Imagine this: You are the wife of a significant donor to nonprofits and charitable causes. Maybe it is even you who signs the check that goes to the beneficiary.

Then you receive the thank-you note — addressed to your husband. Or a thank-you gift — say, an expensive pair of binoculars — for your husband. Or an invitation to lunch with a prominent leader in the cause or institution — again, for your husband.

Even 20 years ago, long after the women’s movement was well under way, this was the way things were. But today women are not only getting the recognition they deserve, but also are stepping up in major ways as philanthropists in their own right.

What changed? In many ways, credit can go to the way things have evolved in the greater society as increasing numbers of women have found financial success of their own and have a stronger say in all things related to money.

But at UCLA, there’s another, more personal reason why women are now a substantial force in giving: the creation of Women & Philanthropy at UCLA in 1994.

Now preparing for a festive 20th-anniversary celebration this summer, the tight-knit group, which has served as a role model for similar organizations around the country, is about to take a giant step forward that will bring many more philanthropic women into the fold.

Launched with just 15 founding members who each pledged new gifts of $25,000, Women & Philanthropy had grown to 140 members by 2013. And in two decades, these women have given more than $161 million to UCLA. Now the group will expand its reach to recognize and include more women for their major giving to the university, aiming for a membership of 1,000.

“With the 20th anniversary and the success we’ve had, there is a strong interest in reaching out to the next generation of givers,” says Susan Baumgarten ’73, M.S. ’76, M.B.A. ’79, Women & Philanthropy’s current president. “We feel that it’s a good time to look to the future as we celebrate our past.”

Nor could it come at a better time, as UCLA launches its $4.2-billion Centennial Campaign for UCLA, to run through 2019, the 100th anniversary of the university.

With Women & Philanthropy on the cusp of expansion, this is a good time to consider how the group came to be. To find out, it is necessary to go back to the early 1990s, when Dyan Sublett and Karen Stone, both then senior development officers at UCLA, started asking why there were so few women listed among the university’s major donors.

Initially, they got answers such as “because they don’t give.” But Sublett and Stone didn’t understand why, since women were known to hold wealth. Did these potential donors not feel included and respected? If so, did this affect their decisions on whether or how much to give?

Wishing to systematically explore this, Sublett and Stone sought the help of Andrea Rich ’65, M.A. ’66, Ph.D. ’68, who was then UCLA’s executive vice chancellor and who offered some funding for a research project. (Later, Rich would make a generous personal gift.) Sublett and Stone then set up a focus group and invited the participation of women who had already given significant gifts to UCLA. There would be other such groups later, with 300 women participating in San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

“We wanted to learn from the experience of women who had already done this,” Sublett says. “We wanted to know if there was anything we could do to change our behavior and learn about how we might better welcome women.”

In retrospect, the focus group was an almost humorous case of “be careful what you ask for,” tapping an outpouring from women who felt ignored or passed over. One woman said campus leadership courted only her husband for gifts. Another said that after her husband died, the university assumed she would continue to give to athletics, as her husband had. Recalling this exchange, Sublett says, “And there was this pause and she said — with sadness, not with anger — ‘no one ever asked me what I was interested in.’” (Needless to say, she was then asked and eventually made an eight-figure gift to what she cared most about — performing arts.)

Also among the women at the initial focus group was Joy Monkarsh ’61, who was later seminal in forming what became W&P and went on to significant leadership roles at the university, including serving on the prestigious UCLA Foundation Board of Directors. Monkarsh says she was surprised to be asked to participate in the focus group because it was her husband, Jerry Monkarsh ’59, who made many of the giving decisions in the family. But after attending the group and learning more about the power of philanthropy, she began asking more questions at home about making charitable gifts as a couple, joking that “I became a little harder to handle as a wife, for sure.”

Monkarsh was among those who spoke up as the focus group was coming to a close to ask how UCLA could help her and other women to keep learning and growing as philanthropists.

“Karen and I started laughing, because we didn’t have a plan,” Sublett says. At the women’s behest, however, they explored ways to use this force they had unleashed, and the result was Women & Philanthropy.

