Giving circles are a form of participatory philanthropy where groups of individuals donate their own money or time to a pooled fund, decide together where to give these away to charity or community projects and, in doing so, seek to increase their awareness of and engagement in the issues covered by the charity or community project. Many circles, in addition to donating their money, also contribute their time and skills to support local causes.
Structure and function
Giving circles as they currently manifest themselves are a relatively new trend, but they are built on old traditions dating back hundreds of years to mutual aid societies and other forms of giving for the community. In the United States, giving circles were initially composed of women; they are now more diverse in race, age and gender, although women continue to make up the majority of members.
The structure of the circles can be informal or formal. On the informal side, circles may vote and choose an organization to support and each member writes an individual check. Formal circles may have their money housed at a local community foundation and have staff that support the work of the circle. Giving circles can range in size from a handful of members to several hundred.
Individual donors who join or form a giving circle typically seek to build community within their circle through social events, in addition to the economic impacts of the groups.
In a 2007 study, the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers' New Ventures in Philanthropy initiative identified approximately 400 giving circles in the United States, more than double the number from two years earlier.
A survey of 160 circles, published in 2008, found they had leveraged nearly $100 million, $13 million of this in 2006 alone. Nearly 12,000 people took part in the 160 giving circles surveyed. Nearly half of circles have male participants, and the popularity of giving circles is also growing among racial, ethnic and tribal communities as well as in the gay and lesbian community.
Another study conducted in 2005 by Angela M. Eikenberry, an associate professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, found that giving circles generally bring both long-time and new philanthropists to organized philanthropy. For both groups, participation seems to increase levels of giving while bringing “new money” to the nonprofit sector; especially to small and locally based organizations. Members also seem to learn about and give to organizations and individuals, and in areas of interest, they most likely would not have given to otherwise. In addition, members are more thoughtful, focused and strategic in their personal giving because of educational experiences in the giving circle. These findings are based on 30 interviews with giving circle participants, staff, and philanthropic professionals working with giving circles, document analysis, and secondary data.
More recent research by Eikenberry and Jessica Bearman, published in 2009, and largely based on a survey of giving circle members compared to a control group, found that that giving circles influence members to give more and to give more strategically. Their members give to a wide array of organizations and are highly engaged in the community. Giving circles increase members’ knowledge about philanthropy, nonprofits, and the community but have a mixed influence on members’ attitudes about philanthropy, nonprofit and government roles, and political/social abilities and values. Level of engagement, length of engagement, and size of the giving circle seem to matter most, when it comes to understanding giving circles’ effects on members.
Examples of giving circles include the Zawadi giving circle in New Orleans, where 12 African American members collectively donated $24,000 over a two-year period. Their money has provided intensive math tutoring for students at a local school, along with other projects.
The Queer Youth Fund, established in 2002 and based in Los Angeles, California, has invested more than $3 million in grants to small youth-led organizations in the United States and Canada that promote equality and justice for lesbian, gay, transgender, queer and questioning (LGBTQQ) youth.
Founded in 2004, The African American Giving Circle of the Washington Area Women's Foundation has awarded over $120,000 in grants to community based organizations in Washington, D.C. serving African American women and girls.
Dining for Women (DFW) is a giving circle headquartered in Greenville, South Carolina with chapters in other parts of the United States, which raises monthly for international charities that support women and girls facing extreme challenges in developing countries.
In 2006, Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy (AAPIP) established a giving circle movement that has resulted in the distribution of over $1 million to Asian American communities across the United States. Included in this growing network of giving circles are the Lunar Giving Circle in San Francisco, Asian Giving Circle in Chicago, Cherry Blossom Giving Circle in Washington, D.C. and GVNGTogether in Boston, Massachusetts.
The Kew Giving Circle in Kew, south west London, started meeting in January 1999 and is still active. It is the first recorded giving circle in the United Kingdom. Its members contribute to a pooled Charities Aid Foundation account and meet to agree payments from the account to their selected charities.
The Funding Network is the largest known and first open giving circle in the UK. It is a charity that runs Dragons' Den-style events to bring together potential donors and charities to fund positive social change. To date it has raised over £5 million for over 700 projects across the globe.
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