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!”
Several other Womenade groups have sprung up across the country, each one shaped by its founders and place. For example, Shelley Lakes, of Apex, North Carolina, read an article about the D.C. Womenade group. As a nurse, she had a special concern for the precariousness of many women’s lives—how combinations of illness and insufficient financial resources or family ties could be devastating. When such crises hit some women in her church, Lakes remembered the Womenade model. She called together women from her congregation and a couple of others in the area to create their own circle—Womenade SOS (“Sisters of Servanthood”).
Womenade SOS embraces a specifically faith-based identity. Their Web site explains that they are inspired by Ezekiel 22:30 to be women who “stand in the gap” for other women through prayer and financial help. They hold potlucks four times a year with each participant giving what she feels called and able to. In between potlucks, a volunteer board fields referrals of women with emergency needs and disburses the funds in the form of one-time grants of $500 or less. Typical of the 28 women they’ve helped since forming in February 2006: a single mother with breast cancer who needed help with utility payments while undergoing chemotherapy.
Their circle is a space for learning as much as for doing good. Says Lakes, “I think it’s been a revelation to some of our members that so much poverty is at our back door—that there are people here who live hand-to-mouth every day and women who struggle with abandonment or abuse with no way to get away.”
Circles come in myriad sizes and styles, from low-key groups that fit around a kitchen table to groups with dozens of members and elegant events. They may focus on emergency needs, youth programs, or the arts. Individual contributions range from pay-what-you can to minimums of a few thousand dollars. Circle members may also volunteer time or offer technical assistance (such as PR or legal help) to local organizations, further enhancing the civic engagement and face-to-face relationship-building power of circles.
The Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers notes that circles are often “made up of the very people who have been alienated from more established philanthropic vehicles: women, people of color, young people, and people with limited disposable income.” This speaks to circles’ kinship with the mutual aid societies and fraternal organizations that were vital for the survival of many groups in our country. The first African-American self-help societies formed in the 1780s, a way to pool money to provide support for widows, orphans, the sick, and the unemployed. Similar organizations were founded by Polish, Irish, Italian, and other immigrants. Groups founded with a sense of shared identity also affected politics and shaped culture. For instance, circles of African-American women in cities like Boston raised funds to support the abolitionist cause. Now groups such as the AsiaNextGen Giving Circle in New York City, started by young Asian-American professionals, or the Washington, D.C.-area Black Benefactors continue the tradition.
Giving circles aren’t a magic solution to all the world’s ills. They can’t replace community organizing or public policy advocacy to create a better social safety net. But they do help nurture local cultural and service institutions while bringing together people in a shared cause. Giving circles demonstrate that moving our money toward the common good can in itself be a communal and educational endeavor—a way to reweave some frayed spots in our civic culture. And they prove that you don’t need to be Bill Gates to be a philanthropist: By pooling their money and energy, people of modest means can make a substantial impact.
Who needs a charity ball when you can have a potluck?
Julie Polter is an associate editor of Sojourners. For resources on giving circles, visit Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers (www.givingforum.org) or Giving Circles Network (www.givingcircles.org).