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Group of female philanthropists focuses on helping women in poverty

Women Gaining Ground 2013 Co-Chairs Francesca Shaw, Senior Vice-President, TD Bank Group, left, and Godyne Sibay, Partner, McCarthy Tétrault LLP

Handout/United Way

Francesca Shaw doesn't need National Volunteer Week, which is just wrapping up, to remind her of the importance of giving back to her community.

The TD Bank executive believes everyone should have the same basic opportunities to grow and thrive in society and has been volunteering her financial expertise to the United Way for over thirty years. She's also co-chair of Women Gaining Ground (WGG), a group of over one hundred female philanthropists working to improve the lives of disadvantaged women in Toronto. The group raises money through its membership fee and directs it to United Way programs that address women in poverty.

Ms. Shaw says the main focus of WGG isn't about women helping women, it's about addressing a hole in the social safety net that women are falling through. Ms. Shaw says the majority of women in poverty are trying to raise families and they face greater challenges than people in similar situations who don't have dependents.

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"We've gained an appreciation for what is it women need compared to their male counterparts," says Ms. Shaw.

It's not as easy for women supporting families to put everything on hold and pick up a short-term employment opportunity if they have to organize things like daycare, she explains.

WGG was born seven years ago after a report by the United Way highlighted the growing increase of families living in poverty in Toronto. A small group of affluent women were moved by the data and decided they could do more for women in their community.

Ms. Shaw, who has co-chaired WGG for two years, says the group reaches out to women who can't get into the workplace let alone build a career, and that's something that resonates with many of its members. Most of the women involved with WGG at its inception were professionals from the finance, banking or legal sectors and some had to fight their own battles against glass ceilings and other career barriers. For women in poverty, the need is much more basic and Ms. Shaw believes you have to give support to people in order for them to have an equal chance.

"We need to reach out and give them an opportunity to grab the corporate ladder," she says.

One of the programs WGG supports trains recent immigrants with English skills to become translators. Ms. Shaw says this weeks-long program has a very quick impact.

"It makes a world of difference to a family that arrives with nothing, to get them up and running."

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Another program, Homeward Bound, is a longer-term investment offering training and support to help women gain financial independence. Ms. Shaw says WGG is excited about something called the ultimate engagement: bringing the program full-circle and finding these women employment – sometimes in their own workplaces.

"We mentor and hire people all the time," Ms. Shaw says about the members of WGG. "It's taking what we do every day and applying it to a group we have a special interest in helping."

Ms. Shaw says WGG has had more and more women stepping forward to become workplace mentors and some members provide training programs for Homeward Bound.

For 53-year-old Shaw, volunteering has always been a no-brainer.

"I truly believe we all own our community," she says and is hoping a similar desire will engage more young women in the city. Although WGG, with its hefty membership fee of $5,000 and up (that goes towards the programs it supports), has traditionally attracted older professionals, Shaw says they are widening their reach and trying to attract younger women.

"If you get engaged, you stay engaged," she says. She says younger women might not be able to give as much financially or time-wise, but they can become more involved as they grow in their careers or have more time.

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WGG gives women the opportunity to be more directly connected with where their dollars are going. Ms. Shaw points out that strategic philanthropy has typically been executed by men in society, with women not typically involved as board members or with writing the big cheques. WGG provides the opportunity for women to take the reins and be more engaged in philanthropy.

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