Jennifer Mills learned that most social causes have a driving force behind them. Her force was her mother.

“I don’t recall there being much discussion about charitable giving or philanthropy. Instead what I heard was being neighborly, thinking about others, lending a hand and giving of oneself,” said Mills, chair of the Women’s Fund of Northern Santa Barbara County. “Those are the words I heard, and more importantly, I was shown from an early age what those phrases meant, and my participation was expected.”

Mills’ mother would visit an elderly neighbor who had no relatives nearby, she took in a troubled youth and reached out to single parents who were recently divorced. She said the Women’s Fund tries to extend the same compassion to women, children and their families.

“I heard how (fellow members) were sharing in the creation of their dream to respond thoughtfully to the most critical needs in our community in a powerful and relevant manner,” Mills said. “It was inspiring.”

The Association for Women in Communications-Santa Barbara recognized the Women’s Fund as the 2011 Nonprofit of the Year during a ceremony Wednesday night at the Canary Hotel.

Cindy Faith Swain, owner of PlanABrand, a full-service branding, marketing and social media company, was named Member of the Year.

In terms of the Women’s Fund, members pay an annual membership fee that goes toward North County nonprofits that help women, children and their families, according to member Judy Markline.

Cindy Faith Swain, left, owner of PlanABrand, was named Member of the Year.

Cindy Faith Swain, left, owner of PlanABrand, was named Member of the Year. (Alex Kacik / Noozhawk photo)

“Why not take the time and money that’s spent putting together elaborate fundraisers and write a single check once a year to put that money where it’s most needed?” she said.

With the support of the Santa Barbara Foundation, the Orfalea Foundations and the Roy and Ida Eagle Foundation, the Women’s Fund has awarded nearly $500,000 to 20 nonprofits over four years.

“Not only does the organization respond to the community’s most urgent needs through substantial grants, but it also educates and inspires women to become leaders in philanthropy,” Markline said.

When Mills attended her first Women’s Fund meeting three years ago, she said it all seemed strangely familiar.

“It was inspiring and thought-provoking,” she said. “It was like going home.”

Noozhawk business writer Alex Kacik can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.