Women’s History Month Calls to Mind WGA’s Founders

Front row (left to right): Helen Lane, Doris Carson, Delores Barr Weaver; Back row (left to right): Courtenay Wilson, Ann Baker

It is Women’s History Month. What better time to re-visit the history of WGA through the eyes of someone who was there at the beginning, Courtenay Wilson. She is one of five amazing women who founded the Women’s Giving Alliance.

“The five of us were the only female trustees of The Community Foundation at that time,” Courtenay says. (The others were Helen Lane, Delores Barr Weaver, the late Doris Carson and the late Ann Baker.)

The Community Foundation was making a concerted effort to become more well-known in the community, so some cocktail parties were planned. “Most of the attendees were men and their spouses,” Courtenay remembers. “We decided to organize a series of luncheons, just for women.”

That’s when things really started to happen. “All of us loved talking about our personal goals, our own philanthropy, issues we cared about,” she says.

The next part has become a bit of WGA “folklore.” Courtenay was looking through a copy of People Magazine on airplane trip when she noticed an article about Colleen Willoughby, organizer of the Washington Women’s Foundation in Seattle. It was one of the very first organizations of its kind in the United States (Melinda Gates was a member) and would soon become the standard for women’s giving circles. Courtenay decided she had to talk to Colleen Willoughby, so she reached out to her by phone.

As they say, the rest is WGA history. “We modeled our new organization largely after the Washington foundation,” Courtenay says. “We decided early on that our focus would be on women and girls, and that our primary purpose would be awarding grants,” a focus which, of course, has continued now 20 years later.

Founders of the fledgling giving alliance hoped for 100 members from the Jacksonville community that first year. They got over 160. “We knew we were doing something right,” she says.

“We realized almost immediately that we couldn’t really address issues of women and girls if we didn’t know their status in our community, and programs serving them. So, we commissioned a study on the status of women and girls, in partnership with UNF.” The study was chaired by Sandy Cook, who went on to become WGA’s second president (after Courtney served as president the first three years).  That first study shows that from the beginning, WGA was committed to continual learning. Education remains an important component of WGA today.

Because they were steeped in the culture of The Community Foundation, the founders created an endowment to supplement WGA’s grant pool. “Not many women’s giving circles had endowments then,” Courtenay says, “But it was important to us.” (Today the endowment has over $4 million.)

Courtenay has always been a full-time community volunteer, with particular interest in women, the environment and the arts. The Women’s Giving Alliance has a special place in her heart. “It’s great to see so many different people involved, all ages and all segments of the community.”

“I’ve done a lot of things,” she says.” The Women’s Giving Alliance is one of my proudest accomplishments.” This month, as we read and hear about the many women who have impacted our nation’s history, we can be especially grateful for the five founders who acted on their vision and created WGA.