only have an executive summary of those five finalists, but we also have a presentation from each one of the finalists and it’s their opportunity to put a little heart behind the numbers to better explain why their program, project or organization is worthy of an investment of at least $100,000. Now we look at these things largely with a lens of is it transformational? In other words, is it really going to move the needle and solve a problem? And is it sustainable? Sometimes the idea of $100,000 is attractive, but if the organization doesn’t have the wherewithal to survive it or when the funding runs out, there’s no way for it to continue. It’s probably not a good fit for us. 


0:27:25 – Mike Malatesta

So something about the project that the nonprofit is asking Impact 100 to fund has to be, I think you said, sustaining. So it’s got to be something where this is sort of the that down payment that you need to buy the house but I can’t pay the electric bill for you every year, sort of thing. 


0:27:47 – Wendy Steele

Exactly, yeah, we want to make sure that the organization will continue with this, and different projects have different level of sustainability, right? So if they’re buying a physical asset, then you know that you’ve got some sustainability to your point, as long as they can pay the electric. But oftentimes it might be a different program, it might be something that requires hiring new people or repositioning your current team in a different way, and so when we, when we look at it, we just want to make sure that the organization can sustain this grant and that it won’t put them in a tough position, and can I talk to you about this spiral notebook a little bit this. 


0:28:32 – Mike Malatesta

So you say you moved from the East Coast to Cincinnati. Was there a? Was that, was there a job there that you moved for, or was there some other reason for that move? 


0:28:46 – Wendy Steele

So I was married to my first husband and he had gotten a job in Cincinnati. And when he got that job I was pregnant with baby number one and so we moved from Connecticut to Cincinnati. When I moved, I think I was about five or six months pregnant. I didn’t work right away. I did some job interviews prior to coming, but I just didn’t know, being pregnant, whether I was going to be healthy toward the tail end of my pregnancy. I mean, I’d never done any of that before, so initially I did not work. Once the baby was born, then I knew I was ready to go back to work. That’s when I started interviewing and I went into a local bank and sort of. The story picks up from there. But that’s what brought me to Cincinnati. So I moved not knowing anyone and not knowing an awful lot about the community other than what I could find by asking friends and doing a little research. 


0:29:50 – Mike Malatesta

And where in Connecticut did you grow up? 


0:29:52 – Wendy Steele

Well, so I’ve lived all over. I was born in Renich, Connecticut, but then I grew up in St Louis, Missouri, and then I went back to Connecticut for college and at the time when I moved after college I stayed in Connecticut. Then I worked in Boston, Then I went back to Connecticut, then I went to Cincinnati and then I’ve moved since Then. I went to Traverse City, Michigan, where I am now, and Florida to help my in-laws. So I’ve moved around a bit in my life. 


0:30:22 – Mike Malatesta

Okay, all right, got it. So you show up, you’re pregnant, you show up in Cincinnati. After you have your baby, your child, you start interviewing. We talked about the community service being a part of your interview process, of your perspective and players. When does this notebook start coming together? And then, what’s the thing that triggered the notebook to be more than just your thoughts on something? 


0:30:47 – Wendy Steele

Well, it’s a really good question. So, as I said, I grew up giving back and so I got involved in a lot of the traditional ways and I did the same in Cincinnati and I met these great women and I would be involved in something and they would tell me why they couldn’t join me. Now, when I lived in the East Coast, which I’d been there for quite a number of years, the cost of living there is really high. You can make a good living, but the cost of living is really high. Now, bear in mind, I’m a banker. I graduated college with an economics degree. So when I lived on the East Coast and women declined from getting involved in whatever I was doing, my head really, without even giving it any thought, I sort of went to it must be an economic reason, right, like you’re not doing this because the math doesn’t work, and I didn’t give it much thought. 


Now I moved to Ohio and I’m meeting these fabulous women. I want to see them involved and they’re telling me things about. You know, gosh, I’m a stay-at-home mom. I can’t justify hiring a sitter, paying her $10 an hour to go volunteer. Okay, sounds like math, right, sounds like economics. Then I hear well, you know your project is involving education and I’m really interested in health and wellness. Okay, I can understand that. That makes sense. 


