10 Years of Redefining Philanthropy

Starting in 2013 with a few visionary women who wanted to engage with JMU, Women for Madison 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. Take a glimpse into the past decade and how these women have redefined what philanthropy means at JMU.


Women in University Advancement collaborated on the idea of an all-women’s philanthropy group. They asked: “Is this something JMU women want?”


“Clearly, it is,” said Vanessa Evans-Grevious (’93, ’97M) with a laugh. “But to start, just five or six of us got together for some brainstorming. In one day, we literally framed out what would become WFM from a list of our interests: inspirational conferences, social events, a support network, philanthropy. There was a lot of excitement. The ideas were pouring out.” This visionary group also included first lady Mary Ann Alger, Beth McConnell Bliss (’84), Leslie Gilliam (’82), Judy Strickler (’60) and Kathy Thomas (’78). Evans-Grevious, already serving on the Board of Visitors, volunteered as the first chair for WFM’s EAC.

With an event at Montpelier, the home of James and Dolley Madison, WFM’s Cynthia Cline (’83, ‘20P), now senior director of Strategic Gifts, and Debbi Long (‘04, ’11P) welcomed more pioneering energy from Susan Allen (’10P), Susan Brown (’84), Anne Marie Elles (’91), Donna Fowlkes (’72),
Sallie Funkhouser (’67) and Elizabeth Martin (’85).


Carly Fiorina, CEO and then-JMU Board of Visitors member, spoke to the group about the potential for women in philanthropy, and Mary Ann Alger hosted a circle at Oakview.


At the Opening Doors Rally featuring keynote speaker Pat Southall Smith (’92), WFM EAC member and Centennial Scholar Chiquita King (’09, ’11) issued a call to action: “Which door will you open?”


WFM’s signature En Blanc Dinner, alumni and speakers, plus overnight accommodations in residence halls, marked the first summit. The Spirit of Philanthropy Award was named posthumously for pioneering WFM member and philanthropist Leslie Flanary Gilliam (’82).

Bowers created the Dolley Madison Dukes Pay It Forward endowed scholarship fund by hosting a giving circle in her home. She and her guests contributed $25,000. “As I told my story about creating that scholarship, I think it was a bit of a catalyst,” she said. “Many women told me they liked this targeted, specific approach. There was a palpable buzz about pooling our funds to benefit individual students.”


A Richmond, Virginia, rally featured Centennial Scholars talking about the impact of their JMU scholarships. Their words resonated with Karen Rothenberger (’93). “I’m an educator, and I know how an education can change people’s lives, their family’s lives. There was one Centennial Scholar story told that day that really moved me. I kept thinking, ‘Yes, I want to get behind this,’” she said.


Headlined by top alumni speakers including Jamie Jones-Miller (’99), Jennifer Marshall (’01) and Tina Fox (’94), the “Women Who Amaze” summit drew 130 women to campus for a weekend of activities, including a standing-room-only First Ladies brunch at Oakview with Mary Ann Alger. Angela Russell (’85) said she signed up for everything: “a brunch, a scavenger hunt, a speed dating-style event with mentoring, workshops. I really loved it.” She would soon join WFM’s EAC and is now vice chair.

Kathy Thomas (’78) received the Leslie Flanary Gilliam (’82) Spirit of Philanthropy Award in recognition of her work to launch the Dukes Pay It Forward Scholarship program along with her husband, Mike (’76, ’77M). More than 25 other like-minded donors have created these scholarships. “I can’t pay anyone back, but I can pay it forward,” Kathy said.


Beth Bliss (’84) made the lead gift for the $25,000 WFM EAC challenge that drew 100% council giving. Traditionally, the council leads JMU’s Giving Day advisory board challenges, collectively giving nearly $12,000 annually toward the Giving Day Challenge Fund. With yet another 2020 EAC gift of $24,000 toward the Madison for Keeps emergency-scholarship drive, it was time to scale up women’s giving momentum beyond the council.

Current WFM EAC vice chair Jamie Jones Miller (’99) is called to join the council. “I bleed purple, right? It was an easy ‘yes.’ I’ve been a donor or a volunteer for the institution since the day I left,” she said. “But this is different. This is also about helping women become more comfortable with making financial decisions and with asking their friends to give.”

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, WFM events went virtual, including a series of popular lunchtime webinars that continue today.


Campbell and the EAC started quietly seeking 10 Amethyst Circle founders to contribute $15,000 each in seed money for endowment and scholarships for immediate use. Within eight weeks, more than 40 women stepped forward. There are now 65 founders, surpassing $950,000 in giving.

The virtual “Women Who Amaze” summit shattered attendance records. The event, designed by volunteers, included Stephanie Forbes (’92, ’93M), Mary Margaret Prange (’01), Tiffanie Rosier (’95), and Karen Rothenberger, and was based entirely on input from women in the greater JMU community. “What really stood out to me was that these women were bold,” said Barbara Bouldin (’87, ’20P), who is helping to organize the 2023 summit. “I was honored to come into this collective body of diverse women with a common trait of a love for JMU.”

At the summit, Dawn Smith Barnes (’93) officially announced the launch of the Amethyst Circle and asked for 200 members to join her and the founders to meet the $1 million goal for scholarships.


This fall, Amethyst Circle Scholarships are offered to JMU students for the first time. As of August, 10 were awarded. The Amethyst Circle seeks 62 more women at the $5,000 member level to meet the goal of providing all 25 scholarships.


WFM will celebrate its 10th anniversary at the May 19-20 “Women Who Amaze” summit.

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