They first met to address the pressing needs of their time. The year was 1866, and the 20 Minnesota women collected clothing for newly freed slaves.

That women-led philanthropy, now with an endowment of $18 million, still exists today. And this year the WCA Foundation, the state's oldest charity, celebrates its 150th anniversary.

"The women who started it had a mission. We are continuing that mission to help the community. I have been so pleased with how it's developed into a modern organization with young, professional women," said Margarette Lawson Hann, the WCA's longest-serving member who joined in 1969.

Gov. Mark Dayton has signed a proclamation declaring the WCA the oldest ongoing benevolent organization in Minnesota. The foundation recently donated its papers, rich with details of Minneapolis' early years, to the Minnesota Historical Society.

Foundation members will spend Tuesday evening toasting the milestone at the Women's Club of Minneapolis. But Executive Director Susan Carter said they're already thinking about the next chapter. The nonprofit will undertake its first-ever formal strategic plan next year.

"It's a very exciting birthday but also an important call to action on how to stay relevant," Carter said. "There is no shortage of need in supporting women and basic human services. How do we recruit new members? How do we bring more perspectives to the table?"

Small and nimble

The WCA annually awards between $500,000 and $700,000 in grants to nonprofits focused on women's issues and human services. It funds nonprofits that provide housing, job training, health services and arts opportunities, with grants typically ranging from $10,000 to $20,000.

Since the WCA has just a two-person staff housed in a modest Eden Prairie office, its 50 active members do much of the legwork. They review grant applications, and vet and visit nonprofits seeking aid. The WCA Foundation board, made up of volunteers, decides which causes to support.

Membership dues cost only $10 a year and haven't changed in decades. Members don't do fundraising.

"We are not the biggest. We are small and we are nimble. Our members like to try to fund the underdog or newer organizations just finding their voice," Carter said.

This year the foundation awarded $20,000 to Babies Need Boxes, founded last year. Borrowing from the Finnish tradition, the nonprofit delivers to new mothers specially made cardboard boxes that are safe, affordable and mobile for babies to sleep in. Founder Danielle Selassie of Fridley called the WCA for help.

"Sometimes a good idea just needs a founding partner to support them. We were excited to get in on the ground level and support [Selassie]," Carter said.

Babies Need Boxes expects to distribute 1,000 boxes this year with the help of the WCA grant, twice as many as it had initially planned.

"It was our first major grant award," Selassie said. "The fact that someone believed in what we were doing — outside of the cash award — that gives you the confidence to move forward." It also helps to draw the interest of other foundations, she added.

The WCA Foundation's willingness to take risks and change with the times likely is the reason it has outlasted similar groups promoting good causes. "We are willing to try new things, fund new efforts and ideas," Carter said.

Changing with the times

When the WCA was formed in 1866, it was known as the Christian Aid Society of Minneapolis. Members collected clothing and other items for the needy, regardless of age or color. "The founders started out being generally useful," said Gail Emerson, WCA board president.

In its first few decades the group renamed itself the Women's Christian Association of Minneapolis and opened boardinghouses, primarily for single women. By the 1920s, more than 1,000 women and girls lived in a dozen WCA boardinghouses.

"When women started coming to the big, bad city looking for work, there was not safe housing for them. They responded to that change," Emerson said.

Some of the properties were given to the charity by former Minnesota Gov. John Pillsbury and banker William Hood Dunwoody, a partner in what is now General Mills, and his wife, Kate.

The WCA also started a retirement home, helped establish the first African-American settlement house in Minneapolis and ran the Industrial School for Girls.

By the late 1970s, demand for boardinghouses was waning and some of the WCA buildings were converted to student housing. In the '80s and '90s, the WCA sold off its properties, rolled the proceeds of $9 million into an endowment and became the WCA Foundation.

The foundation has no religious affiliation, but kept its initials as a nod to its past.

"Over the years, the WCA women have shown an incredible capacity to shift with the times," Emerson said. "That is what makes me proud about our 150 years. We have been so responsive to what the community happens to need at the time."