But then they started to say things like you know, did you hear about that nonprofit CEO who makes seven figures, buys in a private plane? They’re all like that. I don’t trust them. That’s different. Or, you know, when I make a donation, it’s typically either to the, my church, to my school. I never know when they spend it, I don’t know where the money goes, I don’t know if it matters, and when I see the results of giving, I don’t really know if they need it. I don’t know why I’m doing it. So there was no connection. 


Now, at the same time, it was very popular, certainly in the banking world but in other places, this notion of making a donation and you’ll never miss it. You know it can come right out of your paycheck pre tax and you’ll never miss it. Well, in my life, I believe I want you to be connected to that gift, because if you never miss it, you never get to recognize what you’re doing, you never get to to feel connected to your gift. All you know is a certain amount of money might come out of your paycheck before your paycheck hits your bank account, but you never miss it, so you don’t think about it. And what I believe to be true, then, and know for a fact, is that Asking somebody to give you a thousand dollars even if someone’s really wealthy and it’s not a budget consideration a thousand dollars is enough to make you stop and think. 


It’s enough to make you say well, wait a minute. If I were to say to you, because you’re an entrepreneur, mike, I’ve got this great idea and I’d love for you to invest 100, 250, 500 dollars, if you heard a little bit about it, you’d maybe write that check and you might not remember it, even ask me what I did with it or how it went. But if I ask you for a thousand dollars even though to a lot of people that’s not a lot of money it is enough for you to be like thousand dollars. What are you going to do with that? Well, when we get connected to that thousand dollars, we follow it, and that makes us connected to the hundred thousand, which makes us connected to the hundred and twenty three million and that’s a big part of it is that when we connect our head and our hearts to what we’re doing, it moves us, it changes us. It can’t help but to do that. 


And so what ended up happening is the light started to go off in my head that this easy answer of it’s simply math, it’s simply the you know the economics of the situation that are keeping women from being involved. I started to realize wait a minute, there were a lot more reasons women were not involved. Now I knew that the nonprofit community in Cincinnati they actually thought it was sort of unique to Cincinnati, which clearly wasn’t true. But I thought all these nonprofits, they need these women, they need their, their brains, they need their hearts, but they need their checkbook and right now, women. They didn’t see a viable way to get involved. 


At the same time, I had read an article, and I can’t even tell you where this church was located, but the story was about a church and they had had some catastrophic financial event that happened. And so the lead pastor calls together the senior staff, the head of the women’s guild, the head of the men’s group, brings them all together, explains this crisis and says we have a really short window. We need to raise all of this money or we can’t pay the mortgage on the building or payroll or whatever it was, but it was important, it was urgent. So the senior staff went back and they cut expenses and they extended their payables and they collected receivables and and they were able to eek out a little more money. The head of the women’s group, she went back and she mobilized her team and they had rummage sales, they had bake sales, they, they did odd jobs, they had car washes. They did all these things and at the end of three weeks the head of the women’s guild was exhausted and delighted that she had raised $8,000. And as she was walking out of the pastor’s office having proudly delivered this check, the head of the men’s guild comes in. He delivered a check many times more than that and she was floored and she said what did you do? He said, well, I decided how much we could give and I wrote that check to the church and then I called you know this guy, that guy, that man, and they all wrote checks. Understand that men weren’t keeping women from writing checks. That head of the women’s guild in theory could have done the same thing, but it was not her default pattern, it was not the culture she grew up in and I don’t know that she even realized the extent she had that power. 


Now, bear in mind this was 2001. I mean, that was a long time ago, and so the idea was that we needed to find a way. I believe that when a certain problem bothers you for long enough, that’s your hint that this is your problem to solve. Now, maybe it’s not your whole problem to solve, but if there is a problem that’s on your heart, that you can’t shake, you can’t get it out of your mind, I believe it’s because you’re meant to do something to help make it change, to help improve it, and that’s what happened. I was working out a puzzle in my mind. How do I get this? If my end goal is to fund bigger grants to nonprofits, if my end goal is to get more women involved and let them understand the power that they hold to make the world a better place, that their mental health would be better, that their community would be better? 


