Jason Franklin
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Coming Full Circle: Can Giving Circles Yield Bigger and Better Giving?
by Pat Eng, Director of Programs

August 16th, 2013



Since launching our Bold Conversations, the program has been defined by its focus on a single Bold Giver and its format as a teleconference. At a staff retreat in the spring we decided to broaden both aspects of the program. In August 2013, we did our first experiment. Instead of inviting a single Bold Giver to share their story we focused on a topic of interest to us: Can Giving Circles Yield to Bigger and Better Giving? While the conversation did not yield a definitive answer it began a dialogue that we hope will continue as donors increasingly engage with this collaborative and exciting giving model.

We invited Bold Giver Wendy Chang, who is involved in many giving circles, and Asian Americans & Pacific Islanders In Philanthropy’s (AAPIP) Director of Community Philanthropy Noelle Ito. (You can learn more about Noelle from this video : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tFYcv6YCeEQ). In another first, we had co-sponsors for the Bold Conversation; AAPIP was joined by Community Investment Network. More than 100 people joined to the call, eager to engage in a conversation about giving circles.  Many participants were already part of a giving circle and had questions about the experiences of others while some listeners were starting one, anxious to get advice.  Callers hailed from the East and West Coasts and points in between, some wearing professional hats while others were on a journey to deepen their own philanthropy. 

Giving circles have been a popular vehicle for philanthropic giving, rooted in time-honored traditions that bring communities together for a greater good.  Wendy, a passionate supporter of Giving Circles, urged us to think about giving circles as a vehicle for “creating wealth” for ourselves and others by being in relationship with people who offer different perspectives and leverage.  Noelle, who is on a mission to launch 50 giving circles in Asian American/Asian Pacific Islander communities across the U.S., spoke about how her grandmother, a survivor of Japanese internment camps, pooled resources with other families to get back on their feet after the war, and is now the biggest champion of current day giving circles amongst her own networks.   Chad Jones, from Community Investment Network added that in African American giving circles in the Southwest and now across the country, centered on themes of race and racial justice in their giving.  The models for what works seem endlessly creative, with the power of connection and leverage at the center of it all. 

There seemed to be a consensus that:

  • Giving circles are great vehicles for applying funds where they are needed in the community, addressing unmet needs often overlooked by foundations or other major/larger funding sources.  And that goes a long way toward better giving, leveraging leadership and strengthening the community base.  
  • Giving circles are a popular way to introduce individuals to philanthropy and offer a valuable role in supporting community needs and achieving impact. They leverage the collective power of many while transforming the individual giver.

Some of the questions that were touched on during the call, but didn’t have time to delve into more fully: 

  • How do we involve young people? 
  • What are the barriers?
  • What is the life cycle of Giving Circles?
  • Is it better to set an end goal or to work in perpetuity?
  • How can Giving Circles further leverage their impact through partnerships with community foundations?

And what about the main question that was posed: can giving circles yield bigger and better giving?  There was no one definitive answer and it was hard to fully explore without the many sets of questions that come before.  To some, that may be a frustrating “cop out”.  But perhaps to others, it can be liberating, allowing greater flexibility and creativity.

Some of the other open questions are:

  • Many well established philanthropy support organizations (Community Foundations, DAFs, Philanthropy Advisors) have a hard time bringing up the deeply personal question to their clients or members of how much is enough to give to? Does this question have a natural place within giving circles? If it doesn’t, should it?
  • Does creating more individual donors lead them to the type of giving, we at Bolder Giving are advocating? Does risky giving challenge donors to question themselves about how much is enough and ensures that the organizations they are supporting fit their values and criteria for effectiveness?

The concept of Giving Circles is time honored, but the concerted effort to support individual givers into passionate and smart philanthropists at the community level is taking hold in new and creative ways.  And from there, who knows?  Every Bold Giver has to start somewhere.  And we believe that Giving Circles can lay the groundwork for bigger and better philanthropy. 

What do you think? Lets continue the conversation. Post your thoughts below or send us your response to the call.  If you were not able to join us live, you can listen to the recording here.

Happy Giving!


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