Charity For All

'Giving circles' let ordinary people act as philanthropists, as bundling gifts together makes for greater impact for the gift and greater involvement for the givers

July 06, 2008|By Tanika White | Tanika White,Sun Reporter

For some the world of philanthropy has seemed the domain of the moneyed few, a luxury for "the other half."

But a growing development in that arena has taken hold, opening philanthropy up to the masses in a user-friendly way: giving circles.

A giving circle is a group of people who gather together to pool money for a common cause. Like a miniature, informal foundation of sorts, the group members manage the fund and determine how their collections will be spent.

A 2006 study by the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers found that giving circles around the country are having a major impact, not just in terms of the money they give to organizations and causes, but by the ways their donors benefit from the experience.

Regionally, there are about 20 known giving circles, many of which focus on women's issues. But a giving circle can give to any cause the group sees fit. Some have given broadly to "people in need;" others have supported such organizations as Habitat for Humanity.

The trend toward grass-roots giving excites longtime members of the philanthropic world such as Buffy Beaudoin-Schwartz, communications director for the Association of Baltimore Area Grantmakers.

Beaudoin-Schwartz - also chairwoman of the Women's Giving Circle of Howard County, which helps fund programs that benefit women and girls - spoke to The Sun about the phenomenon.

What exactly is a giving circle?

The circle is a fund that brings donors together around a particular topic. The donors pool their dollars and leverage their money to have a greater impact. What is exciting about circles is that one person writes a check, which is wonderful. But to leverage that check against 50 or 100 others is very empowering and can have a greater impact.

Could you call them foundations-in-training?

Well, they're typically housed at a community or public foundation. For example, the Baltimore Women's Giving Circle has several hundred donors who each give $1,100 a year and then, as a group, make a decision about where they want those dollars to go. The Baltimore Women's Giving Circle is one of, I believe, several hundred funds at the Baltimore Community Foundation.

I understand this is a growing trend. Is that true in this area?

There are approximately 20 known giving circles in our region, which is Pennsylvania, all of Maryland and Washington and Northern Virginia. But I imagine there are more. The growth and impact of these circles in our region is significant. In 2000, there were no giving circles that were known to us. And now in 2008, there are those 20, which have gathered over 9 million philanthropic dollars and that have approximately 4,500 new or further-engaged donors. Anyone who gives is beneficial to the community, but the fact that you can give through a giving circle makes philanthropy accessible to people who are at different income levels, stages of their careers and their lives. So in other words, you don't have to be a millionaire to be a philanthropist.

It reaches people who may not have been asked before and may not have had the opportunity to be engaged in something that was important to them.

Who are the people attracted to giving circles? Big-time donors? People with lots of disposable income?

The donors come in all shapes and sizes. Typically giving circles are comprised of like-minded individuals who share a similar passion and a desire to impact a specific issue. There are times when giving circles are formed from groups that are already together, whether it's a group of neighborhood friends or a book club or a group of triathletes - [they're] groups that are already together who decide to perhaps do some giving together. Many are women's giving circles that are focusing on women and their families in one way or another. The focus of the circle is dependent entirely on the donors sitting at the table. And they're very flexible. There's no cookie-cutter giving circle and right or wrong way to develop one. Which is what makes them so fun and appealing.

Where did this idea come from?

Giving together is not a new concept. The idea of people pooling their dollars has been around for a long time. Giving circles as we know them, the majority of them have started in the last decade. People were looking to roll up their sleeves and not only write a check, but perhaps have a better understanding of where their dollars are going and to be more involved and have a greater say as to where their donations end up. They wanted their money to have a greater impact. Giving circles are exciting because not only is there the opportunity to leverage dollars with other dollars, but there's an educational opportunity. Donors can learn more about the issues they care about and more about the community in general. They can learn more about the grantmaking process. There are networking opportunities, social and hands-on volunteer opportunities, and frankly, they're fun. It's a joy giving money and giving it with others who care about issues you care about.

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