I think, while it was a problem, there wasn’t a how do I say this? There wasn’t as much of a sense of urgency. But it was when I started to put the pieces together and realized that I might have this strange, new, completely different way of solving this problem. My first thought was to call my really smart friends, because I was on vacation, actually not far from where I am right now in northern Michigan. I was on vacation with my children and I was writing all this stuff down and came up with what we know is impact. 


So I called some really bright women in Cincinnati who knew way more than I did about the nonprofit landscape. I said I have this crazy idea. Tell me what’s wrong with it. And if nothing is wrong with it, then it must exist. And if it doesn’t exist, I think we need to figure out how to build it. And you know what happened. So it was at that point when I said this is my problem to take a swing at. And here we are, 22 years later. It’s still growing strong, new chapters cropping up every single year, regardless of what happens in the economy and regardless of the political division and all the other things that the world faces. This has been a really powerful mechanism for women to come together and transform their local community. 


0:40:19 – Mike Malatesta

So how was it always your vision that it would be your vision that it would be women only, or was and I asked that because the psychology and maybe there’s a little science in there that you just described in that story of you know on the men’s side it was basically like oh hey, scotty, michael, charles, I’m, you know, the church is in need, I’m giving them five grand. Well, you guys give them five grand to and and maybe those guys are like I don’t even know what they’re going to use it for, but since he’s doing it, I’ll do. It seems like an easy way, easy way to raise funds and a lot different. So I’m really interested in how you thought about the psychology and whether men were ever part of the thought process or if it was because there had to be something else. I’m going to let you answer it. 


0:41:12 – Wendy Steele

So remember, I’m a banker. 


0:41:13 – Mike Malatesta



0:41:14 – Wendy Steele

So in 1986 was the first time women could borrow without a male co signer or own a company without a male co founder, co owner 1986. 


Wow, 1986 isn’t that long ago, and it wasn’t that long ago from 2001. So part of it, I would say it was designed to leverage how women think and how we are in the world. Men already knew how to write checks and they were doing it efficiently and effectively. Men bond differently than women do. Women are very collaborative in nature. Men, statistically, are more likely to give to established organizations like their alma mater you know big organizations or they are more likely to give to places where their people they respect, are giving or are a part of. Women are different. Women are and these are stereotypes not every women fits or every man, but women are more likely to fund a new idea. They’re more likely to look at the solution, not necessarily how big or established or funded an organization might be. They’re less concerned with whether their friends are donating and more concerned about some other aspects of how this nonprofit might do the work that they’re doing. So from the beginning it was designed to bring women into a space that men have been comfortable with for a long time. 


In a lot of families it doesn’t matter who originated the money, so if the woman either inherited it or grew her own wealth, the man typically makes more financial decisions, especially about giving to different organizations. Women didn’t quite see their place and so it’s really interesting you can talk now as a banker. My entire career was high, not worth people. Very often, because I care a lot about philanthropy, I would talk to my clients about where they gave them what they did, and it was very common that within their philanthropic portfolio, they would have given to the husband’s college, the husband’s grad school or medical school or law school or whatever. The women, the spouse, may have gone to a prestigious school, may have gotten a wonderful degree or had a fulfilling experience, but they aren’t. I would see countless times where only his things were funded, not hers, no kidding. 


And I think it’s the sort of you know the division of labor in the true kind of traditional sense, where men are making the money. Therefore they understand budgets, they’re making a lot of financial decisions and if women don’t work outside the home, they sort of have a limited worldview. Right of understanding some of this stuff if the husband isn’t going to share it. Now it can be complicated and there can be nuances, but it was not that all of these wives were saying gosh, honey, why aren’t we investing in my university or in the things I care about. It was that it didn’t even occur to her that that was a thing Like yep, he wanted to give to his college. Cool, if they had the conversation where the spouse would have said gosh, can we give to my school too? I’m sure the answer would have been of course, but it wasn’t a thought process and I really wanted to make sure that women could step into their power. We often say we empower women and transform communities, but it’s a little bit that empowering is really holding up a mirror and saying look, you can do this, you know enough, it doesn’t matter if you’ve never given anything, you can afford this, you can be a part of the solution. You just have to step into that power. Now, full disclosure. 


