In the 1800s, sewing circles combined quilt-making with political debate. In the go-go 1990s, investment clubs were a popular way to maximize return. The reflective first decade of the 21st century brings another trend: circles that give money away.
"Giving circles" are sprouting in Baltimore and around the country, as donors look for new ways of combining money and knowledge about the growing number of charities that compete for their dollars.
At least six giving circles have started in Baltimore and in Howard County in the past couple of years, giving grants toward a variety of charitable causes - from helping African-American children to preserving historic buildings.
Similar groups have cropped up from Boston to the Bay Area. Companies such as AOL Time Warner have gotten into the act, using bulletin boards and Web sites to encourage networking and offering grants to help groups get started. Many circles are geared to women's issues and women who give, an emerging philanthropic force.
Members say pooling their money gives their gifts greater impact than if they just wrote a check to a charity. They say they also learn more about the groups they're giving to - and about other people with the same philanthropic interests.
The circles seek to inject a bit of democracy into giving. In exchange for their gifts - usually a set amount each - members get a say in which nonprofit groups get their combined money and which don't.
"I like the idea of being able to leverage my money," said Rebecca Murphy Jones, a consultant who co-chairs the B'more Fund, a Baltimore circle for young professionals. "I like the idea of working as a group, with people who have the same goals that I have for this money."
One group, the Baltimore Giving Project, has nurtured circles and offers a "tool kit" to help them get started. Community foundations in Baltimore and Columbia are providing staff support to some fledgling funds.
`Anybody can start one'
"I have great hopes that there will be a huge future in giving circles, because anybody can start one without much money," said Ellen Remmer of the Philanthropic Initiative, a Boston nonprofit group that watches such trends. "You're constantly hearing about one starting here, there and everywhere."
That doesn't mean that giving in a "circle" is easy.
Speaking to a roomful of women lunching on chicken salad with berries on a recent afternoon, Marilyn Powel, a co-chair of the grants committee for the Baltimore Women's Giving Circle, compared the process of giving money away to giving birth.
Since its inception a year ago, the circle had received proposals from 54 nonprofit groups asking for nearly $700,000 in grants. But with 52 members pledging $1,000 each, the group had only $52,000 to give.
So members rejected outright three programs that did not fit their mission of helping women and girls. After whittling the other proposals down to 19 finalists, they visited programs, did research and negotiated with one another.
"It doesn't surprise me at all that this has taken nine months to the day," Powel told the group, proudly unveiling 10 recommended grants totaling $51,834. The 26 women present - half the group's membership - voted unanimously to approve them all.
`On equal playing field'
Many of the founding members of the Baltimore Women's Giving Circle already were experienced givers. Some are busy professionals who squeeze in the group's lunchtime meetings. Some have been volunteers or professional fundraisers, and some have their own amply endowed family foundations.
But Pam Corckran, a full-time volunteer who co-chairs the group, said that because each woman gives the same amount within the circle, such distinctions don't matter.
"We're all on an equal playing field," she said. "There is no one around that table that you would ever know had more money than the next person."
The group is trying to expand its ranks, with a goal of attracting 100 women and $100,000. After a recruitment tea recently at the Guilford home of one member, it netted 10 new pledges.
"We don't have the bucks to really make a difference," said Ellen Webb, referring to her family. She attended the event with her 5-month-old son and said she planned to sign up. "Pooling is a good way to push it."
Membership in giving circles doesn't necessarily come cheap. The typical group requires a gift of $1,000 a year, according to the Women's Philanthropy Institute in Rochester, Mich., which in the past two years has sold 500 books on how to start a circle.
Some groups allow couples or parent-child teams to split their gifts or spread them out over time, and others have lower requirements. In Baltimore, the B'more Fund and a circle called Quality of Life each require a commitment of $500 a year for at least two years.
A women's giving circle in Howard County, by contrast, allows members to give as little as $25 - though it encourages as many people as possible to give $5,000 over five years. That circle has attracted 150 members.