Last Saturday, during a ceremony at Embassy Suites Riverplace, Frances Ellison, Harriet Goldsmith and Sue Priester — co-founders of Greenville Women Giving — were awarded the Order of the Silver Crescent, one of three prestigious Governor’s Awards that “recognizes those who have made significant contributions to the life and well being of South Carolina and her people.” The award “is the state’s highest civilian award for significant contributions, leadership, volunteerism and lifelong influence within a region or community.”
“We honor you today, because your legacy and footprint in this community is important,” said Maggie Glasgow, co-chair of Greenville Women Giving, at Saturday’s ceremony.
Rep. Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville, who attended the event as Gov. Nikki Haley’s representative, said he had a chance to speak with the governor regarding the women’s accomplishments. Gov. Haley was pleased she could administer the award to the three women prior to her departure as the new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
Gov. Haley, Bannister said, noted that Ellison, Goldsmith and Priester’s work sets an important example for both women and young girls regarding the power and impact of organized action. Bannister read a passage from a letter written by Gov. Haley, which commended the women’s “wonderful inspiration to others [that] will continue to have an impact.”
Ellison, Goldsmith and Priester were “nominated individually for their work as a group,” said Bob Morris, president of the Community Foundation of Greenville. Morris, along with Dick Wilkerson and Minor Shaw, nominated the three women. The award came as a complete surprise to them.
“We knew nothing of the nomination process,” said Ellison.
In 2006, when Goldsmith had a vision of creating a women’s giving network in Greenville, she consulted Morris regarding other women with whom to collaborate. He recommended Ellison and Priester. Though the three women had never worked together previously, they successfully joined forces to establish Greenville Women Giving, which is under the umbrella of the Community Foundation.
Each year, Greenville Women Giving bestows grants to organizations in five categories: arts and culture, education, health, human services and the environment. Members are asked to initially commit to a three-year term, and each member gives $1,000 per year.
In its first year, Greenville Women Giving had 135 members and gave $185,000 to the community. Of that amount, $50,000 was from the Jean Harris Knight Fund, which Morris had pledged to give to the organization if it could recruit 50 members in the first year.
In 2016, Greenville Women Giving celebrated its 10th anniversary and awarded a record sum of $577,250 in grants to 12 organizations, including Greenville Little Theatre, Meyer Center for Special Children, TreesGreenville, YMCA: LiveWell Greenville and the City of Greenville Police Department, among others. In total, the organization has given $4.2 million in grants.
Last year also brought a milestone in membership. “For organizations like ours, 500 seems to be kind of a magic number,” said Priester. “Very few get over that, so we challenged ourselves in our 10th year — let’s see if we can do it. And we did. We got 525. So just the fact that what we’re trying to do resonated with so many women is the biggest accomplishment.”
Morris noted that while Ellison, Goldsmith and Priester have individually “been outstanding in lots of different things,” the amount of growth that Greenville Women Giving has seen in a 10-year period, both in terms of membership and the amount of money given, is “remarkable.”
“It wasn’t a one-time thing,” said Morris, regarding the organization’s work. “It’ll continue. It’s very possible this will be the most significant philanthropic effort in the history of Greenville.”
Asked how receiving the Order of the Silver Crescent will inspire them going forward, Goldsmith said, “We don’t focus on ourselves. We focus on the organization. I think, if anything, it’ll just make us want to do a better job of what it is we’re already doing.”
“These women are so individually accomplished that we could recognize just what they do individually, but they want the membership to be recognized,” said Morris on Saturday.
Priester said a long-term goal for Greenville Women Giving is “to develop and bring on leadership that will keep the organization going actively and strongly.”
“I think a realization that we are coming to is that this organization will probably outlast us, and that’s a different way of thinking about it,” said Ellison. “You’re shoring up a community institution that we hope is going to be here for generations.”
The women also hope to continue to build on the progress of the organization’s education committee, which Priester said is integral in creating “informed philanthropists.”
Every year, there is at least one informational session in each of the five grant-making areas, and they are open to the public. “It gives people who are working on a particular need in the community the opportunity to tell their story to a group of women who are interested,” said Ellison, regarding the importance of the education sessions.
The women credit the organization’s long-term success to job sharing, collaboration and democratic decision-making. They say their involvement in Greenville Women Giving has been among their most meaningful, enjoyable and personally satisfying life experiences.
“If you really care about something a lot, then you love to be around people who also care about it,” said Goldsmith. “And what’s what we’ve assembled — a huge group of women who care about all phases of the community.”