When we started expanding internationally, the first country we entered was Australia, and we entered there because a research company was engaged by the federal government of Australia to research the best ways to get grassroots donations, specifically for arts organizations, but in general for nonprofits. 


Now, australia doesn’t have a culture of generosity. 


You know, america grew up with a culture of generosity and all of our founding fathers were very generous and the big people who first made the most wealth in this country were demonstratively generous. 


Well, that didn’t happen in Australia. And so the person who did the research is a man named James Boyd, and when he submitted, he came to this country, explored a lot of options, he submitted his report and when he was having drinks with a friend and she was asking him about how his report went and he told her, he said what it’s the best part. He said, honestly, the best part was this organization I found called Impact 100, and he explained it, and the two of them decided to create an Impact 100 right there in Perth, Australia. Now we have eight chapters and all but one are gender neutral, because in Australia, men had not developed this, this comfort, this ability, this willingness to write checks the way they had here. So it’s perfectly lovely that in Australia it’s gender neutral and I’m sure there will be other countries where that will happen but it’s very much designed for how women work and live and play, much more so than men. 


0:47:00 – Mike Malatesta

Okay, so in Australia the differences that you described with the story of the church just didn’t exist. Both of them were the women trying to raise the money. 


0:47:10 – Wendy Steele

Exactly Trying to figure out how to do that. Right, yeah, and those who did give gave very quietly. You know it sort of can fit it a little too. You know you wouldn’t have a building named or or something named after someone. They would quietly give thumbs of money. But when that happens, no one knows. You know it’s like I don’t. I don’t think it’s wrong to give anonymously and I don’t think it’s wrong to give publicly or what we call loud giving with your name on something, because when you give that way, you are shining a light for somebody else to say wait a minute, gosh, that family or that organization just move the needle significantly with that gift. Maybe I can do that too, and it does completely change your perspective. Yeah. 


What’s possible so, and that wasn’t happening in Australia at that point. 


0:48:08 – Mike Malatesta

That’s interesting because I don’t consider us to be loud givers and of course I’ve seen many, many, many, many buildings and and everything that have names on them and I’ve always thought, ah, that’s just not for me. But when you were just talking I was thinking, you know, it may not be just about the person, it may be like the awareness that, hey, building a business, for example well you know it can get there can be a lot of negatives associated with people who do that. This wouldn’t exist unless this particular business that has this person’s name didn’t exist. And maybe there’s a connection there. 


0:48:45 – Wendy Steele

So and I’ll say one thing on the train of thought with loud giving it does two things. Yes, it does cast the giver in a different light. To be like gosh, this person is more than just worried about you know, enriching himself. Look at, look at what they or he or she is doing in the world. But that’s something else too. Give the validation to wherever you give, and so if a name is attached that’s known as being a smart business person, successful, that, that reputation, that association, does wonders to the nonprofit, because not only are you encouraging big givers to give where they choose, but you’re giving, you’re also inspiring other givers to give to the organization that you are funding, because they’re like my gosh, if they think it’s a good idea, it’s a good idea for me too. 


0:49:40 – Mike Malatesta

And they’ll follow you. 


0:49:42 – Wendy Steele

So it’s a both sides benefit, well beyond the monetary benefit, right yeah? 


0:49:47 – Mike Malatesta

I was just thinking, yeah, if, like, Steve Jobs’ name is on something, you’re going to think that he spent a lot of time figuring out whether this was the right thing to put his name on or attach his name to, for example. And there’s or Oprah, or somebody you know. 


