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Shifting Power in Philanthropy through Giving Circles

Shifting Power in Philanthropy through Giving Circles

Given the Catalogue for Philanthropy’s longstanding partnerships with various local and regional giving circles in Greater Washington, we are excited to announce that the Next Gen Giving Circle is becoming a Catalogue initiative. Since its founding in 2020 by two local philanthropic professionals, Carlyn Madden and Peter Williamson, the giving circle has raised more than $125,000 for local nonprofits and engaged 100+ local 40s-and-under professionals in philanthropy and their community.

We believe that giving circles can be a highly effective vehicle for shifting power in philanthropy. Curious about what exactly they are and how they work? Read on for a quick primer, and to learn more about what our regional giving circle scene looks like.

What are giving circles?

“Giving circles at the core are people-powered philanthropy,” said Tyeshia Wilson, Director of Engagement at Philanthropy Together. “Giving circles are powerful activation tools to advance equity in philanthropy because in them everyone has power and has the opportunity to use it.”

Put simply, a giving circle is a group of people who pool their time and money, collectively deciding where funds should go. Philanthropy Together estimates that there are more than 2,500 giving circles in the United States, with 150,000 donors having given away $1.29 billion.

This isn’t just a phenomenon in the United States. A research study released in late 2020 found 42,200 giving circle members around the world, excluding the United States, collectively investing $46 million in grants through 426 giving circles. And the collective giving movement is growing.

From the accessibility of joining or starting a giving circle to its collectivist and democratic decision-making approach to its potential for radical grassroots funding and engagement, giving circles are a high-impact model. Because there is no prerequisite to being a philanthropist, as Tyeshia Wilson noted, “there is so much diversity and inclusiveness housed in giving circles which is a counter-narrative to traditional philanthropy.” Additionally, Andrew Gibbs at the Center for Jewish Philanthropy reflected that “the opportunity to be part of an allocation process from start to finish… gives participants a sense of ownership and investment in the community.”

Our experience with giving circles at the Catalogue has demonstrated that they are a positive force for disrupting traditional philanthropy. Not only is anyone and everyone encouraged to learn about nonprofits and contribute in the ways they can, but in adopting a collaborative approach to grantmaking, the “rules” of many institutional grantmakers on which nonprofits rely can also be examined.

According to a 2019 study by the Urban Institute, the vast majority of nonprofits across the country are smaller organizations, with 66.6% operating on budgets of less than $500,000. Yet, as Emily Rasmussen wrote for the Johnson Center for Philanthropy, “the reality is, many of these nonprofits organizations struggle to survive amidst so many others.”

The Catalogue knows this struggle firsthand, both as a small nonprofit ourselves and as a champion for small nonprofits in the Greater Washington region. It can be challenging for small nonprofits to gain visibility and access to funding sources or networks, especially for small nonprofits led by people of color. We have seen how giving circles can quickly and flexibly shift their grantmaking practices to align with trust-based philanthropy, grounded in racial equity and economic justice.

What is trust-based philanthropy?

Trust-based philanthropy is a values-based grantmaking approach that is “rooted in advancing equity, shifting power, and building mutually accountable relationships” between funders and grantees. It has become increasingly clear, as Mary Broach wrote for Blue Avocado, that “both nonprofits and funders can benefit from a more transparent and honest relationship that is focused on addressing the true needs in our communities.” In essence, by recognizing the power dynamic inherent in funder-grantee relationships and committing to mutual accountability when supporting and trusting nonprofits to create change, philanthropy itself can become a much more effective and rewarding vehicle for change.

A collective giving model like that of giving circles is well-positioned to practice the principles of trust-based philanthropy and shift power in the philanthropic space. At Next Gen Giving Circle, for example, members intentionally center and prioritize equity from the application process to reviewer training, with members voting to focus the giving circle’s grant priority on racial equity and economic empowerment.

The grant application is open to nonprofits with budgets less than $1 million, and the giving circle especially encourages smaller and BIPOC-led nonprofits to apply. The application itself is streamlined and bilingual to reduce the amount of paperwork nonprofits need to complete, with an option for nonprofits to submit video instead of written applications. Funding is unrestricted so that nonprofits themselves determine where grant dollars are most needed, and grantee reports are not required.

Many other giving circles, especially our partners in the DMV Collective Giving Circle Network, are similarly committed to continually improving their grantmaking processes while educating local philanthropists. Beyond providing financial support, giving circle members are also encouraged to engage with nonprofits that have historically gone without the same level of networks or support than their more established peers.

Most importantly, giving circles give everyone the agency and platform to connect with the causes and communities they care about. When you become a member of a giving circle, you meet other likeminded people with whom you generate an even bigger impact than you can on your own. That seed of collaboration is what creates change that feels particularly fruitful and rewarding, now and in our future.

How do I get started?

There are many local and regional giving circles you can join today!

  • The Next Gen Giving Circle is currently recruiting members and is open to anyone who wants to increase their support for local community-based nonprofits. Join us today or reach out to Amanda Liaw, Manager of Communications and Marketing at the Catalogue for Philanthropy, to learn more.
  • Many Hands leverages the power of collective giving to support nonprofits serving and empowering Washington, DC area women, children, and families in socioeconomic need. They are now welcoming members for the 2023 grant cycle. Learn more about becoming a member, sustaining member, or young member.
  • Giving Together is a group of like-minded, committed women who pool funds and volunteer time to help low-income women and children in the Washington, DC area. Read their FAQs for more information on what membership looks like and become a member.
  • The Cherry Blossom Giving Circle is a group of volunteers committed to creating positive change in the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities of the Washington, DC metro area. They are always seeking new volunteers, members, and donors.
  • Collective 365 is a membership-based group of community conscious individuals who contribute their resources to give a platform for Black and Brown communities; helping them grow into community staples that can have a lasting impact in society. Get involved with their work.
  • Impact100 DC is an all-volunteer women’s philanthropic community dedicated to improving lives in the Greater Washington, DC area by collectively funding transformational grants to local nonprofit organizations. Read their FAQs for information on membership, shared membership, their fellowship program, and more. Become a member before December 31st.
  • Together Women Rise is a home for all who want to build collective power to uplift women and change the world. Learn more about how you can engage with them and get started with one of the chapters in the DC metro area.
  • Awesome Foundation DC is a giving circle collective of DC residents who help fund a wide spectrum of amazing arts, culture, and community experiences. They are part of the Awesome Foundation, an international organization with nearly one hundred chapters around the world. All chapters are entirely volunteer-run and self-funded through trustee donations. Learn more about them and indicate your interest in becoming a trustee.

Find more giving circles through the DMV Collective Giving Circle Network or visit Philanthropy Together and Grapevine’s Giving Circle Directory.

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