Philanthropy in the news usually involves big money and big names: Bill Gates doing good with another few million or the powerhouse alumna who buys a university building. But for most of us, charitable giving is a private, even individualistic act: Decide where to give (perhaps after a conversation with a family member), then write a check or punch in a credit card at a Web site.
Nothing wrong with that—writing checks alone certainly seems more natural than bowling alone, that oft-cited marker of a crumbling civic life. But might we benefit from making generosity a team sport?
“Giving circles” are a form of grassroots, cooperative philanthropy. A group of people pool their money, educate themselves about community needs and potential recipients, then give grants. It has been described as people “giving to their community, in community.”
Giving circles first emerged in the 1990s. A 2006 study by the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers found that giving circles continue to multiply at a steady rate, are now popular among a variety of demographic groups, and are responsible for millions of dollars of giving each year. This cultural phenomenon has drawn the attention of popular magazines such as People and Real Simple, which have further spread the idea.
Take the Washington (D.C.) Womenade circle. Dr. Amy Kossoff often paid out of her own pocket to meet her homeless patients’ emergency needs—a set of dentures or a bag of groceries. The cumulative cost became too much to sustain on her own, so in 2001 she and friends decided to hold potlucks where they gathered donations to create an ongoing emergency fund for the people most in need in their area. Their slogan: “With lemons, make lemonade—with women, make womenade!”