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Member Highlights

“AAWGT has made me appreciate that everyone has a story and a skillset, and all can complement each other, proving that the collective whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”
------- Bronwyn Belling, September 2021

In the Beginning

Bronwyn attended her first membership meeting in 2006 as the organization was just being formed. “I knew a lot about the needs and issues of nonprofits nationwide, but very little about nonprofits in my community. I saw AAWGT as a good way to learn about the emerging and entrenched issues to be addressed through ‘paying it forward’ locally.”

Off and Running

With a background in grant seeking/making, Bronwyn joined the Grants Committee in 2006, helping to design the program and raise $38K for the first grants in 2007. She was Chair in 2007 and 2008 and then assumed the roles of AAWGT Vice President in 2009 and President in 2010.

In 2010, AAWGT received an anonymous gift of $25K to start an endowment fund and matched it with member donations. “It’s been exciting to watch the fund grow, thereby helping to ensure enduring support for our grantmaking mission.”

Continuous Improvement

“Every year we try to improve on each aspect of the work we do. This is good, except that change sometimes is hard,” says Bronwyn. “For example, the quality of the grant proposals has improved over the years due to the training we provide nonprofits each and every year. Adopting new technology has enabled us to make the grant writing and review process more accessible and transparent.”

Bronwyn cites the Racial Equity Study Group as a critically important area of continuous improvement. “I am thrilled with the progress its 50-some members have made personally and organizationally to evolve to be more diverse and focused on the philanthropic inequities that have caused a lot of the problems our funding supports,” says Bronwyn. “It adds another dimension to our work which is important and timely.”

Growing the Organization and Its Resources

“AAWGT’s number one focus is growth. I believe there are still lots of women in our county who would benefit from becoming members of the Giving Circle. The more members we have, the more funds we can give. It’s a win/win situation,” says Bronwyn.

“Looking back, in honor of our 10th anniversary, we created a mechanism whereby members could become 'Lifetime Members’ and pay a lump sum, thereby building a safety net for the organization. In a year when we might have diminished resources, it is possible to request that a slightly larger distribution be made from our endowed funds into the grant fund,” describes Bronwyn.

Promoting a Larger Philanthropic Role in the Community

“Seeded by information provided by AAWGT about nonprofits in the community, many of us make contributions and have served on boards or as volunteers,” says Bronwyn. “AAWGT has lifted us up, educated us, and made us more aware and engaged. That’s something we can’t readily measure, but I think it’s another extraordinary benefit of the organization.”

“And, what I didn’t expect on joining AAWGT was that I would meet so many extraordinary women, who have become my sisters and lifelong friends, stepping up be a village of support in times of need.”

“By supporting and shining a light on organizations that have a positive impact in the community, AAWGT provides a unique opportunity for those who want to make a difference.”

------- Margo Cook, August 2021

Having an Impact

“A lot of us who are philanthropically minded sometimes feel powerless. We see major societal issues and want to be part of the change, but don’t know how or don’t have enough money to make a real impact,” says Margo. “Being a part of a collective giving circle like AAWGT allows your donated money to make a larger impact. And, you can help to identify the most important issues in the County and support organizations that are doing really great work.”

Following a Passion

Encouraged to join AAWGT by Tara Clifford, Margo Cook took a major plunge in doing so five years ago. “The President and CEO of my firm, Jim Brennan, (1 North Wealth Services) encourages all of our team to give back to the community as part of our philanthropic mission. He has fully supported my taking the time to do so as a result,” comments Margo. Margo and her husband Lee have two young children, so time was, and is, in short supply.

“I was able to join committees right away, the first of which was the Grants Committee,” notes Margo. “It’s at the center of what AAWGT does, providing a view of all the fantastic work being done by nonprofit organizations in the community.” She also joined the Membership Committee, because she “fell in love with the people in the group, who are people I want to be like.” Margo also is a part of the small, strong team that secures corporate sponsors.

The Future of AAWGT

“AAWGT has added so much to my life and I look forward to the volunteer work I do. I hope others will join us so we become a mammoth funding group that can help solve big problems in the community,” concludes Margo.

“My membership with AAWGT has re-energized my stewardship passion and truly allowed me to grow as a servant leader.”

------- Michelle Hellstern, May 2021

Off the Ground and Running

Michelle joined AAWGT in April 2019, having been introduced to the organization by Elaine Stanley at a Rotary Club of Annapolis meeting. Michelle is Senior Director of Corporate Compliance at Luminis Health and an Adjunct Professor at Towson University.

“What resonated with me is AAWGT’s mission,” says Michelle. So, her first step was to get involved as a Grants Reviewer to learn about the grants process. “I like looking from a bird’s-eye view, asking questions such as ‘what’s different or changed about this grant proposal from an organization we’ve funded in the past? And, when looking at potential new grantees, which we should definitely do, do all of their “ducks need to be in a row” and “I”s dotted and “T”s crossed?’”