0:50:03 – Wendy Steele



0:50:04 – Mike Malatesta

Well, I’m glad we had that loud, soft conversation. That was kind of interesting. So, transformation the subtitle of your book, lighting the Path to Community Transformation Impact 100, of course, is all about transformation. I’m wondering, and maybe some of the people listening are wondering how do you know? So, $123 million granted, that’s gone to and, by the way, I was talking about this, the annual awards thing a while ago, folks who are listening, I have not been the one where I have not teared up at the story of the amazing work that these nonprofits are doing that you’ve never heard of. You know you can be in a community for your whole life and you have never heard a half of the nonprofits, probably, who are doing amazing work, work that many, many people don’t want any part of doing. So it’s just overwhelming emotional and physical experience, at least it is for me. But from an actual transformation standpoint, is there a way to quantify it to, or does it even matter? How do you think about that? 


0:51:09 – Wendy Steele

You know it is when we talk about the lens that we determine our grants. It’s about transformation and sustainability. The transformation piece, though, is so much more subjective, and so, in part, you know, we want those nonprofits to tell us why it’s transformational, and then we get to assess it. But it’s typically not an incremental difference, it’s typically a shift. You know it’s something that is significant, because $100,000 is a significant amount of money, and so we want to see the results of that. Now, you know it’s the transformation is different, right, if it’s an art museum or if it’s a land preserve. It’s an environmental project versus education. So how you measure it and what the metrics are, that’s where the nonprofit has to paint the picture, for us to be able to say look, this is what it means if you fund this and our members. 


You know you’re right about the annual award celebration, and I’ve been doing these for a long time. I have never found myself where I wasn’t moved, moved to tears, to goosebumps, to such inspiration, such hope. It is a remarkable experience in and of itself, and I think, because so much of this important work is coming from around the community, you can live there and not know, and once you, you know that saying once you, once you know you can’t unknow, or once you see you can’t unsee. So not only do are we faced with the being, the problems, being the need, but now we get to see these heroes who, every day, are going out there and doing this incredible work. 


So so, transformation can look different in different environments from year to year, based on the nonprofits who apply. And so it is. It’s not a math equation, it’s very much of a how does this feel? Do I believe that this is transformational? And and you know it’s, it always is. I mean, it just always is. We’ve we’ve not had what I call an oops grant, because so much time and attention goes to vetting the nonprofits and the programs and projects that they hope to fund. 


0:53:46 – Mike Malatesta

When you let me get back to the spiral notebook before we close here. So you’ve been sort of you’ve been having these conversations, you’ve been taking notes, you’ve been trying to get to. You know what you’re peeling the onion on giving. You know it’s not just about I don’t have the money, it’s about this, it’s about that. What happened that caused you to go all in on establishing this in Cincinnati? There’s there. Was there a catalytic moment? Was it? What was it? 


0:54:15 – Wendy Steele

When I had the design written in that notebook, I was so personally excited and inspired and and it was it was like a eureka moment. It was a breakthrough. You know it, it it was something that was both personal as well as as bigger than that. Now understand that when I said 50% of the women had never given $1,000, I was 38 years old. I had never written a check to a single charity for $1,000. It wasn’t like I’ve been doing it. Now I’m going to tell y’all how to do it Like I had never done that before. 


0:54:52 – Mike Malatesta

Okay, so you were one. You were one of them. 


0:54:54 – Wendy Steele

I was one of. Yeah, I was totally one of them and from that moment until now, there have been many years where writing a check for $1,000 was sacrificial, like it was not. That was in that year that I created Impact 100 from a financial standpoint. Although I’d never done it, I I knew I could. I just had never done it. But there definitely have been years when it was hard for me to write that $1,000 check. But it was seeing that it was understanding the power of what was on that page and having this just sense of urgency that I needed to tell women about this. I needed to get them involved, I needed to put this into action. It was. It was a drive that was so strong and I still feel that way today, all these years later. 


I for a long time Impact 100 was my side gig and I kept working in the banking business and or related businesses because I need I need to actually keep the lights on and put food on the table. My first husband I divorced, but my I am happily married now for 18 years to my husband, rick, and he’s very generous and he works very hard. I’ve had to not have a day job for quite a while and only work at Impact 100. And I’m still as passionate about it today as I was then, in some ways even more so, as I do this as a volunteer effort, and so part of what I’m doing is is trying to change that, so that if I’m hit by a bus tomorrow which you know it’s going to have an all of us someday the Impact 100 is sustainable because the work I do now is I help existing chapters to reach their highest potential. In fact, I’ll be in Milwaukee in September working with the chapter your chapter there as well as help new chapters launch, and in order to do that effectively and to help we need to have global so sort of that’s the priority now moving forward, and part of the reason that I wrote the book is this notion that there’s not just one way to get to that transformation. 


