Group helps women join forces to fund worthy projects

The team

Members of the 100 Strong Billings “vision team” are, left to right, Karen Grosz, Julie Koerber, Stella Fong, Haley Vannatta, Julie Seedhouse and Jessica Baldwin.

For years, Haley Vannatta wanted to start some kind of philanthropic or charitable program she could sponsor as the publisher of Yellowstone Valley Woman magazine.

She talked about different ideas with Julie Koerber, editor of the magazine, and with her husband and business partner, Jeremy Vannatta, “but nothing ever seemed to fit,” she said.

Then, about three years ago, Jeremy came home from a visit to the West Coast and told her about something he’d seen in Portland. It was called 100 Strong, an organization that harnessed the power of numbers by bringing together 100 women who would make a $100 donation every three months, and then meet quarterly to decide which nonprofit group’s capital project would receive funding that quarter.

The idea sounded promising, but for various reasons Vannatta took no action to pursue the concept for a couple of years. She decided it was time to get moving about a year ago, when she realized that the October 2017 issue of YVW would be her 100th.

She decided to organize a local version of the concept — 100 Strong Billings — and to officially launch it this month. That day is almost here. The official kick-off for 100 Strong Billings is set for Tuesday at 5:15 p.m. at the Petroleum Club, on the 22nd floor of the DoubleTree Hotel,  27 N. 27th St.

“It’s kind of sweeping the nation,” Vannatta said of the 100 Strong idea. “It’s a pretty big trend.”

And apparently it’s an idea a lot of women in Billings are interested in. An article in the August issue of YVW announced the founding of 100 Strong Billings, and soon after that the organizers started a Facebook page. They already have 50 signed-on members, 150 women who said on Facebook that they plan to attend the Tuesday launch and another 300 who say they’re interested.

“It’s great,” Vannatta said. “I don’t know that I go anywhere that I don’t hear people about talking this, or asking me questions about it.” Koerber, for her part, said they “have been completely blown away” by the response.

Vannatta organized the group by bringing together a “vision team,” starting with Julie Seedhouse, a real estate agent who was formerly a teacher and then the director of alumni relations for Montana State University Billings. Seedhouse and freelance writer Stella Fong are the team’s philanthropic and business networkers.

Koerber helps with communications; Jessica Baldwin, of, is the team’s technical expert; and Karen Grosz, the owner of Canvas Creek Teambuilding, serves as the team’s “dreamer.” Vannatta is the “marketing guru.”

100 Strong Billings will not be limited to 100 women, Vannatta said, but to as many as want to join. But each will be asked to make a $100 quarterly payment — or a $400 annual payment — and then to attend quarterly meetings to pick recipients of the group’s grants.

Any organization can apply for a grant if it meets the requirements: it must be a registered nonprofit whose mission is primarily to serve women and children, and it must use the money for a specific capital project — a new building, a new bus, a playground, etc. — and not for rent, payroll or other continuing expenses.

Even if there were only 100 members donating $100 a quarter, Vannatta said, it probably would not be realistic to expect that there would be one Billings nonprofit every three months with a $10,000 project ready to go. That’s why 100 Strong Billings might find itself offering two or three grants some quarters, she said.

And because unused funds will go back into the kitty, it is conceivable that the group could on occasion make donations of considerably more than $10,000.

The “vision team” will review all applications and choose the top three “that most fit the mission” of 100 Strong Billings, Vannatta said. Members will then be invited to a quarterly meeting at which they will vote on which project or projects is to receive that quarter’s grant money.

For now, Vannatta said, 100 Strong Billings is open only to individual women. But because various businesses have asked about how they can help, Vannatta said they might take business donations and use that money to organize events like the quarterly meetings, which would help the group meet its goal of giving 100 percent of member donations to qualifying nonprofits.

The group has not previously been able to accept memberships, Vannatta said, but it is now partnering with the Montana Community Foundation, a nonprofit that can accept funds, act as a trustee and disperse grants to qualifying organizations.

People who want to join 100 Strong Billings can sign up at the Tuesday launch or do so online.

Vannatta said the best thing about the 100 Strong concept is that it gives women of relatively modest means a chance to be part of something that funds important community projects. Few women can go to a charity ball and write a check for $10,000, she said.

But a lot of women can join forces and donate $100 every three months.

“They can be part of something much bigger,” she said.

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