“The grant review process is the most organized, robust process that I’ve ever seen in any organization I’ve been in. I was impressed and intrigued to learn about the county’s applicant organizations and some of the ladies on this committee,” says Michelle. “For anyone joining AAWGT, I’d recommend the Grants Committee.”

Additionally, last February, Michelle joined the Racial Equity Study Group, which she says is “another example of AAWGT’s recognition of opportunities for continuous improvement with forward-thinking ways to provide unconscious bias education for our membership and beyond. It’s such an open group and all opinions are welcome.” “I just love it,” she says.


Michelle cites three hopes for AAWGT’s future:

  • Continuing to encourage new people to join committees, bringing their fresh perspectives and voices
  • Attracting individuals from diverse groups through involvement in different communities and diverse speakers in education and other panels
  • Tailoring communications to young demographics through social media and in-person opportunities, when possible

“AAWGT has enabled me to meet some amazing women trailblazers who have taught me so much,” says Michelle. Because she lost a son last year and has gone through a year of grief and unusual isolation, Michelle hopes to carve out more time to “reconnect with her sisterhood, getting to know each person individually.” She considers all AAWGT members to be her “sisters and part of her extended family.”

“If we use our trusted, respected, and ethical philanthropic power, we can help shape the agenda and use our access and influence to affect priorities in Anne Arundel County.”

------- Tara Balfe Clifford, April 2021

Helping AAWGT Grow

With a deep commitment to, and a career focused on, community development and affordable housing, Tara was active in Baltimore’s Giving Circle. Then Tara joined AAWGT at its founding in 2005. She was part of the team that discussed and drafted guidelines for the first grants in 2007.

In 2007, Tara spearheaded a new committee—Post-Grants Evaluation—and served as its first Chair, with Barbara Hoffstein as Vice Chair. “We established a process to ensure AAWGT/grantee partnership and mutual understanding of the results and impacts to be achieved, with monitoring through regular communication and site visits,” says Tara.

Tara cites and salutes the many accomplishments in AAWGT’s early years, including the design and implementation of the website, and getting the infrastructure up and running for the organization’s operations, communications, membership/grantee database, electronic invoicing, and online applications.

In 2009, Tara received the Founders Award, presented annually to a member for exemplary efforts and results. Also in that year, with Bronwyn Belling, Tara helped establish the Lifetime Member option. She has served on the Leadership Development Committee and currently is in the Racial Equity Study Group.

AAWGT Founder Sharon Stewart notes Tara’s leading role in recruiting the next generation of AAWGT members. “It’s easy and we should all do it,” says Tara, who also mentions the importance of “intergenerational recruiting,” such as inviting one’s mother and daughter(s) to join the organization.

Hopes for the Future

Tara’s “hope list” is a long one, but her top aspiration is for AAWGT to live and embody the title of our March 2021 education offering, Women Fostering Change.

Other hopes include continued work with AAC public schools on financial literacy for all students; nurturing innovation by grantees in incubating new ideas and ways of solving problems; continuation of an intentional journey toward racial equity based on our shared values; and initiation of a conversation about planned giving. “Creating one’s legacy through planned charitable donations provides oxygen for not-for-profit organizations,” concludes Tara.

“I want to congratulate members on the 15th anniversary of AAWGT. You have proven, once again, that when smart women get together, powerful things happen.”

------- Sharon Stewart, February 2021

AAWGT Beginnings

When Sharon moved to Annapolis in late 2004, she was eager to establish a Giving Circle, having participated in one in the Baltimore area. By May of 2005, she received a hosting “go” from Les Salamon, Founder of the Community Foundation of Anne Arundel County, and permission to work with the Foundation’s new Executive Director, Gail Sanders, on recruiting a small group of women who could get a Giving Circle off the ground.

Fifteen women (Founders) participated in a kick-off meeting in September 2005. “We had a specific game plan for what we wanted to accomplish during the first six months, including, among other things, determining organizational structure, focus of contributions, grant-giving criteria and process, educational activities, and impact evaluation,” says Sharon.

“We decided early on that we wanted our grants to support women and families, so we invited speakers from around the county to educate us about key needs of this population,” notes Sharon. The group identified six “big need buckets” and prioritized them via member voting by urgency of need. “Education, health and welfare needs, and violence and abuse emerged as the top issue areas where we thought we could actually do something to help.” 2007 was the first grant-giving year, with nearly $40,000 granted to four organizations.

Achieved primarily by word of mouth, AAWGT’s membership grew rapidly. By June 2006, there were 45 “Founding Members” and by year-end 2006, membership was 72. That doubled by 2008.

Hopes for the Future

“I’m really proud of what AAWGT has accomplished during the past 15 years and of all the amazing leaders who have stepped in and taken it to the next level. I’m especially proud of the group’s response to the Black Lives Matter movement and the fact that AAWGT set up the new Racial Equity Grant category,” comments Sharon.

“I hope AAWGT continues to be a thought leader in the community, taking on important issues. By continuing to partner with other organizations, AAWGT can be even more powerful, working with others to achieve positive change.” Sharon also notes that she hopes to see the AAWGT endowment grow, leaving “a continuing legacy for the community forever.”

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