Walking into the Italian Heritage Center in Portland, Janet Bowne was just another one of a couple of hundred ladies looking for a fun night out.

Walking out, she had a $50 check from every last one of them.

“I spend a lot of time trying to separate people from their money,” confided Bowne, who works as a member engagement coordinator for Southern Maine Agency on Aging’s adult day care services. “This is a big win!”

A con job? Nope.

A pyramid scheme? Guess again.

This is about building community.

Monday marked the third anniversary of 100+ Women Who Care Southern Maine, an ever-expanding organization bound by the collective belief that if you take a $50 check and add another … and another … and another … pretty soon you have a serious chunk of change on your hands.

How serious? Try more than $100,000 since the group formed in 2014.

“I’m pretty good at visioning,” said founder Deb Bergeron as the banquet room filled up last week. “But this is bigger than anything I ever expected.”

It all started years ago when Bergeron, who works as a professional and personal life coach in Falmouth, served as a volunteer with Dressed for Success – a fledgling nonprofit that provided high-quality attire for job interviews to women in need.

The program operated on a shoestring for 14 years before closing in 2012 – not for lack of interest, but for a paucity of operating funds.

Around the same time, as many of Bergeron’s female clients took stock of their lives, she kept hearing the same lament: I want to feel a greater sense of community. I want to give back and have an impact, but I don’t have a ton of money.

Enter 100 Women Who Care. Founded in 2006 by a group of women in Michigan, it’s since spread to 186 chapters throughout the United States, Canada and Mexico.

Most, like the Southern Maine chapter, meet quarterly.

Call it speed dating for charity.

It starts with nominations – any member can nominate a nonprofit provided it specifically serves southern Maine.

At the start of each meeting, three nonprofits are drawn from a box. The members who nominated them then have five minutes each to make their case, followed by a brief question-and-answer session.

The entire group – well over 200 women attended Monday’s gathering – then vote by secret ballot for the organization they want to support.

When the nonprofit with the most votes is announced, each and every woman pulls out her checkbook and donates $50 directly to that organization.

“No questions asked. No wrapping paper. No cookie dough. No overhead. I thought the concept was brilliant,” said Barbara McDonald of Scarborough, an account executive for Portland Radio Group who has participated since the beginning. “I said to my husband, ‘Two hundred dollars a year? I’m in!’ ”

Last week’s nominees included, in addition to Southern Maine Agency on Aging, Children’s Odyssey, a Portland-based preschool program for kids of varying developmental levels, and Safe Maine, which provides financial assistance to women seeking an abortion who lack the money to pay for it.

But in the end, a majority of the women went with Bowne’s pitch: All too often, because of wait lists and a general lack of state and federal funding, Southern Maine Agency on Aging needs “bridge funding” for adults with dementia and other debilitating conditions at its two centers in Biddeford and Falmouth.

In addition to providing an environment where “we like to focus on what they’ve retained, not what they’ve lost,” Bowne said, the day care service offers a much-needed break to relatives and other worn-out caregivers.

“They built this state. They built this country,” Bowne said of the centers’ clientele. “And now they have some deficits, and their caregivers are maxed.”

The women, while empathetic, are no pushovers. Following all three presentations, questions ranged from other funding sources to staff-to-client ratios to transportation for those who need the service but can’t get there from here.

Since its formation, 100+Women Who Care Southern Maine has showered 13 nonprofits with windfalls that currently exceed $10,000.

Recipients range from Furniture Friends, who provide used furniture to those in need, to Pets for Vets, which rescues and trains shelter animals and pairs them with military veterans.

“I learn about organizations I’ve never even heard about,” said Eileen Kalikow, owner of Vocational Resources in downtown Portland. For all the good work the nonprofits do, she added, many lack the sophisticated fundraising and development needed to stay afloat, let alone expand their services.

That was the case for Family Hope, an all-privately funded program that helps families cope with the mental illness of a loved one, before it hit the jackpot with 100+ Women Who Care back in August.

Paul Golding, Family Hope’s executive director, returned last week to tell the women their much-needed support, to the tune of just over $10,000, will be used to hire a new outreach worker and expand the organization’s services into York, Sagadahoc and Androscoggin counties.

“A lot of people are really, really struggling to find services for their loved ones,” Golding noted. He added with a smile, “If you want to flatter me by bringing me an extra check, I’m shameless and happy to do that.”

They just might. Bergeron noted that some women often go well beyond the $50 minimum.

Others, she added, double back and write a second check for one of the also-rans – an anonymous donor recently handed over $10,000 to be distributed among organizations that have been nominated but didn’t garner the most votes.

“It’s a ripple effect,” said Bergeron, who dropped the $100 minimum used elsewhere to $50 here “because this is Maine and I wanted it to be more inclusive.”

(Not to be outdone, a spinoff men’s group, 100 Men Who Care Southern Maine, now holds quarterly philanthropic gatherings of its own. Unlike the ladies, the guys meet in a bar.)

So, cheer up, fellow Mainers. Dark as these days may seem and divided as our social discourse may feel, Janet Bowne will head into work Monday at Southern Maine Agency on Aging with a fistful of checks from women with nothing better to do than spend an evening helping out their fellow humans.

“I’m a hero right now,” Bowne beamed. “I’m going to ride this wave for a while.”

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

[email protected]