JUST as banks have been accused of redlining, the philanthropic community has often shied away from supporting grass-roots organizations that deviate from the traditional image of a charity.
A movement that provides funds to groups meeting women's needs is trying to circumvent this conservatism in foundations and corporations. Women of color and low-income women are hardest pressed to raise money. Since 1985 the number of funds providing money to women's groups has almost doubled from 34 to 62.
According to the Foundation Center in New York, only 4.8 percent of charitable contributions in the United States went to women's organizations in 1991. Joan Fawcett, of the National Network of Women's Funds, would like to move that figure to 10 percent by the end of the decade.
For small groups starting up, securing funds can be a chicken-and-egg experience. Foundations and corporations look at an organization's track record and often ask for a list of current donors before considering a grant request. Yet new organizations have limited track records.
In addition, most of the people on the decisionmaking committees at corporations and foundations are men. Issues like child care and violence against women rarely rise to the top of the agenda, Ms. Fawcett says.
Women's funds are trying to fill that gender gap in corporate giving.
"We are able to serve as a bridge" says Hayat Imam, executive director of the Boston Women's Fund. The seed money the fund gives nascent women's groups around the Boston area helps them establish themselves and become attractive to larger donors.
For Megan McCaffrey, the $1,000 grant from the Boston Women's Fund to her Welcome Project in 1989 allowed her "to develop a track record and an ability then to leverage funding from more traditional sources," she says.
Two more small grants from the Boston Women's Fund in 1990 and 1991 put her support group for Haitian and Vietnamese women on a firm footing. Now Ben & Jerry's, the ice-cream maker, has donated $10,000. Shawmut Bank added $2,000.
"The hallmark of our giving is that we give to groups that have the most difficulty getting funding," Ms. Imam says. "In a tiny, tiny way we are balancing out this incredible injustice."
The Boston fund offers a second bridge. Individuals with money and resources who want to reach out to grass-roots efforts by women can funnel their funds through Imam's organization. "We are like a conduit," she says.
And those donations, primarily from women, can vary wildly. Imam recalls the day she received two checks in the mail, one for $8.58 and the other for $20,000 - the largest donation they have received yet. "And believe me both checks were as lovely," she says.
Recognizing the need to improve fund-raising capacity, the Ford Foundation this year gave the National Network of Women's Funds a $240,000 grant. This will be used for fundraising training and technical assistance and a year-round consultant.
By national standards, the sums involved in the women's funding movement are tiny. Last year the 62 funds gave out $5.5 million, compared with $125 billion in nationwide charitable donations.
Those grants supported projects to end violence against women, advocate reproductive choice, equal employment and leadership opportunities for women and girls, among others.
The Boston Women's Fund itself gave $50,000 to local groups in 1991.
This fund, like many local ones trying to stabilize finances, has launched a $2 million endowment drive by the year 2000. They hope some of their grantees will support the drive and help break down traditional donor-recipient barriers.
Parceling out money is only part of the Boston fund's service, which offers technical assistance and acts as an educational resource for donors.
Ironically, women's funds probably received less support than usual this year because donors sent dollars to women's political campaigns.