Clare Blankemeyer: Harnessing collective power to make good ideas happen

Editor’s Note: It came as a surprise earlier this year when we learned that nonprofits are increasingly experiencing difficulties attracting volunteers. And we were even more shocked that Cincinnati, long a beacon of generosity, trails similar markets in this regard. Our August issue profiles four people working at this problem from complementary perspectives. 

“Cincinnati is a very generous community,” said Clare Blankemeyer. She knows this firsthand, both as vice president for strategic initiatives at the Mayerson Foundation and as president of Impact 100 Cincinnati.

“But it’s different from the way it used to be,” she said. She’s not knocking the state of Greater Cincinnati philanthropy, mind you. It’s just that the nature of giving has changed. Ever so gradually, the torch of philanthropy is being passed from an older generation to a younger one. And these younger givers look at the world differently than their parents and grandparents did. That’s no surprise.

Clare Blankemeyer

They are giving back. But it’s clear that the days of the huge-money donors who stepped in and saved the day are largely past. We’re not yet seeing the emergence of the Louise Nipperts or the Corbetts or Mary Emerys.

“Finding a philanthropist like that is like finding a unicorn,” said Blankemeyer.

“Clare is a gem,” said Donna Mayerson, a trustee of the Mayerson Foundation. “She is such a good soul.”

She can’t say enough good things about Blankemeyer, rattling off descriptions like “broad vision of the world” and “authentic” and “creative.”

“What sets her apart from so many people, though, is that she sincerely cares to listen to people across the table from her,” said Mayerson. “And she listens well.”

It’s that quality, perhaps, that made her such a perfect fit to take over the leadership of Impact 100 from founder Wendy Steele in 2011.

The concept behind Impact 100 is this: Lots of people want to do good in the world. But not all of those people have the means to make good ideas happen.

What if you could find a way to channel that willingness to do good without imposing a harsh economic burden? What if, instead of tapping one person able to contribute $100,000, you could find 100 people who could give $1,000 each? By pooling those relatively modest contributions, the 100 members – thus the Impact 100 name – could have an impact far beyond their individual means.

And so it was born. The formula proved so successful that the goal of finding 100 members was quickly surpassed. Today, more than 10,000 women are involved with Impact 100. Not all are active members. They may give one year, then step aside a year or two to focus on professional or personal issues. Some members are young, not yet out of their teens, while others are in their 70s or 80s. And, in a demographic spread any nonprofit would envy, members call more than 80 ZIP codes home.

At the end of the cycle, they entertain proposals from a variety of nonprofits. And, after a particularly in-depth vetting process, the entire membership votes on who the group will fund.

This year, the group will award four grants of $109,000, bringing the total since its founding to more than $5 million.

Now, more than 60 Impact 100 chapters exist all around the globe. And there is even a Young Philanthropists scholarship program.

“It is the power of the collective,” said Blankemeyer. “Collective” is a word that pops up regularly when you speak with Blankemeyer. The first time you hear her say it, it’s a little jarring. In the high-flying, high-tech 21st century, the word has such an odd ’60s ring. You know – maybe it’s a half-step away from a commune.

But Blankemeyer’s fervor, her belief in the power of people working together, is palpable. When she says “collective,” she means it in the most elemental sense. To her, “collective” is all about “collective power.”

Rather than try to reinvent philanthropy, Blankemeyer just gives it a nudge down an evolutionary path. The idea of harnessing the economic power of the many is not new. ArtsWave does it. So does United Way. But what sets Impact 100 apart is that the membership – the people who actually contribute money to the pool – decide how the money is spent. It’s a powerful concept.

After graduating from Roger Bacon High School, Blankemeyer went to the University of Dayton to study mechanical engineering. She has been immersed in volunteerism since childhood, so she quickly got involved with a program at the Montgomery County Jail helping prisoners prepare for high school equivalency testing.

“What can I say? I was a nerd with a really big heart,” she said.

Before long, mechanical engineering went by the wayside as she turned to psychology and social work. That led to a job as a fundraiser for United Way when she returned to Cincinnati. She was good at it. But ultimately, it wasn’t satisfying.

In short order, she was led to the more progressive philosophies of the Mayerson Foundation and, ultimately, to Impact 100.

“What I had seen was that the audience we had been dealing with was getting older and older,” said Blankemeyer. “We couldn’t change that, so we needed to think broader and broader. Everyone should be at the table.”

That’s when Impact 100 expanded its reach, by age, and by location and other demographics. Today, it’s an organization that looks much like the community it serves.

“Besides the mission, the reason I have stayed engaged as a board member is because of Clare’s leadership,” said Kristen Wevers, senior vice president, chief marketing and communications officer at UC Health. “She is a kindly, courageous leader. And, I’m sure you’ve heard her say it, she believes deeply in the power of the collective. We can do so much more together.”

Just as powerful, said Wevers, is Blankemeyer’s ability to build consensus among people from wildly diverse backgrounds and beliefs.

“There are times that we’re talking about something that may be divisive or difficult,” said Wevers. “It’s hard for people to understand how diverse the women are in our group. Some may have professional jobs, while others may be full-time mothers. You just can’t make assumptions. But Clare has fostered an atmosphere where we are all comfortable asking questions. And listening. And finding ways to make decisions together.”

Blankemeyer is flattered by the kind words. But more than personal glory, she sees them as an affirmation that the collective approach is working.

“It’s very simple, really,” said Blankemeyer. “We believe most people have a desire to help others. So we have created a place where anyone has an opportunity to become a philanthropist.”

For other perspectives on this issue, read about Doug Bolton of Cincinnati Cares, Craig Young of Inspiring Service (Cincinnati Care’s parent organization) and Kelly Collison of Magnified Giving.

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