You know Impact 100 is my story as an unlikely founder. Part of the reason behind that notion is this this idea that wherever you are, you can make a difference right there, and you don’t have to have the really deepest checkbook. You don’t have to have a PhD in nonprofit science Like you, just really have to believe that you can do it and and believe in the people that you’re entrusting either your time, your talent or your treasure. But the other piece of it is talking about what you do, because if my family hadn’t talked about their values, hadn’t talked about this notion of making the world a better place, it may have taken me a lot longer before I ever realized that I actually could help someone else. And once you know you can do that, it really shifts your perspective from being worried about the problems and wondering who’s going to fix them, bringing your hands watching the news to this other side, where you’re like, okay, I’m concerned about this problem, let me figure out who’s already trying to solve that and write a small check. Or or volunteer to serve on a board or a committee or whatever it is. Because that’s how the world gets better when we all work together, doing the things that matter to us. And what matters to me might not matter to you, might not matter to to half the people that are watching your podcast right now, but when each of us gets involved in the areas that we feel led, that we feel called to be involved in, the world gets better. 


When I look at from a business perspective, you know it’s back to this economics. You look at a community, whether it’s Milwaukee, where two or $300,000 gets invested in the community every year from women who are, who are coming together to solve these problems. Now that’s two or $300,000. It didn’t have to come from private enterprise, it didn’t have to come from the government. That’s new jobs, new employable citizens, new homes, new food, new art, new infrastructure. Now, with a platform like that, it becomes an economic engine, it’s part of the driver, so that now when the government funds what they fund in private enterprise, funds what they fund, it’s that much better for the community. And it becomes this, this spiral shell where what started with a little gift continues to grow and continues to grow on into infinity. Because somebody stood up in Milwaukee, in Pensacola, in Cincinnati, and said I want to make this world better, starting here with the people I know in the place I love. Can you help me? 


1:00:18 – Mike Malatesta

Yeah, and who wouldn’t want to be a part of that? Wendy Steel, ceo and founder of Impact 100. I do thank you so much for making time today. I do want to ask you before we go Is there anything that I didn’t ask you, that you’d like to share, that I should have asked you, for example? Or you’d like to share before we go? 


1:00:38 – Wendy Steele

Oh my gosh. No, this has been a fabulous conversation, Mike. I really appreciate it. 


1:00:43 – Mike Malatesta

Oh, my pleasure. Where can people get your book? Where should they go to learn more about you? 


1:00:49 – Wendy Steele

Oh the book is available Every online retailer, so Amazon, barnes, noble you can go to an independent bookseller. They will order it for you. So anywhere books are sold, you can find invitation to Impact. I have a website, wendyhsteelcom. Impact100globalorg is where you’ll find all things Impact 100. So thank you so much. 


1:01:15 – Mike Malatesta

Perfect, thank you. Hey everybody, thanks for listening to this show and before you go, I just have three requests for you. One if you like what I’m doing, please consider subscribing or following the podcast on whatever podcast platform you prefer. If you’re really into it, leave me a review, write something nice about me, give me five stars or whatever you feel is most appropriate. Number two I’ve got a book. It’s called Owner Shift how Getting Selfish Got Me Unstuck. It’s an Amazon bestseller and I’d love for you to read it or listen to it on Audible or wherever else Barnes, noble, amazon you can get it everywhere If you’re looking for inspiration that will help you unlock your greatness and potential. Order or download it today so that you can have your very own copy, and if you get it, please let me know what you think. Number three my newsletter. I do a newsletter every Thursday and I talk about things that are interesting to me and or I give more information about the podcast and the podcast guests that I’ve had and the experiences that I’ve had with them. 

Alexi Cortopassi

Alexi Cortopassi

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