by Leah Dobkin
A growing number of contemporary women are looking to meet like-minded people by participating in meaningful philanthropic efforts. The usual fundraising activities, such as organizing galas, are a lot of work and not particularly fulfilling for many. So, what’s the alternative if you are one of these women? The answer might be to consider starting or joining a giving circle.
What Is a Giving Circle?
A giving circle is a charitable collective where members with similar interests and passions pool their money to make a larger impact on their community through grants to nonprofit organizations. The group decides together which cause(s) on which to focus. Giving circles, which usually include a diverse mix of ages and ethnicity, can be created at any price point for any cause. Though men are welcome, the majority of giving circles are comprised of females.
Giving circles play to women’s strengths as networkers and collaborators. They offer a way for smaller donors to be part of something larger—but not so large they have no meaningful voice.
Angela Eikenberry, a professor and researcher of giving circles at the University of Nebraska, says, “These groups are emerging as traditional philanthropy becomes more bureaucratic,”. She adds, “Over the last decade, they are forming to make things more personal, giving directly to organizations where people live.”
With no rent or salaried staff, operating costs tend to be minimal. However, there are some accounting, bookkeeping and a few other miscellaneous costs.
Why Join a Giving Circle?
With a long commute and hectic full-time job in Washington, D.C., Bronwyn Belling had little time to get to know her community of Annapolis, a suburb in Anne Arundel County. That changed significantly in 2006 when, approaching retirement, she joined a women’s giving circle with more than 200 members called Anne Arundel Women Giving Together (AAWGT). Since 2007, AAWGT has awarded grants totaling more than $1,000,000 to non-profit organizations to improve the quality of life for women and families.
“I have 200 wonderful new friends who are members of the giving circle,” says Belling. She adds, “Spending a lot of time with caring, smart and compassionate women has been an unexpected benefit for me.”
Where to Start?
Interested in giving circles, but not sure where to start? Here are the steps to start a giving circle:
Define Your Purpose and Mission:
Determine the focus of your giving circle. What causes or issues are you passionate about? Be specific about your mission and goals. This will help attract like-minded members.
Gather a Core Group:
Start by recruiting a small group of dedicated individuals who share your passion and commitment to philanthropy. This core group will help shape the giving circle’s direction.
Decide on Membership Criteria:
Determine who can join the giving circle. Consider factors such as financial commitment, time commitment, and shared values.
Establish a Legal Structure:
Decide whether you want your giving circle to be a formal nonprofit organization or an informal group. Consult with a legal expert to understand the legal implications and tax considerations of each option.
Set a Budget:
Determine how much money each member will contribute, and how often. Some giving circles have a fixed annual contribution, while others may have a variable commitment based on members’ capacity.
Develop a Decision-Making Process:
Decide how you will select the charitable organizations or causes to support. You can use a voting system, conduct member presentations, or explore other methods to ensure everyone’s voice is heard.
Create a Timeline:
Establish a timeline for the giving circle’s activities, including when you will meet, review grant applications, and make decisions.
Open a Bank Account:
Set up a dedicated bank account for the giving circle to manage funds and donations.
Define Grantmaking Procedures:
Create clear guidelines for organizations to apply for grants, including eligibility criteria, application procedures, and reporting requirements.
Promote Your Giving Circle:
Develop a strategy to attract new members who share your interests. Use social media, local events, and networking to spread the word about your giving circle.
Host Regular Meetings:
Schedule regular meetings to discuss grant applications, review progress, and make funding decisions. Meetings can be in-person or virtual, depending on member preferences.
Track the impact of your grants and activities. This will help you assess the effectiveness of your giving circle and make improvements over time.
Engage in Learning:
Stay informed about philanthropy trends, best practices, and the issues you care about. Continuous learning can help your giving circle become more effective.
Recognize and celebrate the successes and milestones of your giving circle. This can help foster a sense of community and motivation among members.
Reflect and Adapt:
Periodically review your giving circle’s mission, structure, and processes. Be open to making adjustments based on the evolving needs and goals of the group.
Starting a giving circle requires dedication, organization, and collaboration. It can be a powerful way to make a difference in your community and beyond by leveraging the collective resources and expertise of your members.
In addition, national non-profit organizations, such as Catalist (catalistwomen.org), formerly Women’s Collective Giving Grantmakers (WCGN), exist to help women’s collectives through monthly webinars and interactive discussion forums, in addition to a national conference. They share best practices about membership, grantmaking and governance to strengthen their organizations and ultimately their communities.
Catalist Founding board member, Laura Midley noted, “As we strive to help our organizations be more thoughtful, effective and significant in our grantmaking, we must begin with ourselves.” She adds, “The power of the collective is only as good as the sum of ourselves as individuals; we must bring our confident and vulnerable selves to an ever-expanding table.”
Global Giving Circles
Not all giving circles stay small. Some grow to the point where they have participants throughout the country and encourage people to either join an existing local group or start a new one with their help and support.
Dining for Women (DFW), which launched in 2003, is a wonderful example of a global giving circle, providing “a chance to socialize with substance”. It has 8,000 members in 409 chapters in 45 states. According to its website, this nonprofit is “dedicated to transforming lives and eradicating poverty among women and girls in the developing world…one woman, one girl, one dinner at a time.” Members host dinner parties, usually with food themed according to the country to which they are giving, and pledge to donate what they would have paid for the meal if they had dined out. Each month, the national DFW awards a grant between $35,000 to $50,000 to a nonprofit and also periodically selects previously funded nonprofits to award $20,000 a year for three years of ongoing support.
A New Type of Sisterhood
There is nothing more powerful than young and old uniting for meaningful social change. These philanthropic collectives enrich not only communities but the lives of individual women by connecting them with other donors who inspire each other to learn more about their community needs, volunteer and lead with passion and purpose. It’s a new type of “sisterhood.”
About the Author: Leah Dobkin
Leah Dobkin is a writer, personal historian, gerontologist and founder of legacyletter.org. She offers writing services and workshops to help people, or their loved ones, craft a legacy letter, memoir or organizational history. She has contributed to Kiplinger’s Retirement Report, AARP and other regional, national and international magazines and websites.