Wendy Steele is a changemaker and has the honor of being recognized on Forbes’ 50 over 50. She is the founder and CEO of Impact100, a global network of chapters that each raise $100,000 to fund grants for local nonprofits. In the past 20 years, Impact100 has awarded more than $123 million in grants, making it one of the largest women-led philanthropic organizations in the world. In this episode of the Unlearn Podcast, Wendy joins Barry O’Reilly to share her story of how she founded Impact100 and the impact the organization has had on communities around the world. She also discusses the importance of women’s leadership and the power of collective action.

The Power of Empathy

The power of empathy and problem-solving is often the driving force behind meaningful innovation. “When you’re bothered by a problem and you can’t really get it out of your head, I believe that’s because you’ve got some part in solving it,” she tells Barry. Wendy started Impact100 from a place of empathy and a strong urge to address a problem she noticed in her community. As a banker she noticed that many women felt they didn’t have enough resources to make a difference in their communities. After documenting these barriers, she started brainstorming solutions, leading to the birth of Impact100, a global nonprofit organization that empowers women to create transformative impacts in their communities. Barry resonates with Wendy’s approach, drawing parallels with his own entrepreneurial journey and emphasizing the importance of customer discovery and understanding obstacles to unlock unmet needs. [Listen from 1:45]

Wendy shares her surprising discovery that economic reasons were not the primary barrier preventing women from giving back to their communities. Instead, cynicism and suspicion were significant obstacles. To counter this, she designed Impact100 to be a platform that shifted these mindsets by allowing women to become a part of the solution, changing their perspectives about their ability to make a difference. The organization works by pooling together donations from local communities of women and offering them back to local nonprofits, fostering a sense of shared responsibility and community. [Listen from 5:00]

Join Wendy Steele on an empowering journey of transformational change with as we explore the power of empathy and women's leadership


The Impact100 Model

The innovative, democratic model of Impact100 brings together 100 women from various backgrounds to make significant contributions to their communities. This democratizes the philanthropic experience, Wendy explains. By setting a standard donation amount, each woman, regardless of her economic standing, contributes equally, empowering her with a sense of agency in the decision-making process. Chapters of Impact100 exist across different regions, and although the model is primarily women-centric, some chapters are gender-neutral, further underlining its inclusive nature. Barry remarks on how negative assumptions about individuals and situations can prevent us from exploring new possibilities; Wendy’s model offers a refreshing departure from this mindset. The “power of the crowd” is the same approach they are taking to build Nobody Studios, he tells Wendy. [Listen from 7:35]

Reflecting on Assumptions and Unlearning

Wendy reflects on the process of gathering people for Impact100. She tells Barry that her initial assumptions about people’s willingness and capacity to participate often turned out to be wrong. “What I learned – that I have held onto ever since – is we do someone a very big service when we invite them into the work we’re doing… but if you don’t ask, you just might miss the opportunity to make their life more rich, more fulfilled, more complete in ways that you just can’t calculate.” She learned that invitation, not assumption, is crucial in attracting people to a cause. “Just keep asking, keep talking, keep bringing it up, because the people who want to join you will be so glad…” [Listen from 16:00]

Barry agrees and shares his recent realization that asking for help in funding isn’t about asking people to write checks. It’s more about sharing what you’re doing, why it’s important, and how people can be part of it. Sharing a compelling story allows people to self-select and align with a cause that resonates with them. [Listen from 20:50]

Impact100’s Growth and Contribution

Impact100 has grown organically to 68 chapters in four countries, demonstrating its success and scalability. While some chapters aimed for a larger scale, others were content with their current size, Wendy says. The initiative has had a transformative impact on communities, with grants leading to economic benefits, job creation, and the general upliftment. Wendy states, “We find that the impact of Impact100 is women step up and lead in new ways because now they know what’s happening in the community, and so they’re advocating politically, and the entire economy gets buoyed.” She and Barry discuss how grassroots efforts such as Impact100 can create ripple effects beyond the initial monetary contributions, fostering community growth and economic vitality. [Listen from 24:05]

Looking Ahead

Wendy wants to grow and sustain the Impact100 movement. She aims to provide better support to existing Impact100 chapters so they can reach their highest potential, and to facilitate the launch of new chapters in underrepresented communities. She tells Barry, “Impact has always been built on diversity. Diversity of skill set, experience in every demographic definition… But if we rely on people to raise their hands, we’re automatically leaving communities out. And so the best thing we can do for Impact100 to really reach its full potential is to have the ability to evangelize, to go into communities, tell the story, and then help women bring this important movement into their own backyards and watch it grow.” [Listen from 29:05]