By Paige Atwell
Serving as President of The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee for over twenty-five years, Ellen Lehman knows need when she sees it. In fact, she can still recall the first time she heard the words ‘community foundation.’
After attending Harvard University, economics school, working in New York for four years and later pursuing business school, Ellen decided to move back home to Tennessee. In September of 1991, she found herself serving on the boards of two nonprofit organizations that were “ran by lovely people doing great work.” At the time, endowment funds were a new concept on the horizon. As exciting as it seemed, Ellen quickly saw that while the leadership and good intentions were there, these organizations were not prepared to handle that kind of money.
“I was having lunch with a friend and was complaining about the fact that it wasn’t fair or wise for them to be taking this additional responsibility,” explains Ellen. “She leaned over, wagged her finger in my face and said, ‘You need to start a community foundation.’ I followed her back to her office, and she gave me a bunch of books and I went home and read them. That was about how magical it really was.”
Three years later, after she had spent some substantial time in the nonprofit realm, Ellen quickly realized that while we were in a wealthy, generous community, something was off about the way people were giving.
“I realized there was not a level playing field,” says Ellen. “We don’t love our sons more than our daughters, but the way people were giving, the organizations that served men and boys were bringing in more money and had more programs. It wasn’t intentional, but the playing field wasn’t level.”
So, in 1995, twenty-five women, along with “two enlightened men” founded The Women’s Fund. This organization would ensure that there would always be money to support women and girls amongst the forty counties within The Community Foundation.
Despite naysayers who believed the program was too radical to work in the south, The Women’s Fund managed to gather $4,000 to give for their first round of donations. Split into eight, $500 increments, these gifts went towards programs such as survival and housing initiatives, Girl Scouts, the National Hemophilia Foundation, women empowerment workshops and the American Red Cross.
“We wanted to make sure that we sent the message that this was for women of all walks of life,” said Ellen.
Since that first gift, The Women’s Fund has made grants totaling $1,658,845 to more than 130 nonprofit organizations that assist, promote and address specific needs and the over all wellbeing of women and girls.
If these funds were pertinent in 1995, they have certainly become nothing short of crucial now. A lot of things have changed in the past twenty-five years, and The Women’s Fund is hoping to prepare for the needs that are sure to arise in the future.
“We have found a lot of need. Truly, we have found a lot of things that we could never have imagined,” says Ellen. “Who would ever have thought that Tennessee would become a hub for human sex trafficking? The reality is that we’re never going to fix all these problems, but we just have to keep doing our best.”
The Women’s Fund continues to make it their mission to show people the importance of lending a helping hand. One of their newest initiatives is Girls Give, which will help train the next generation of girls and young women on the importance of participating in philanthropy, because if there is anything her years of experience has taught her, it’s that the greatest thing we can do to make a difference is to give back.
“Whether it’s holding the door open, knitting a cap for a baby in the NICU, sometimes the smallest gifts are really the ones that are the most meaningful,” says Ellen. “It is important for people to realize you don’t have to have a lot of money; you just have to have a big heart. There are no shortage of opportunities to help.”
To learn more about The Community Foundation and The Women’s Fund, visit cgmt.org.