Herding Lionesses: Michigan Women’s Foundation Gathering Power Women, Forming Angel Fund to Invest in Female Entrepreneurs

[Updated and corrected, Aug. 26—see below] Just a few years ago, the Michigan Women’s Foundation was truly your mother’s philanthropic foundation—putting on fund-raising dinners, tapping corporate sponsors like the Big Three automakers, and then giving away small chunks of money to a wide array of charitable groups—totaling some $3.5 million to 420 entities to be pretty exact.

But that was before Carolyn Cassin and her Power of 100 Women movement came to town—or, rather, back to town in Cassin’s case. The Michigan-bred president and CEO of the foundation, returned from executive stints in Arizona and New York, has turned the foundation on its heels, so to speak. She’s reinventing the way the foundation does its job— and in the process, she hopes, showing the way for other non-profits to rethink their models.

Today, the foundation is geared to investing, rather than sprinkling out funds. It plans to make fewer awards, but of greater dollar value. And it plans to provide money to individuals, especially to women entrepreneurs. It’s even putting together a small angel investment fund culled from some of the most powerful and successful women in Michigan. Gone, you might say, are the days only of tea parties and fancy dinners. Enter power breakfasts, due diligence, and term sheets.

Here’s the gist of this unfolding story of innovation. The foundation, which is based in Grosse Points Farm, MI, about 10 miles up Lake St. Clair from downtown Detroit (the area’s zip code 48236 is said to rival 90210 in wealth), was formed back in 1986. Cassin calls it a “traditional, kind of old-school foundation.” It raised money primarily from “the autos” and other big businesses, and then redistributed the funds in chunks of $1,000, $2,500, maybe $10,000, to a variety of do-good groups.

Like many smaller foundations, the MWF was absolutely rocked by the recession, which caused roughly half its funding to dry up. That was basically the situation when Cassin was recruited for the top job in 2008. She was already well known in Michigan non-profit circles, having served for a decade as CEO of what is now called Hospice of Michigan. She had left the state in 1998 to work as COO of VistaCare, a venture-backed, for-profit hospice based in Arizona, and then became CEO of the Jacob Perlow Hospice (now Continuum Hospice Care) in New York. That’s where she was, a national figure in hospice care, when she was approached to run the Michigan Women’s Foundation. Wanting to give back more to the community from which she came, Cassin embraced the opportunity.

MWFlogoIt was immediately clear, says Cassin, that the foundation as it had been conceived was in trouble. “It was hard to figure out what value proposition we brought,” she says. “I had a sense that the old model of running a foundation wasn’t going to work in the new economy that we were trying to create, or we were just going to all die in the old economy here in Michigan.”

Cassin didn’t have the answer herself, so she did what she knew best and took a business approach to her new role. “I went on what I called the listening tour around the state,” she says. “I applied the same model of what I would do had I bought this company.” She talked to people all over Michigan about what frustrated them most about economy and about the business model of philanthropy, trying to get a grasp on how to revitalize the foundation.

One place she turned was the W.K. Kellogg Foundation of Battle Creek, MI. Kellogg gave the Michigan Women’s Foundation a grant that helped Cassin keep things going. But it was really an almost offhand remark by Kellogg VP of programs Anne Mosle that put Cassin on the path to what she thinks is salvation. Mosle challenged Cassin to go out and see if there were women who cared enough about the organization to really step up and help her reinvent it, saying something along the lines of: ‘If there aren’t a hundred women who really care about this, you should really distribute the money and go home.’

That remark stuck with Cassin as she drove back to Detroit. “I know 100 women,” she recalls telling herself. “I can find 100 women.” And that was the birth of an initiative Cassin called … Next Page »

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5 responses to “Herding Lionesses: Michigan Women’s Foundation Gathering Power Women, Forming Angel Fund to Invest in Female Entrepreneurs”

  1. Kudos to Cassin for taking this on. I believe business can be the fastest force for positive environmental, social, political and technical innovation in Michigan. Government, universities and non-profits need business to lead–it is faster, more nimble, and more powerful.

    As such, I’d love to see the angel fund become the central force in the Foundation. Women control 85% of the consumer economy (which is the biggest part of the overall economy). Women should drive what products get made too. That takes entrepreneurs and investors, first and foremost.

    One quibble…a $1,000/year angel investment for three years is way too little a commitment to fund serious businesses. Are we damning the investments to marginal, small ideas? I’d love to see that commitment parallel other angel funds, which would be a multiple of at least 25.

  2. Jules–you are right about small fund investment. It turns out, that was for the Power of Women group members, not the fund. Fund contributors commit to $20,000 per year for five years. I corrected the article to reflect this.

  3. Jules PieriJules Pieri says:

    Ahhh….that makes better sense. I knew this group was too serious and smart to be fooling around with small initiatives!