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A Defining Moment: From Ordinary to Extraordinary

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How often do you have an idea or inspiration that lights you up for a moment? How often do you let it go without acting on it? Maybe it seems like too much trouble, or you just think you’re too “ordinary” to actually make a difference.

Rebecca Powers is an example of what can happen when you act on that flash of inspiration. An “ordinary” woman like you or me, she was seized by an idea that she acted on. The result has been an extraordinary impact on hundreds of others and a process of being transformed herself.

It’s unusual that many of us can point to a single moment in time when our lives completely and profoundly changed course. When one moment, we were deep in our routine, happy or unhappy, and on a steady path that seemed unlikely to change, and the next, found ourselves looking at an irrevocably altered life landscape.

No, not many of us can say we’ve had a moment like that. But fifty-four-year-old Rebecca Powers can.

Five years ago, Rebecca was on a plane, at 30,000 feet, returning from what turned out to be her last visit with a brother who was dying from colon cancer. As you might imagine, she was deeply saddened and distressed at the prospect of losing him. In an effort to distract herself, she picked up a People magazine and began reading about a woman in Cincinnati, Wendy Steele, who had started a non-profit organization with an interesting twist.

And that was that. In the few moments it took her to read that article, Rebecca likes to say her life plan went by the wayside and her destiny took over.

She got home and informed her somewhat dubious husband that she was going to start a non-profit based on what she had read. He can perhaps be forgiven for his skepticism since truthfully, Rebecca hadn’t the first clue where to even begin as she had never started anything before. Well, except for the Bible study group she and a friend organized in 1999 that began with ten members and continues to meet today with its now fifty or sixty members.

Hmm. Perhaps that should have been an early indication of things to come.

The result of the defining moment on that plane is an organization Rebecca founded in Austin, Texas called Impact Austin. Its premise is as simple as its impact is remarkable: That a diverse group of ordinary women, pooling their individual annual donations of $1000, can make an extraordinary impact by raising enough money to award $100,000 grants to worthy non-profits.

Five years into it, Impact Austin has 510 members. That means five $100,000 awards to deserving non-profits. Anyone familiar with these organizations and their ongoing need for funding knows that is significant. And, it has come this far because one woman had a hole in her heart where a brother had been, got an inspiration and instead of letting it fade away quietly as so often is the case, she let it move her to action.

So, if she had no idea where to start, how did this all come about?

Of course, it began modestly. Rebecca recalls, “When I got off that plane, I just knew what I was going to do. It took over every thought of mine. And it simply never occurred to me I couldn’t do it. I just thought, what was the worst that could happen?” She knew she was smart and educated, and that she could write a $1000 check. She was certain there had to be plenty of women out there like her. She understood well that the power of the idea was in women pooling their resources.

Now, Rebecca is not someone who had spent years in the Junior League running large fundraising events or sitting on boards or raising money. She didn’t have an extensive “power” network; she knew PTA moms and people in her church. She had had a successful career in sales with IBM years earlier, but as an individual contributor rather than in any leadership or management capacity.

The point is, Rebecca is like many of us out there.

She took a deep breath and started by running the idea by a few trusted friends who agreed that it was doable. And strongly motivated to create a credible and lasting organization, before leaping they did a lot of research and worked out a business plan. They wanted to be able to effectively answer the inevitable question they knew would be asked: will Impact Austin be here ten years from now?

Once the plan was in place, they set a goal of counting one hundred women as members in the first year. With thirty-four members in October of 2003, Rebecca could tell that some of the people they talked to and the organizations they approached to submit grant requests were doubtful they could have one hundred women by year’s end.

She and her friends began organizing wine and breakfast get-togethers for friends where they pitched the Impact Austin idea. In that way, they added members little by little until they reached their goal … and earned the lasting respect of those who had been skeptical. They then set out to reach their goal of having all five of their areas funded, which happened in 2008.

Rebecca believes profoundly that because she had no doubts she could do this thing, the Universe conspired to see that it was done. We talked about it being something bigger than her alone, which gave it extra energy. She is bemused by that extra “something” and by what she calls all the unintended consequences that have come from her endeavor.

You see, there is no paid staff at IA to do the work of soliciting and analyzing grant applications. Each IA member can be as involved or uninvolved as she likes, but it is those who want to play an active role who actually do the work of determining which applicants will receive the sizeable grants.

The result is that IA has created informed and educated philanthropists who, for the many who choose to be hands on and active, also develop leadership skills. And IA doesn’t just hand over the money to the winning organizations; they function as true partners to them. That means the members roll up their sleeves and help the recipients in whatever other ways are necessary to ensure they are successful in their mission.

IA even provides non-monetary assistance to those who don’t win the grants. Rebecca takes it as a very serious mission to match IA members willing to give their time and talent to worthwhile organizations who may not be quite ready yet for an IA grant.

This “transformational giving,” as she calls it, has had its effect on her as well. Rebecca expresses heartfelt gratitude for the growth of her own leadership skills. At fifty-four, she says, “I’m still learning. I’m being challenged, refined as I learn to lead. Sales is one thing I’m good at, but that is definitely not the same as leading a board. I’ve had to learn to lead from a position of power and influence, not force, and I’ve had to get comfortable with not managing the outcomes.” That last no doubt, is part of the serendipity of the unintended consequences of it all.

She reflects on how that has affected her relationships with husband and children as well. Rebecca acknowledges the many ways her husband, a very practical man who retired shortly after she conceived her idea, stepped up to take over the household daily operations in support of her efforts. Even though he wasn’t sure about it in the beginning, he never begrudged her pursuing this passion.

What’s ahead for Impact Austin and Rebecca?

She realizes that she is more of a visionary and start up person than a maintainer. So, she has been attentive to ensuring a succession plan. She chuckles in bemusement as she says, “I just know this isn’t the last thing for me, it is preparing me for the next thing. I have never had that conviction before; I’m in a different realm than I’ve ever been.” At fifty-four, she knows there is more awaiting her.

Who does she think will succeed her? She doesn’t yet know, but wonders if it might be an IA member who simply hasn’t yet appeared in that aspect.

Rebecca notes that women in other parts of the country are now in varying stages of starting similar organizations and come to IA for guidance. The transformational experience it has turned out to be for her and for IA members is clearly something she prizes. As is often the case, it seems the givers are transformed more profoundly than the recipients are.

From ordinary, to extraordinary.


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