Updated: Mar 22, 2022
An inside look at the Vermont Women’s Fund’s empowering programs and initiatives
Ever since the Vermont Women’s Fund (VWF) was first established in 1994, it has served as a critical resource for Vermont’s women and girls. VWF operates as a component fund of the Vermont Community Foundation. As the first philanthropic fund in the state dedicated exclusively to women’s issues, VWF has effected positive change in the lives of countless female Vermonters through a series of targeted grants and statewide strategic partnerships. VWF provides funding for a number of programs that offer crucial opportunities for women living in the Green Mountain State and empowers women to make a difference in their communities through charitable giving. Over the past several years, VWF has partnered with several other nonprofit organizations to create innovative new programs that advocate for the interests of Vermont’s female residents. By doing so, they have played a pivotal role in increasing statewide awareness about the continuing fight for gender equity.
According to VWF’s Director Meg Smith, VWF was founded at a time when a number of other women’s funds were being formed across the country. “Women realized that they weren’t getting the funding to provide the necessary range of services and programs for women and girls from public policymakers or the private and nonprofit sectors. When VWF was founded, the original founders didn’t just want to raise money – they also wanted to raise awareness about female financial empowerment. They understood that in order to properly address the issues that were affecting female Vermonters, they had to encourage women to play an active part in the fundraising process. There was tremendous excitement around VWF in its early years, because that type of female-funded philanthropy had never been done before here in Vermont.”
Smith says that as VWF has continued to expand and grow its endowment, it has donated funds to an ever-increasing assortment of nonprofit organizations, programs, and incentives. VWF has been a longtime funder of a Burlington-based nonprofit called Vermont Works for Women (VWW). VWW offers a number of programs that teach women technical skills, such as auto mechanics, welding, construction, and plumbing, among others. The funds that VWF donated to VWW played a significant part in the early development of their Rosie’s Girls program, which teaches young women skills in traditionally male-dominated job sectors.
Smith adds that VWF has also donated significant funds to Capstone Community Action, a Central Vermont-based program that provides a number of community-based economic development, education, childcare, and family support services. “One of Capstone’s programs helps young female parents work towards their high school diplomas. They have a Head Start childhood education program right in the same building as their classrooms. A lot of people don’t understand that female Vermonters face very different obstacles than their male counterparts, many of which hinder their path towards economic self-sufficiency. We want to fund organizations that help women from all different backgrounds achieve sustainable success.”
To that end, VWF has provided funding for a St. Johnsbury-based organization called Umbrella, which offers services for women who are survivors of domestic violence. VWF has also funded the Family Place Parent Child Center in Norwich, which works with families and young children who are economically disadvantaged. In addition, VWF has recently expanded its programs that aim to empower female members of the BIPOC community, such as SUSU CommUNITY farm in Brattleboro. “The SUSU CommUNITY farm is an Afro-Indigenous farm and community healing center in Brattleboro that provides a safe space for female BIPOC and indigenous women. They offer wonderful programs that nurture their communities and also work towards health equity by providing nutritious food through their farm programs.”
Smith says that one of the biggest issues currently affecting female Vermonters is access to affordable childcare. “The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that it is impossible for parents to work without a good, strong statewide childcare system.” In order to address this, VWF has
partnered with Let’s Grow Kids, a statewide organization that advocates for a bolstered statewide childcare system. “One current problem with the childcare system is that early care providers are typically paid a very poor wage. Given that a large number of them are women, we want to partner with organizations that can advocate for wage increases. It’s important to address the issue on both sides: childcare has to be affordable for women to be able to work and provide for their families, and the workers who take care of their children have to be fairly compensated, as well.”
In line with that philosophy of fair and equitable compensation, VWF partnered with VWW and the Vermont Commission on Women (VCW) several years ago to create the Change The Story initiative (CTS). Working together, the three organizations collected data about women’s work, wages, business ownership, and presence in political, civic, educational, and corporate leadership positions. After compiling the data, CTS created informative and accessible reports that shed light on the lingering issues that Vermont’s working women face.
"When we launched the Change The Story initiative, the goal was to collect the necessary data and use our respective platforms to spread awareness about the wage gap and gender equity issues. If you don’t have the data, you can’t spread awareness about the work that still needs to be done to resolve them. Now that we have the data presented to the public, we are able to more effectively direct our funds towards programs that work towards solving these problems.”
Smith explains that each organization involved in CTS plays a vital part in helping Vermont’s working women achieve success. VCW works directly with legislators in Montpelier to advocate for policy change, VWW is a service provider that works directly with female Vermonters to teach them valuable trade skills, and VWF works directly with organizations all across the state to fund and design programs that can make a profound difference in addressing the root causes of gender injustice in the State of Vermont.
Building on the success of CTS, VWF is piloting a brand-new initiative called, “This Way UP”, which identifies and tracks the number of women-owned businesses in Vermont. Smith elaborates: “Before we started the This Way UP initiative, no one compiled data about female business ownership in Vermont. When CTS did a preliminary report on women-owned businesses in 2017, they couldn’t find any data other than census data. Female business owners make up a significant percentage of Vermont’s business economy, and they face very different challenges than male business owners. We wanted to get a better understanding of the issues at hand, so we opted to compile new data ourselves.”
After VWF made the decision to launch the This Way UP initiative, Smith hired Louisa Schibli, co-founder of Milk Money Vermont (a statewide equity crowdfunding platform) to help with the project. She also enlisted Marguerite Dibble, owner of the game-based educational and research company GameTheory. Working together, Smith, Dibble and Schibli designed a website where female business owners could take a brief online survey that measured their impact on Vermont’s business economy. “In order to accomplish this, we reached out to over 50 organizations, including the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, technical assistance providers, and independent business organizations. We want to empower women to play a part in spreading awareness about female entrepreneurship in the State of Vermont and shed light on a formerly-overlooked economic sector. The most exciting thing about the project is that women business owners are able to see their impact through an interactive data map and real-time constantly-updating infographics. Once we compile the data, we can find new opportunities to fund projects such as mentorship networks for working women and targeted technical assistance programs. Financial institutions across the state are very interested in helping female entrepreneurs. It’s an incredible step forward for Vermont’s women, and it’s also a fantastic step forward for Vermont’s economic development.”
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