Members of new charity pool donations to make an impact

East Lyme - It was Lesson No. 45 in Regina Brett's book, "Be the Miracle: 50 Lessons for Making the Impossible Possible," and local real estate agent Deb Fountain couldn't get the idea out of her head.

"She wrote about this group that started in Chicago where 100 women got together who wanted to do more in the community. They were working moms, they were busy, and they couldn't do it on their own. But these 100 women get together quarterly, and they pick a charity, and then they each write a $100 check. There is no networking beforehand. It's low impact. There's no food or decorations at their meetings. No fluff. It's a limited time commitment. But they're making a difference.

"And I really felt called to mimic that," said Fountain, who started Power of Together of Southeastern Connecticut in January.

The local group has 50 members - men and women - and is working toward its goal of 100. Combined, they have donated $13,800 to three organizations and when at peak membership expect to make four $10,000 gifts each year.

Fountain described the no-frills, no-time-to-waste organization as busy people who believe that acting as a group is better than individually donating to charities.

Here's how it works:

The group meets once every three months at 7 p.m. at Niantic Community Church. (The church is not affiliated with Power of Together.) The next meeting is Oct. 15.

At the meeting, which starts promptly, members write the name of potential recipient groups on index cards that go into a basket. At each meeting, three cards are randomly pulled and the person promoting the organization gets up and gives a 5-minute pitch to fund the charity they've recommended.

The 5-minute limit is strictly enforced and at the 4-minute mark a warning is given that time is almost up.

After all the appeals are made, members vote and the winning charity is announced. Every member then writes a check for $100 to the organization; their canceled check proof for tax purposes.

Members commit when they sign up to write the check even when they miss a meeting. Requests to drop out of the group must be made in writing.

To date, New London's Homeless Hospitality Center, A Sacred Place in Old Saybrook, and the East Lyme-based Community Acupuncture for Veterans have been recipients of Power of Together funds.

"It's just unbelievable, so great, the idea of people pooling their money and making a substantial contribution," said Catherine Zall, executive director of the Homeless Hospitality Center.

"It's people who care about the area getting together and making a difference," she said, adding that it's also a good way to expose others to the many needs in the local community.

After visiting Power of Together to report back on how the group's donation would be used, Zall said she "loved the sense of community and energy" at the meeting. After receiving a grant, a representative from the recipient charity is invited to the next meeting and given 5 minutes to say how their organization has spent the donation.

Jay Johnston of Niantic is a member of Power of Together and helps to keep the meetings running smoothly.

"I love this idea," he said. "You can write a check for $50 here or $100 there, and that's what it feels like, the intention is good, but you'd like to do more. With Power of Together, it really feels like we can have a real impact on our community. It's not just a drop in a humongous ocean. And it's so simple and very grassroots and then we get to feel like we are really helping someone in our community."

More members have signed on since the original meeting in January and Fountain said she'd like to grow the membership to 100.

All the charities funded have to be local and once a group gets a donation, they're not funded again. Receiving agencies must also pledge not to solicit additional donations from Power of Together members and to not publicly use anyone's name.

At each meeting now, Fountain said there are more cards with names of suggested charity recipients in the basket and more questions raised during the 5-minute question-and-answer period after each pitch is made.

"The energy level in the room is amazing, because when you put all these people together who are like-minded and want to help the community and do good things, it breeds this great energy," she said.

So far, members hail from East Lyme, Waterford and Norwich, but Fountain said the group is open to anyone who's interested and willing to write a check.

"If we could get to 100 members and make donations of $10,000 - to all of a sudden have that kind of money dropped in the lap could really change an organization," she said.

Johnston said potential members shouldn't be concerned about committing more time to already busy schedules - with just four annual meetings that run less than 60 minutes each.

"We start at 7 and we're out of there at 20 minutes to 8," he said. "Deb - she's got this thing so organized and she's cognizant of people's busy lives. And donating like this -it's just so rewarding."

a.baldelli@theday.com

Twitter: @TheDay_Ann

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