“Low-key, yet high-impact” is an apt description for both the Women’s Fund of Santa Barbara and its founder, Carol Palladini. Formed in 2004 around the idea that rather than spending their energy planning elaborate fundraisers, women could work together and pool their donations to help meet the community’s most critical needs, the group has already given more than $2.5 million to 33 nonprofit agencies in the Santa Barbara area.

Carol Palladini, a founder of the Women's Fund of Santa Barbara, says she's proud of the way the organization has evolved but credits simplicity, flexibility and 400 enthusiastic members for its success.

Carol Palladini, a founder of the Women’s Fund of Santa Barbara, says she’s proud of the way the organization has evolved but credits simplicity, flexibility and 400 enthusiastic members for its success. (Leslie Dinaberg / Noozhawk photo)

Leslie Dinaberg: Tell me about your inspiration for the Women’s Fund?

Carol Palladini: The inspiration was simply reading the Sunday Los Angeles Times back in 2004. I had gotten off all boards, I felt burned out with fundraising and all of the things that go with it, and I read this article about a woman in L.A. who started the Everychild Foundation. She described the same kind of burnout I had and she thought what if a bunch of women got together and wrote big checks and made a big difference, and the article went on to explain all that. There was a Women in Philanthropy Group at the Santa Barbara Foundation that was strictly educational and I said, “Why don’t we ask this woman to come up?”

I remember somebody asked “what’s the downside” in the Q&A after she spoke, and she said, “There is no downside.” Then I was really sold.

So we got together (the founding committee was Palladini, Perri Harcourt, Shirley Ann Hurley, Jean Kaplan, Dale Kern, Joanne Rapp, Elna Scheinfeld, Meredith Scott, Kay Stern, Anne Smith Towbes, Marsha Wayne and Fritzie Yamin) and just started talking about what would a Women’s Fund look like in Santa Barbara.

Being able to partner with the Santa Barbara Foundation, it came together really fast and our goal was to keep it really simple. … Our mission says we have to have at least $50,000 to give away. That was never in question; the first year, $140,000 came in.

LD: Did you decide from the get-go to make multiple grants?

CP: We knew we wanted to narrow it to helping women, children and families. … Membership was $2,500 from every member or group membership, we just thought that we would see. The amount would be different every year. Simplicity and flexibility were the two watchwords. Our ballot has never been exactly the same. … Keeping it simple is a challenge because we have more than 400 members now.

LD: Has it evolved as you expected?

CP: No. I was very naive. I thought that this idea of just collecting all this money every year and giving it away was going to be fairly easy and not complex, and it is complex.

Part of our mission is creating better-informed women in the area of philanthropy and I think we’re doing that, too.

LD: Are you still relying on the Santa Barbara Foundation to help with the research?

CP: Yes. The last few years we have made a donation to the Santa Barbara Foundation to help cover our costs for them; they keep our database. They have a liaison to collective giving groups — there are several now — and she works closely with us. They are a huge help and we love partnering with them.

LD: So the criteria are women, children and families. What were the three priorities for 2009?

CP: They are always pretty broad. Last year they identified three areas of greatest community need: human services, housing and shelter, education and personal development for school-age children.

LD: In the final vote, do all of the categories end up with funding?

CP: No, the women tend to go a certain direction each year. It’s very interesting.

LD: With a little more history, it will be interesting to look at the trends — with federal and state budget cuts and people tightening their belts on donations.

CP: Yes, you can just assume they are all hurting. Anybody who does anything good could use more money to do what they do. It’s really true and things happen in the community, like last year the young man who was killed by a gang member, this year homeless people dying. There are things that capture the local news that really spotlight issues in our community, and I think our women are pretty responsive to that.

LD: What aspect of the Women’s Fund are you most proud of?

CP: The women. I am so impressed with the quality of women who put themselves forward. I’ve been on boards where you have to beg and cajole and really look around to get people to lead your organization. We’ve had fantastic women who just have come forward and said, “I’ll do that.” And a lot of them have business and professional backgrounds that they bring to it.

