The Almanac – The setup of Jennifer McDowell’s charity is simple:
A yearly $500 membership.
All money goes to childhood hunger.
Despite its simplicity, Giving2Grow has granted more than $100,000 to seven childhood hunger organizations in southwestern Pennsylvania in the past three years.
“This is an issue that’s never going to go away. There’s always going to be a need. There will always be kids who need improved nutrition. Nobody can say, ‘I’m a Republican’ or ‘I’m Catholic, and I don’t believe in that,’” McDowell said. “Who’s going to say no to helping hungry children?”
McDowell, a Mt. Lebanon resident and the president of Giving2Grow, first heard of giving circles – a way of philanthropy that involves a group of people pooling money and deciding together whom to give it to – in 2011. She wanted to join one in the Pittsburgh area, but she couldn’t find any.
So McDowell decided to start her own giving circle with the help of a few friends: Jane Koburger, who has since moved to Florida, along with vice president Lisa Turbeville Markowski, secretary Lea E. Anderson and Joyce Salls.
The women decided on childhood hunger as the cause for the giving circle and spent the next two years planning, talking with childhood hunger organizations and acquiring nonprofit status.
About 30 people showed up to the first meeting in December 2013, and Giving2Grow has expanded since, with more than 80 members this past year.
McDowell believes Giving2Grow has been successful because of its simplicity.
“It’s a concept that’s so clean and transparent,” McDowell said. “There’s no pressure to give more. We don’t have bake sales. We don’t do fundraisers. It’s just a flat-out: you’re in or you’re not.”
Each year, organizations apply for grants through Giving2Grow, and each member has equal say in determining to whom the money goes and how much the organization receives.
After the grant applications arrive, any member can take a site visit to the organizations to see where exactly the grant money would go.
“I would say that transparency is always a good thing,” McDowell said. “Whether it’s government or philanthropy, it’s important to know how your money is being used. Everybody knows. Everybody has a voice.”
Kathleen Amant, a Mt. Lebanon resident who has been a member of Giving2Grow for all three years, said the idea of helping children intrigued her along with the way Giving2Grow operates.
“I like everything about it: a flat fee, everybody has one vote, and anybody can volunteer look at the organizations that are seeking grants,” she said.”
One of Giving2Grow’s beneficiaries each year has been Rainbow Kitchen Kids Café in Homestead.
McDowell said childhood hunger is a problem in that area, and Rainbow Kitchen helps feed the kids nutritious food at an afterschool program. Amant and McDowell took a site visit to Rainbow Kitchen in 2014 and saw the help that Giving2Grow could provide.
“For some of these kids, it’s the main meal they get in the day,” McDowell said. “It’s not (the kids’) fault. Whatever their parents are doing or not doing, or whatever the government’s doing or not doing. These are hungry children, and they are going to grow up to not be as functional adults if they don’t have the proper nutrition and help when they’re little.”
Another organization that Giving2Grow awarded grants to in 2015 and 2016 is the South Hills Interfaith Movement.
SHIM serves more than 1,500 impoverished individuals in the South Hills area, with 35 percent being children under 17.
Giving2Grow’s grant went mostly to build three raised garden beds in the Whitehall Presbyterian Church garden, which Becky Henninger, community gardens manager at SHIM, said serves mostly the refugee community in that area. SHIM has several community gardens across the South Hills, which totaled more than 12 thousand pounds of produce in 2016.
The grant provided the beds, soil, tools and plants for the garden, as well as funding that allows garden lessons for children in the afterschool program.
“We wouldn’t have been able to put the children’s section in had it not been for the Giving2Grow grant,” Henninger said. “We couldn’t have done it without them. Their support was critical to the entire project.”
McDowell credited SHIM as a prime example of the connection Giving2Grow members feel when donating their money.
“That kind of philanthropy, where people can really be involved on a local level, I think is a wonderful thing for a community,” shel said.
Moving forward, McDowell wants Giving2Grow to branch out of the South Hills into the rest of southwestern Pennsylvania.
“The more people we can reach, the more money we can grant out. That’s really the goal,” McDowell said. “But we don’t want to get so big that there isn’t this feeling of, we’re all in this together, because that’s a really strong, powerful feeling.”
As a female-only group, Amant thinks the organization can grow because there’s a gravitational pull that women, specifically mothers, have toward helping children in need.
“Mothers and children, usually they go together,” Amant said. “I think mothers want to help other mothers and make sure all kids can be served in any way possible.”