By Samantha Miller
Updated November 30, 1998 12:00 PM

Between sips of Seattle-strength Java at Colleen Willoughby’s turn-of-the-century house, nine women are wrestling with a knotty—if enviable—problem: how to give money away. “Do people just give to the groups they know?” asks Sue Bennett, 39, an organizational consultant. Jean Gardner, 60, wife of former Washington governor Booth Gardner, wants to know: “Do you give to an organization that doesn’t ask you?”

Philanthropy should be a piece of angel food cake. But as anyone sifting through a mailbox full of year-end pleas can attest, deciding how much to give and to whom can be daunting. In Washington State many women who want their dollars to make a difference turn to Willoughby, 64, president of the Washington Women’s Foundation, an organization she cofounded three years ago to encourage the fine art of generosity. Learning the ropes at meetings like the coffee-klatch in Willoughby’s home, members pledge $2,000 a year; $1,000 goes to charities of their choice and another $1,000 gets pooled, to be doled out in chunks of up to $100,000 to causes selected by the membership. “Women are really enthusiastic about being able to invest in the community in big ways,” says Willoughby. The elegant grandmother of four had long observed that while women were generous with their time, they tended to be less confident than men about flexing their financial muscle. “Women just haven’t had the practice,” she says.

That’s changing. WWF’s 225 members—who range in age from their 20s to their 80s—have parceled out almost $1 million in three years. Among the recipients: FareStart, a job-training program for the homeless; the Nature Conservancy, to help preserve salmon habitat; and Dr. Jim Olson’s research into pediatric brain tumors at Children’s Hospital and Regional Medical Center in Seattle. Each year, WWF’s various subcommittees weigh dozens of grant proposals before making recommendations to members, who then vote. “Either yours wins, or you’re won over,” explains member Rhoda Altom, 41, a real estate developer. “You can always take your $1,000 and give it to the one you liked best.”

Hours of research and dozens of scouting visits to potential grant winners turn WWFers into donation pros, primed to ask tough questions of potential recipients: Is the staff effective? Does it serve enough people? “We’re trying to educate people so they give not just because someone asked them, but because they can get results,” says Willoughby. Cancer researcher Olson says he was “absolutely amazed” at the preparedness of WWFers who grilled him about his work. Willoughby, he adds, “generates a no-nonsense atmosphere.”

She is particularly proud that her group supports individual initiatives like Olson’s. “Unlike other women’s funds, we don’t just benefit women’s issues and organizations,” she says. “We don’t have any parameters.” But there is one ironclad rule: The WWF empties its coffers every year. “We’re not developing an endowment,” she says. To be able to give away $200,000, “you’d need $4 million, and that would take forever. When women make an investment, I want them to see the results.”

Willoughby’s pragmatism can be traced to her Bellevue, Wash., childhood, when, she says, she learned volunteerism “at my mother’s knee.” Her mother was an avid PTA member; her father, who manufactured water heaters, volunteered with the YMCA. At Washington’s Whitman College, Willoughby met her husband, George, now 65 and a retired broadcasting executive. She taught junior high school for several years until quitting to raise their two children (Scott, now 40, runs a media business; Anne, 38, works in real estate).

As her kids grew up, Willoughby charged into charity work, racking up a résumé with blue-chip organizations. She headed the boards of the Seattle Children’s Home and the local United Way chapter and volunteered with the Seattle Art Museum, Planned Parenthood, Camp Fire Boys and Girls and the Junior League. Watching women make gains in the workplace, she asked herself, “How can I broker the power women have?”

WWF was her answer. Willoughby and four friends rounded up 100 women in two months. Willoughby is “absolutely passionate about the organization,” says Altom. “This is like her third child.” Willoughby’s goal is to attract 500 members so the group can distribute $1 million a year. Just as important, she says, is creating savvy donors who “can go off and do it on their own. We’re developing philanthropists.”

Samantha Miller

Tina Kelley in Seattle