Pence from heaven

Photo courtesy of Mary’s Pence

In the investment world, “angel investors” are those who provide the first financial backing for entrepreneurs and their fledgling companies. That title seems doubly appropriate for St. Paul-based Mary’s Pence, an organization formed by women of faith to fund women’s economic development projects in North, Central and South America and the Caribbean. 

Unlike traditional investors, Mary’s Pence doesn’t expect a financial return on its investment, but seeks a less tangible benefit instead – a better world for women. 

With a combination of twice-yearly grants and lending pools, Mary’s Pence provides seed money for innovative projects that aim to foster sustainable systemic change for women, whether through new organizations, programs, structures or new ways of thinking. 

Projects have the ultimate goal of social justice through increased economic security and a broader voice for women in their communities – that is, empowerment where there was none. 

They’ve funded projects as varied as a community boarding school for girls in rural Peru, a program for incarcerated women in British Columbia, and a St. Paul project that provides temporary room and board to homeless Latina women and their families. The common denominator: They’re all small, community-led projects that strive to improve women’s status and change systems. 

What distinguishes Mary’s Pence from many nonprofits is that they have faith in the wisdom of local women to create the grassroots projects rather than telling them what to do. Says Mary’s Pence executive director Katherine Wojtan, “We give them a chance to fail, learn and improve.” 

That philosophy leaves the door wide open for creative solutions to the problems of women and their communities. Since its inception in 1987, it has granted over $1,500,000 to 500 projects in 15 countries. 

Powerful motivation

Mary’s Pence was founded in Chicago in 1987, a time when few foundations were paying attention to the needs of women and children. Maureen Gallagher, a Catholic nun, saw the need. She imagined herself before God and asked, “What are you doing to help women?” God’s reply: “What are YOU doing to help women?” 

That’s some serious incentive, so she gathered women leaders from many walks of life to get the ball rolling. Their first attempt to obtain funding from a Catholic organization was turned down – and they later learned that a priest received funding from that group for a similar project. 

That spurred them to create their own funding organization to assist women, Mary’s Pence. The name is a play on Peter’s Pence, the Pope’s annual collection for the poor, which began hundreds of years ago in England – hence, the word “pence.” It also reflects the role of the Marys of the Gospel, the women at the foot of the cross who dared to remain when the other disciples had fled. 

Mary’s Pence isn’t a Catholic organization per se, but it is based on the Catholic teaching that whatever one has in excess should go to the poor. Mary’s Pence, they say, is a way to support all the “Marys” of the world who seek to serve the poor and the oppressed.

A chance to get in the game

Wojtan says that supporting women has a particularly large impact. “When women have income they tend to invest in things that directly benefit their family in a way that men often don’t – in food and shoes for their children, for example.” 

In addition, in almost every part of the world, women earn less and are less economically productive than men. According to the World Bank’s 2012 “World Development Report: Gender Equality and Development,” “Greater gender equality can enhance economic productivity, improve development outcomes for the next generation, and make institutions and policies more representative.” Thus, says Wojtan, “When women succeed, the whole community succeeds, and that can lead to social change.” 

Still, it’s not that easy in cultures where women are not allowed to participate in economic life. So, in addition to twice-yearly grants, Mary’s Pence operates its Economic Systems Providing Equitable Resources for All (ESPERA) Program in Mexico, Central America and Haiti. 

ESPERA funds micro-lending pools for women to start businesses with an eye toward synergy among the new women-owned enterprises, including businesses that grow and sell crops, make and sell food, and make and sell artisan craftwork. 

When a woman starts a business raising chickens, she buys from other local women selling eggs and so on, enhancing solidarity, empowerment and community rather than just individual prosperity. 

Three ESPERA advisors travel to sites to coach and consult the groups. The program currently consists of nine groups of over 900 women in six countries.