Philanthropy used to imply a flashy name and a big check. Today philanthropy involves many checks and many donors committed to working together to change lives and communities. Collective giving or giving circles, as they are known, have been quietly at work for decades. Now, they are front and center in the world of philanthropy as a movement that continues to gain in popularity, strength and results.
Collective giving is a form of grantmaking that involves learning, decision making and community building together – activities that particularly appeal to women donors. Participants who are part of a collective giving grantmaking organization, or giving circle, aren’t as likely to simply give a check and move on. They are engaged for the longer term. They want to learn about the needs of their community, read letters of inquiry from nonprofits, go on site visits, do due diligence on prospective grantees and ultimately vote democratically on which nonprofits receive grants. Moreover, they tend to not only stay involved in their organization, but often become donors, volunteers or board members of an organization that they encountered through the vetting process.
New research shows that these collective giving networks are growing both in dollars and number of donors and this growth is changing the landscape of giving. Research from 2009 found about 600 giving circles in the United States. But recent research by Angela M. Eikenberry, Professor of Public Administration at the University of Nebraska Omaha, and colleagues, found a dramatic increase in this form of philanthropy. Today there are at least 1,314 giving circles with more than 46,000 members who have collectively contributed more than $474 million over the past 30 plus years.
Impact 100 is one example of a giving circle. Started in 2001 in Cincinnati, OH, there are now more than 30 Impact 100 groups operating in the United States, 6 in Australia, and 14 in development. The Impact 100 Pensacola Bay Area organization has invested more than $7 million in nonprofits in the area since 2004 including more than $1 million in 2016 alone, much of which came from new donors.
Marguerite LaDue of Sonoma, California found that joining Impact100 Sonoma was a way to meet like-minded women and to get involved in the community when she first moved to Sonoma. It wasn’t long before she became involved in a grant committee to determine the awardees for Impact100 Sonoma’s $100,000 grants and there she became aware of the organization, Teen Services of Sonoma. She became so enthusiastic about their work that she soon was named Teen Services board chair and helped secure funding for a program to prepare teens for jobs when they graduate.
Collective giving is about the democratization of philanthropy, a concept that Eikenberry discussed in her book Giving Circles: Philanthropy, Voluntary Association, and Democracy. These collective giving networks are transcending the stereotype of what it means to be a philanthropist. The giving circle ecosystem is a powerful representation of pluralism in action, with groups often forming based on gender, generation, race, ethnicity, or religion. For many new members, participation in a giving circle is their first encounter with organized philanthropy and has far reaching effects. The study, The Impact of Giving Together, shows that participation in giving circles deepens engagement and ultimately expands individual and household giving, providing a basis for future philanthropy. This research is further borne out by Eikenberry’s research.
Giving circles usually operate individually within their own communities. More recently, however, like-minded groups have organized broader collective giving networks to amplify their voices, share ideas, and learn from each other.
Take the Amplifier Giving Network, for example. Felicia Herman created the network to connect giving circles to nonprofit organizations in their orbit that were in need of funding. Now they have more than 3,000 donors in 103 giving circles globally.
Darryl Lester founded the Community Investment Network in 2006 to encourage African Americans and communities of color to work collectively to create the changes they wished to see. Today, with more than 250 members in the network, CIN affiliates have awarded $250,000 in grants and contributed more than 14,000 volunteer hours in their communities.
The Women’s Collective Giving Grantmakers Network is an association of 49 independent philanthropic organizations in 24 states and two countries representing more than 13,000 members. These groups granted more than $80 million into their local communities over the last 20 years. And the movement continues to grow.
Giving circles and the collective giving grantmaking movement have and will continue to broaden who can participate in philanthropy and what that can look like. Two upcoming conferences in March 2017 will focus on the topic of women and philanthropy. One isDREAM DARE DO, a symposium on women, philanthropy and civil society, which will take place March 14 and 15 in Chicago and will have a panel dedicated to the idea of building community through networks and will feature a number of prominent experts in the field. The other, Women Together Making Waves, is the national leadership forum of the Women’s Collective Giving Grantmakers Network, which will take place March 12-14 in Atlantic Beach, Florida and will include educational workshops, panel discussions and networking opportunities.
The world needs more philanthropy of all kinds to make the change we all want to see. Giving circles are evidence that local groups of thoughtful, committed citizens can indeed change the world. As Margaret Mead said, “It’s the only thing that ever has.”
Debra Mesch, Ph.D., is the Director of the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. She holds the Eileen Lamb O’Gara Chair in Women’s Philanthropy.
Virginia Mills is the Board Chair of the Women’s Collective Giving Grantmakers Network.