When Barbara Najmy founded The Lake Club Women’s Giving Circle in 2014, the neighborhood had all of 20 homes. Nine years later, there’s no easy way to determine the number of rooftops in what is regarded as Lakewood Ranch’s most upscale enclave. But TLC Women’s’ Giving Circle has hard numbers: Its initial roster of 10 has mushroomed to 121.
That’s robust growth by any standard.
Despite being based in an exceptionally affluent community, the group’s membership has not blossomed because it offers the glitz and glamor of galas, auctions and ball gowns. Quite the contrary. “It’s nice to get dressed up and go to a fancy event once in a while,” says Jennifer Alokeh, vice-chair. “But our membership much prefers being hands-on. I’d rather volunteer my time doing work than being on a committee picking out a DJ and food for a gala.”
For TLC Women’s Giving Circle, that means heading to a warehouse and packing 775 grocery bags for Feeding Empty Little Tummies. It means putting stickers on books for a reading day event presented by Embracing Our Differences. It means collecting 438 pairs of sneakers and lots of socks for The Twig. These and other nonprofits have benefited more from the toil of these women than their money. To be clear, not all of the members turn out for these in-person activities. Najmy estimates that about two dozen show up on a regular basis.
Of course, raising dollars is involved as well. The group’s method is about as basic as it gets: Each member submits a one-time $1,000 contribution, then $225 annually. In addition, they pay $25 a year for the group’s administrative costs.
TLC Women’s Giving Circle does produce a few smaller fundraising events, most notably last year’s Lake Club Turkey Trot, which raised $18,000 for the Food Bank of Manatee. The sneaker drive brought in $1,800. Najmy says the Circle also receives contributions from anonymous donors. And from time to time a member will write an unsolicited check for as much as $5,000 to be put toward the organization’s annual grant fund. Other than modest administrative costs, every dollar raised goes to charity. Each December, the Giving Circle chooses an array of local nonprofits to receive its grants, which generally range from $1,500 to $2,500 and do not exceed $5,000. Past recipients include Manatee Legal Aid, Safe Place and Rape Crisis Center, Still Point Mission and Beyond the Spectrum.
The organization is not its own 501(c)(3) but earns its tax-exempt status under the umbrella of the Manatee Community Foundation.
The Giving Circle’s hands-on endeavors are initiated by the members themselves. If one is enthusiastic about a particular nonprofit, she’s encouraged to organize the outreach and rally the troops. (And perhaps put together a thank-you lunch afterward.) “As we’ve evolved, it’s rewarding to see that things are happening organically within our group,” Najmy says.
Najmy, a real estate agent, and her husband, Joe, a local attorney, have a long history of philanthropy. Last year, the Manatee County Community Foundation honored the couple with its Lifetime Spirit Award. Najmy’s family relocated to Sarasota when she was 5. In 1984, she graduated from Riverview High School. An experience as a student there had a profound impact on her future charitable activities.
“Through high school, I signed up to be a counselor, and my task was to go to Newtown to be a counselor for underprivileged children,” she says. “We read with them, took them to the park, spent half-days with them during the summers. It was a real eye-opener — that this was in our backyard.”
In 2014, Najmy was sitting in the living room of East County philanthropist Diane Brune when the host started urging her to form a group to become a member of the Founders 50, a group established at the Manatee Community Foundation that distributes grants through an endowment. The guests hatched the idea of forming The Lake Club Women’s Giving Circle. The core group of 10 met for wine and appetizers, formulating a strategy for their new charitable organization. “I liked that we could design our circle in any way, shape or form that we wanted,” Najmy says. “We came up with a guidebook of rules, nothing too complicated.”
In 2017, the group — then 30 members strong — held its first fundraiser, Wine, Women and Jewels (despite its name, Alokeh assures it was not a gala). The event raised $13,000 that the Manatee Community Foundation distributed to local charities. COVID-19 put a halt to fundraising, but not to membership. The Lake Club’s home sales mushroomed and, from 2020 to 2022, the Giving Circle’s membership grew from 30 to 115.
While TLC Women’s Giving Circle’s identity is not overtly feminist — at least as the term is most understood — its members take pride in their efforts toward female empowerment. Najmy regards the all-women makeup of the group as having “a high level of importance. We pool our minds and passions to go out and touch lives.”
Alokeh adds, “To have women leading and running a philanthropic organization like ours, using the power of women to benefit others — it fills my soul.”
Correction: This article has been updated to clarify the description of Founders 50.