And I’m so impressed with the number, and this bunch has grown. Somebody told me the other day that 90 percent of the growth is by word of mouth. So I’m impressed with all the women saying, “This is a great thing and I want to tell my friends and I want to bring my friends in.” Part of that is the ability to have these group memberships. That’s something we didn’t know at the beginning is how incredibly popular that would be.

(The groups) also allow us not to lose members when bad times come. If you can’t do the $2,500, you don’t have to go away. You just say, “I need to step down for a while. Put me in a group instead” or “I want to join such and such a group.”

LD: It seems like a surprisingly diverse membership, too.

CP: That’s true. Because you go to various events and various nonprofits and it tends to target a certain age group and it’s just all mixed. We have very elderly ladies and we have young mothers — a lot of that is thanks to Rachael Steidl and SBParent.com. It’s great and it just grows.

LD: There’s something about the simplicity that appeals across the board. Do those involved in the Women’s Fund remain involved with other things?

CP: When we first started some organizations were quite worried that they would actually lose money from women switching over to the Women’s Fund. Not only has that not happened, but women who are used to giving to their favorite charities continue to do so and have added this on. But, also women who weren’t giving very much beyond their school PTA, which I know is important, are starting to give. So I think it’s both: it is creating new philanthropists. … Some women maybe only gave to the arts, and they say I can join this fund and do some social good without having to research it all myself. So it’s really some of everything.

LD: That is a wonderful aspect, too. There’s a lot to learn about nonprofits and it’s intimidating.

CP: Exactly. When we do our site visits once a year to the recipients who have gotten money from us the year before, we not only see how our money is working but newer women learn so much. Even people who have been around a while say, “I had no idea!” I’ve had that experience. I knew about Domestic Violence Solutions but I had no idea how it really operated and that it was really a place. It’s just amazing.

LD: What innovations do you see in the nonprofit community nationally?

CP: It is my fondest hope that giving circles of all sizes and types are not just a trend in our country now, that they are something long lasting because collective giving is so effective. I don’t care how it’s done. I don’t care if it’s a group of friends that gets together once a month and each chips in $50 and they do something good for the community or whether it’s on a really, really large scale. It makes a lot of sense.

LD: What do you do like to do when you’re not volunteering for the Women’s Fund?

CP: I like to be out of my office, away from the computer. I enjoy cooking very much. My husband usually is my helper; he calls himself the sous-chef. … I enjoy long walks and hiking … I do enjoy sewing and just getting away from it all. And reading and music help sustain me.

LD: If you could pick three adjectives to describe yourself, what would they be?

CP: Responsible (laughs), I would say fun loving. I like to do a lot of different things. Oh, caring, deeply caring, overly emotional and caring. Whether it is politics or tragedies or children.

LD: If you could be invisible anywhere, where would you go and what would you do?

CP: I’d probably hang out in the U.S. Congress. I have a lot of trouble understanding those guys.

Vital Stats: Carol Palladini

Born: July 18 in Chicago

Family: Husband Bill, three grown sons and “four and a half” grandchildren (one will be born in Montana in June)

Civic Involvement: Founder, Women’s Fund of Santa Barbara; former board member, Planned Parenthood of Santa Barbara, Ventura and San Luis Obispo Counties and CASA of Santa Barbara County

Professional Accomplishments: Taught junior high and high school social studies and history

Best Book You’ve Read Recently: The Lovely Bones and Eat, Pray, Love

Favorite Local Spot: It would have to be a restaurant. You know where we enjoy going, the Corktree Cellars in Carpinteria. It’s very neighborhoody; you can go have a casual dinner. We’ve really been enjoying that. Great menu.

Little-Known Fact: Growing up I was extremely shy and nervous. I had a very powerful strong mother and other things going on in the household and I was pretty shy. If anyone had told me when I was a child that I would end up a more take-charge kind of person and a more creative kind of person and willing to put myself out there, I would have said you’re not talking about me. I had some good mentors along the way and somehow I found myself. But I’m certainly not the same person I was before I was a young adult.

Noozhawk contributor Leslie Dinaberg, a member of the Women’s Fund of Santa Barbara, can be reached at leslie@lesliedinaberg.com.