It wasn’t long before Stone and Sublett began to receive inquiries from other institutions that also wanted to tap the power of female philanthropy. “Dyan and I were asked to speak multiple times around the country about the focus group and what we had learned,” Stone says. “We always said there was no cookie-cutter approach that’s right for every institution, but that there were valuable lessons learned from reaching out to women and cultivating them with a meaningful strategy of inclusion, coming from the highest levels in the university.”

Sublett adds, “We offered tools by which women could be engaged and then their voices, leadership and generosity emerge.”

Pamela Hillman, who was director of development for UCLA Anderson in 1994, went on to establish groups similar to UCLA’s at UC Riverside and California State University, Fullerton, mirroring the UCLA model. “At Fullerton,” she says, “the group morphed into an informative speakers forum on women’s issues and programs of interest for the university.”

Meanwhile, first to make a monetary commitment at UCLA — this time from her personal funds — was Andrea Rich. Other founding members were Monkarsh; Doris Chasin M.Ed. ’63, Ed.D. ’69; Julieann Coyne; Glorya Kaufman; Mrs. Harry Lenart; Bea Mandel ’61; Jane McCarthy; Patt Oppenheim; Dini Ostrov ’65; Joan Palevsky ’47; Wilma Pinder J.D. ’76; Rita Rothman ’70; Toby Waldorf ’80; and Sheila Weisman ’59. Many of them are still active in Women & Philanthropy.

Few in a position to give large sums of money to good causes would disagree that giving intelligently requires not only the patience to learn how and when to make best use of one’s gift, but also, in a deeper way, a reckoning with one’s personal values. This is especially true at a large and diverse research university like UCLA, where the possibilities for making a positive and perhaps even lasting impact seem endless.

One of the key things that sets Women & Philanthropy apart — and, in fact, made other universities take note — is the decision from the very beginning that every member would give to whatever segment of UCLA she cared most about. There is not, as often happens in other women’s philanthropic groups, a pool of money to which everyone contributes, followed by a group decision on how to allocate it. Some W&P members give to medical research, some to art, some to women’s basketball, some to student scholarships, some to dance and so on.

“I think the power of the [W&P] model is that it supports individual voices and individual interests,” Sublett says. “At the end of the day, we wanted them to be passionate about the impact of their gifts.”

Tracy Isenberg ’84, who joined W&P in 2008 and retired as an intellectual property specialist in 2012, finds another benefit to bringing together women from all different disciplines. “We have very interesting discussions on a wide range of topics,” she says. “Yet our mutual connection to UCLA binds us all together.”

Over the years, Women & Philanthropy members have forged deep friendships with one another at educational seminars, special events and informal meetings with scholars, as well as at luncheons and social gatherings. Their gifts, which now reach into more than 150 departments, centers and institutes on the UCLA campus, have grown from $439,000 in the group’s first year to nearly $11 million in 2013.

The group also advocates for women’s leadership roles on campus, where few held such spots 20 years ago. “Now nearly every board has a woman on it,” says Melissa Effron Hayek ’84, current director of Women & Philanthropy.

Effron Hayek says that under the new expansion, membership will grow by making all women who give or pledge $25,000 over five years automatically a part of Women & Philanthropy. Those who reach $250,000 in giving become lifetime members. Female academic, administrative and athletic leaders at UCLA — such as deans, head coaches, student body presidents and Academic Senate chairs — are invited to be members.

So what better time to celebrate Women & Philanthropy’s past successes? Among those who will be at the anniversary celebration will be Monkarsh, who said that W&P has been “a grand adventure” that introduced her not only to the power and importance of women’s philanthropy, but also to lifelong friends whom she would not otherwise have met. She is, as Stone says, “a good example of someone who made a long journey of growth as a woman philanthropist and as a decision-maker in her own right.”

Baumgarten, who as outgoing president will host the celebration, said the women of Women & Philanthropy would be “part of my life forever.”

“It is truly rewarding to be a part of Women & Philanthropy,” Baumgarten says, “where members pursue their individual passions as donors and volunteer leaders across the diverse range of disciplines on campus, yet are completely unified in their commitment to the expansive and inclusive community that is UCLA.”