What’s Up With Giving Circles?


Let’s talk about giving circles, a quickly growing source of funds for nonprofits throughout the U.S. Giving circles have tripled in number since 2007. There are now over 1,600 giving groups in the U.S. today and it is a growing component of philanthropy in Australia and Canada as well. Giving circles (GCs) are becoming an increasingly popular way for donors from a diverse array of backgrounds to support charitable organizations or projects of mutual interest. In fact, recent research on the state of GCs in the U.S. found that they have engaged at least 150,000 people in all 50 states and given as much as $1.29 billion since their inception. (Collective Giving Research Group, 2017)

GCs come in many shapes and sizes. The average membership size is about 115 donors, although at their inception they are often just a dozen or so people. According to a recent report issued by the Collective Giving Research Group and the Women’s Philanthropy Institute “A majority of these GCs are created around a particular identity including gender, race, age, and religion. Recent research suggests that GCs have become more inclusive of income levels as the average and most frequent amount given by individual donors has been decreasing, while total dollars donated by GCs are increasing.”

The report, Giving Circle Membership: How Collective Giving Impacts Donors, goes on to state that “Giving circles and other collective giving groups have received attention for their capacity to reach a broad range of donors, their flexible and authentic appeal for donor engagement, and their democratic approach to building a culture of philanthropy.”
Interestingly, the report indicates that individual members of GCs:

- give more money and time than donors not in a GC;
- are more motivated to give for proactive, community-oriented reasons;
- are more likely to use a variety of giving vehicles;
- are more engaged in civic and political activities;
- leverage their social networks more strategically for philanthropic advice; and,
- have more diverse social networks.

As the number of GC’s grow, they will undoubtedly branch out in terms of the types of issues they support, and the make-up of the groups themselves. According to a press release regarding this new report, issued by Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy (November 13, 2018), “To better understand these dynamics, the study examined GC members according to how long they had participated in the GC. The rationale for this comparison is that historically GC membership has been dominated by educated, older, white women with high incomes. The larger GC member sample in this study reflects this trend. Dividing the sample according to how long members have participated in a GC allows for deeper understanding about the changing demographics of GC members.” It is an interesting report that sheds some much needed light on GCs, how they are working today, and what we can expect in the future.

Should you be looking to giving circles for support?
First, it is important to understand that just as GCs are a common entry point for individuals wanting to participate more fully in the philanthropic process (not just donating online to a cause or organization, for example), it is also an important entry point for organizations just breaking into the world of grantseeking. And there is enough data around GCs to confirm that their funds tend to stay local. According to Dr. Julia L. Carboni, Assistant Professor at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, “In our landscape survey, we found that 85% of funds stay local.” According to Dr. Angela M. Ekenberry, University of Nebraska at Omaha, and author of Who Benefits From Giving Circles in the U.S. and the U.K., giving circles tend to fund certain types of organizations — often those that are small and locally based, startups, and newer organizations that are reorganizing or transitioning, those that have a business orientation, and those that can engage members or show significant impact in relation to their size.

Examples of giving circles
GCs seem to be much more flexible than traditional private foundations when it comes to funding. Now I don’t know if this is a result of their being fairly new at grantmaking, or whether it is simply that these individuals identify more strongly with the nonprofit organizations they fund and are averse to making them jump through hoops.

Let me share with you a few examples of GCs operating in the U.S. There are 52 IMPACT 100 groups throughout the country, with another half dozen or so just starting up. These GCs are made up of at least 100 women who give a minimum of $1,000 per year. Each group follows a specific model that has been developed by the IMPACT 100 Council.

A typical example of one of these GCs, IMPACT 100 of Northwest Florida, is made up of a group of women that seeks to transform the lives of people in Okaloosa and Walton counties in Florida by funding transformational, high impact projects. This GC gives in a variety of areas such as education, environment, health and recreation, arts and culture, etc. Grants are provided for new programs, significant expansions of existing programs, and collaborative efforts of several agencies.

Many GCs focus on a specific geographic area. The Beehive Collective, a GC in Raleigh, NC, awards grants to nonprofit organizations working toward making Raleigh a better place. Each year the Beehive Collective provides a large grant ranging up to $50,000 over two years to a nonprofit organization that addresses the current year's theme. (The theme for 2018 was food security.) They also provide several smaller grants. Support is provided for Raleigh-based programs that build community through direct services, advocacy, or public engagement.

Some GCs focus on a specific culture, such as the Saffron Circle. The members are dedicated to creating positive social change in the Asian community in Massachusetts, with emphasis on the greater Boston area. Saffron Circle provides grants ranging from $5,000 to $10,000, with priority given to collaborative models, organizations and projects that directly engage members of Asian communities to create change in their community, and new and emerging agencies.

You will also find GCs that are focused on gender specific issues, For example, the LGBT Giving Circle, hosted by the Rochester Community Foundation in Minnesota, unites donors to support organizations that serve, are inclusive of, or are allied with the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community to enhance and strengthen the Rochester region.

Is the giving circle application process easier?
The answer to that question is both yes and no. For those GCs that give larger awards the process can be just as involved as applying to a foundation. For example, all of the Impact 100 groups provide fairly large grants of $100,000, and their application process mirrors the standard routine of submitting a letter of inquiry, then a full request, followed by a site visit before an award is made.

However, many other GCs, such as the Cherry Blossom Giving Circle in D.C., offer an application process that is exceedingly simple. In fact, Cherry Blossom describes their process this way: Our application is the same simplified one from last year, so we hope that it will be easy for you to apply for a grant.

Where can you find information about giving circles?
GrantStation takes great pride in providing comprehensive, high quality profiles of current funders. If you are a Member of GrantStation you can do most of your GC research using our database. However, if you are not a member of GrantStation, start by asking your regional community foundation if they know of any GCs in the area. Many of these groups are hosted by community foundations. Even if the GC is not hosted by the community foundation, you can bet they know if any exist in your area. There is also a listing of GCs on the IMPACT 100 Council website.

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