by Liz O’Donnell (Boston)
“We want to share our selves, not just our pocketbooks,” says Sandra Poe, partner with Wilmer and Hale, of the women involved with High Water Women. Poe is on the board of directors of this non-profit organization that provides opportunities for women in the financial services sector to support philanthropies.
High Water Women was founded in 2005 by women in the hedge fund industry. They had been involved in a black tie gala fundraising event but found the experience lacking. “Black tie galas are necessary,” says Poe, “but they weren’t satisfying the demand for many women who wanted to get involved.”
“They are mostly one night check writing things,” she says. “We saw a real demand for women in our industry who wanted to feel, touch and help.”
High Water started out as a group for women in hedge funds but quickly expanded to women across the financial sector. “We’ll always write checks,” says Poe, “But we want to mentor, share ourselves, not just our pocketbooks.”
After only four years, the organization has experienced “an explosion of opportunities and organizations” according to Poe. One of her favorite events is the annual backpack drive. The first year the group ran the drive, they distributed 800, brand new and well-stocked backpacks to needy school children. Children in a New Jersey shelter were so pleased with their new school supplies that they slept with them the night they received them.
“When we heard that,” says Poe,”we knew we had to do this again even though we were exhausted from all of that stuffing and organizing.”
This year High Water Women, assembled and delivered 4,984 backpacks loaded with school supplies to homeless or impoverished children who in Manhattan, Harlem, Astoria, Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, Newark, NJ, Providence, RI, Hartford, CT, and Philadelphia, PA.
The other event Poe tries to never miss is Brag Day. This is a program High Water hosts for high school girls from challenging backgrounds. The program is run by Peggy Klaus, author of the book BRAG! The Art of Tooting Your Own Horn Without Blowing It. Klaus coaches Fortune 500 executives on self-presentation and promotion. A number of the women involved in High Water had participated in the training though their professional careers so they asked Klaus to tailor the program for teens.
“It’s an amazing event,” says Poe, “watching these young girls transform from whispering mice to powerful girls.”
Currently, Poe is focused on microfinancing volunteer opportunities and heads High Water Women’s microfinance committee. The organization hosts an annual Casino Night and the proceeds go to three microfinance organizations – ACCION International, Grameen Foundation, and Women for Women International, whose work with poor women spans the globe.
Microfinance involves providing loans to women in developing countries so they can start “micro” businesses. These microloans can cut the costs of raw goods or buying equipment. Microfinanciers focus on women because experience and studies have shown that women use their profits from their businesses to send their children to school, improve the families living conditions, provide their families with healthcare and expand their businesses. Repayment rates are between 95 and 98 percent.
About the volunteer opportunities organized by her organization, Poe says, “It is a powerful experience to go and do something like this with other women in your field. Many women feel privileged and blessed for the careers they have – we might be the first generation to be at that level.”