It should come as no surprise to anyone that the sluggish economy has negatively impacted the nonprofit community. Nationally, United Way is struggling to keep its donor base, which has seen a 3 percent drop. But, as Capital Area United Way CEO Karen Profita pointed out, there is one area that’s seen growth — affinity groups. The groups are collaborations of donors with shared interests who are committed to improving the community through giving, advocating or volunteering

That fact and the results of similar councils around the country led to this spring’s formation of CAUW’s Women’s Leadership Council (WLC). While still a work in progress, this area council joins established ones in 120 communities around the nation.

United Ways’ Women’s Leadership Council was founded 10 years ago, based on a local model seeded in Greensboro, N.C., four years prior. In the past decade, the council has raised more than $700 million nationally and has set a target of $1 billion by 2012.

As Director of Major Gifts Melissa Parmalee explained, a recent study by the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University shows women are more likely to give and give at a higher amount across most income levels. “There’s been a whole shift about philanthropy, in general,” added Profita. “Men give transactionally; women invest in a cause and women now have the money to do that.”

Last year, Parmalee and East Baton Rouge Metro Councilwoman Tara Wicker attended the annual luncheon of the United Way for the Greater New Orleans Area’s Women’s Leadership Council. They came back determined to created a local council.

“I was absolutely taken away,” Wicker said of the experience. “The impact nationally these councils have had in the communities where they have them; I said we have to have this here in Baton Rouge. I’m excited about it; it’s going to do phenomenal things for our community.”

Those “things” involve engaging women of different ages, ethnicities, professions and interests to give, advocate and/or volunteer. “It’s one more way for women to reach out and ‘Live United,’” said Parmalee. While WLC members commit to an annual $1,000 donation, they can also invest their time, professional expertise and talent to advance causes they are passionate about.

“We’ve had fun,” continued Profita of the initial get-togethers explaining the council’s mission. “We’ve had a variety of women at these events. The first was primarily real estate, the most recent engineers, and the passion these women had by the end of each meeting, the heavy discussions we were all engaged in. I don’t think they get a chance to hear about our community’s needs and have in-depth discussions on the issues. It’s been real magic.”

That first get-together in mid-May was hosted by local real estate agent Ruthie Golden, who has agreed to serve as the WLC’s giving chairwoman. “She quickly became our cheerleader,” said Parmalee.

“To be an integral part of this newly formed WLC is a dream coming to fruition for me,” said Golden. “The aim is to attend to a broad social issue by using the skills and influence of a focused group of women, women on a mission!? In joining women from all sectors of business and professions, we’ll have the ability to reach the designed goal: to impact our community with a pooled set of creative and financial resources.”

Alice Miller, CFO of Kean Miller, hosted the second informational get-together June 2. “I was curious at first about the idea of the Women Leadership group but I’m truly excited after the first meeting,” she said. “We knew little of each other but the strong desire of giving back to the community joined us instantly. We come?with different backgrounds and expertise but share the same sensitive spirit, a touch of kindness,?the willingness to see through other’s lenses and the urge of doing the right thing and make a difference.”

Capital Area United Way’s WLC can also be tailored however its members desire. “They can break into smaller sub-groups,” said Profita. “There’s room for a lot of different women.”

One way CAUW is gauging interest is by giving the women play money at the get-togethers and asking them to donate to the cause they’re most passionate about from among its main areas of focus: health, education and income levels. Profita explained that where a woman first puts her money is rarely where she leaves it. She might put it all in health but when its explained how educational opportunities can positively impact health issues, moves some money to that effort. Then when educated about poverty’s negative impact on education, once again might shift the make-believe funds in that direction.

“Joining now gives people the opportunity to be in on the ground floor and help shape the council,” added Parmalee. “It’s just one more way women can reach out and ‘Live United.’”

For more information, call the Capital Area United Way, (225) 383-2643.