Women for Madison marks a decade of redefining philanthropy

JMU News

by Jamie Marsh

(L-R): Alumnae visionaries like Rothenberger, Russell, Bowers and Bouldin empower women’s philanthropy through Women for Madison.

SUMMARY: As Women for Madison marks a decade of helping women engage with the university, the group of 138 Amethyst Circle donors (and growing!) will see major results as 10 first-year students receive $5,000 awards, renewable for all four years of college. 

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One of JMU’s most impactful scholarship efforts — raising $1 million every two years — isn’t tied to an individual donor. That means that Wilma Cairns Bowers (’83) won’t see her name added to a building anytime soon. “That’s OK,” she said. “This group of philanthropists — and we are just that — hopes to produce the same results, in a new way.”

This fall, these philanthropists are celebrating the first 10 scholarships awarded by Women for Madison’s giving society, the Amethyst Circle. As WFM marks a decade of helping women engage with the university, this smaller group of 138 donors (and growing!) will see major results as 10 first-year students receive $5,000 awards, renewable for all four years of college. 

Starting in 2013 with a few visionary women who wanted to engage with JMU, WFM has grown exponentially through word-of-mouth marketing, social media, webinars, wine tastings, regional events and a biannual summit. Over the next decade, inspiration for accelerating women’s giving emanated from WFM executive advisory council members, who invited friends to intimate giving circles in their homes with ambitious fundraising goals. 

At each event, large or small, the group always featured JMU students sharing how scholarships have made the Madison Experience possible for them. This led to WFM’s most audacious initiative, the Amethyst Circle, in 2021. In just two months, members of the giving society raised a half-million dollars for scholarships.

Their incredible efforts were also part of a national cultural shift, according to the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy’s 2018 giving report. Across the U.S., the number of giving circles tripled from 2007-17, and the phenomenon was gender-specific. Surveyed women cited “the ability to leverage their funds” for bigger impact, adding they simply find it more fun. 

“We have so much fun. Everyone knows women draw energy from being together, but this is not just a book club or ladies who lunch,” explained Bowers, past WFM EAC chair. “The participants in the Amethyst Circle are philanthropists at heart. We see a need for scholarships at JMU, and we are willing to help with our time, our energy and our collective financial firepower.” This has meant passionately recounting her college story and then asking her friends to join.

“Hearing those stories, that’s how I got interested,” Karen Rothenberger (’93) recalled. “I didn’t know Wilma in college, but now we’ve met for coffee, gone for walks together, because of Women for Madison.”

Rothenberger has donated to JMU before, but she said this is different: “For many years, my husband [John (’88)] has been super involved with JMU with his specific college. I have loved that for him, and I was a supportive stay-at-home mom. But this opportunity was for me; it’s a way that I want to connect with my alma mater.” 

Rothenberger shared her story at WFM’s 2019 “Women Who Amaze” summit. “I remember we talked about that word — philanthropist — and how very few of us have been labeled as such and directly asked for money. We weren’t necessarily the ‘head of household,’ but we wanted to be asked. We want to change lives, and few things change a life more than getting access to education.”

Friends Angela Russell (’85) and Barbara Bouldin (’87, ’20P) attended that summit together. “It resonated with me that these women who were sharing, they had such powerful, generous hearts,” Russell said. Now she’s vice chair of the WFM EAC and works to spread the word. “I’ve told friends while sipping drinks at a wedding reception. I’ve posted on Facebook,” she said. “My message is this: ‘Hey, there are brilliant young minds who need to be at this school. Even if I can’t be a big donor, I can tell the story and help to open those doors.’ Somebody held that door open for me, and I’m sure not going to let it close on someone else.”

“That’s how Angela explained it to me,” Bouldin remembered. “I had been to the summit, but I wasn’t ready to take on this identity of a philanthropist for myself. Our culture says philanthropists are the people with the really big, big dollars. Only old men, right? But this group is all different people from all different places with an underpinning in the love we have for JMU.” She describes her time on campus, as a student and later a parent, as warm, intimate and life-giving. “My cup is full when I leave JMU. Every single time. My giving back is simply the overflow of that feeling.”


Roni Jennings (’84) also feels grateful — and empowered. As a high school teacher, she is tired of seeing smart, deserving students receive disappointing financial aid packages from colleges. “Families feel totally deflated. For many, college is in no way affordable,” she said. Because WFM’s Amethyst Circle is focused on scholarships, Jennings wanted to invest what she could. “As a teacher, as a mom, as a JMU grad, it was like, ‘Yes, we need to do this.’”

Together, they are. Cannie Campbell (’95, ’20M), WFM executive director, said more scholarships are on the way. “We still need 62 more women to step up and join us, but I fully expect and hope that we will have a huge celebration at our spring summit. Our vision is to announce we’ve reached that first $1 million goal and to see our first 25 recipients lining the stage as we clap — not for us, for them.”

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Look back at an exceptional decade of women redefining philanthropy at JMU.

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Published: Thursday, August 18, 2022

Last Updated: Thursday, January 4, 2024

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