By Felicia Herman
Giving circles, groups who pool donations and decide together which causes to support, are a powerful tool for providing anyone – at any age, in any place, at any giving level – with access to an exciting, intentional giving experience. Giving circle members learn and do something about the issues that mean the most to them within their community of friends, family, fellow program alumni – anyone.
As part of our effort to expand and strengthen giving circles in the Jewish community, Amplifier: The Jewish Giving Circle Movement is proud to present this seven-part series to help you start and sustain a giving circle inspired by Jewish values. This series draws upon Amplifier’s Resource Library and the experiences of dozens of giving circles already in the Amplifier network.
Becoming an Empowered (Not Reactive) Giver
We Can Give Better
As the readers of eJewishPhilanthropy know well, we’ve just wrapped up the annual end-of-year fundraising crush. Nearly a third of online contributions are made in December, with 10% coming in the last three days of the year alone.
In a way, the annual barrage of street corner, mailbox, and inbox appeals is useful for potential givers: it keeps giving at top-of-mind during a season that’s also about over-eating, over-spending, and over-the-top celebrating. At their best, these appeals inspire us (or guilt-trip us) to be generous.
Far too often, however, the onslaught of requests also produces anxiety and annoyance. Without proactive guiding principles or objectives, our giving can feel incoherent, haphazard, and random. Our donations tend to go to organizations that find us and win our attention – those with persistent and compelling marketing tactics, or with familiar household names, rather than those with the best track records or that best meet our personal values and goals.
This reactive approach to giving makes giving far less rewarding and meaningful than it should be. While we usually think about giving in terms of the impact on the recipients, it’s also critically important to consider the impact on ourselves as givers as well. After all, if giving doesn’t inspire us or make us feel like we’re making a difference, then we’ll be less likely to give in the future, or to give as generously as we can.
How do we take back our experience of giving and become producers of our own philanthropic experiences? How do we become proactive, empowered, intentional – and yes, even joyful – givers?
We Can Give Together
As I spoke about recently in my ELI Talk “Empowered Philanthropy,” one answer is to start or join a giving circle.
A giving circle is a group of friends, family, or colleagues who pool their charitable donations and decide together where to give them. Giving circles answer many of the challenges of reactive giving. They’re:
- Intentional: Giving circle members decide together what values and issues are most important to them, and then decide which organizations to fund.
- Recurring: Most giving circles meet regularly (e.g. once a month) and operate on a repeating grantmaking cycle, which creates ongoing conversations about and engagement with giving.
- Amplified: Individual contributions add up – so though you might give just $500, you can help direct a grant of, say, $50,000. Intellectually, members benefit from each other’s knowledge of issue areas and organizations.
- Social: Giving circles don’t just get together to make grants. They eat, drink, laugh, and build a community around shared values.
Giving circles start from a place of asking members: What are your philanthropic values? What’s the change you want to make in the world? Circle members then learn together about the issues that most inspire them, and they work together to effect change through their collective giving. In many cases, circles also offer non-monetary assistance to grant recipients, including volunteer service, pro bono consulting, introductions to other potential supporters, and more.
The beauty of giving circles is that they’re infinitely customizable. Circles come together around any issue or set of values: some Jewishly-inspired circles give to Jewish causes, and others give to non-sectarian causes; there are Asian-American giving circles, African American circles, women’s circles, teen circles, LGBT circles, alumni circles, and on and on. As I’ll discuss in a later post, giving circles can be independent (like Natan or Slingshot) or housed within institutions like community foundations, Federations, JCCs, synagogues, camps, alumni groups – you name it.
I came to the giving circle experience first as a member, and then as executive director, of The Natan Fund, which engages young professionals in giving to Jewish and Israeli social innovation. At Natan, which is just one “flavor” of giving circle, our members strategize together about the goals and parameters of our grants; they read grant applications from dozens of organizations working in our multiple focus areas; they learn from content experts, community leaders and other philanthropists at regular events; they interview potential grant recipients and conduct site visits; and together they decide where Natan’s grants will be allocated. Members choose the grant area(s) their contributions will support, which allows each person control over where their money goes, with full transparency into how funds will be spent by grant recipients.
Working collaboratively, Natan members leverage the financial and intellectual capital of other members and together, they make wise decisions that have real impact. Natan has given away almost $10 million in its lifetime – consisting entirely of member contributions.
Giving circles offer a version of tzedakah that is empowered, intentional, and fun. For hundreds of thousands of members worldwide, they have unlocked new philanthropic, educational, and communal experiences. Most importantly, they really work: research has shown that members of giving circles give more, give more strategically, and engage more deeply in their communities than non-giving circle members.
We Can Build a Movement
People who participate in giving circles – of all shapes and sizes, with any type of focus area – know that they’re one of the most powerful ways to engage people in meaningful experiences of giving, learning, and building values-driven communities.
So what would it take to significantly expand the number of giving circles inspired by Jewish values? What resources could we create to make starting and sustaining a giving circle as simple, smart, and efficient as possible – to engage as many people as possible in this awesome experience?
Thus was born Amplifier: The Jewish Giving Circle Movement, the result of the ideas and hard work of dozens of partners who together envisioned and prioritized a toolkit of online and offline resources.
Natan is “powering” Amplifier, which is being supported in its pilot phase by a seed grant from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, but in the true spirit of collaboration, we’re harnessing the wisdom of our colleagues and partners at every stage.
We’ve created a directory of giving circles to make it easier to connect to existing circles for funding, advice, potential membership opportunities, even for partnerships between circles.
To share best practices between circles and to make starting and operating a circle as efficient as possible, we created online circle administration tools and a Resource Library to host materials written by Amplifier and our partners.
To tackle the huge set of challenges circles face around grantmaking – identifying potential grant recipients, getting the word out about grant opportunities, and organizing the administrative elements of the application review process – we built a Common Grant Application viewable only by registered giving circles, which also populates a publicly-accessible, searchable directory of organizations. Circles can use our Grant Opportunity system to issue public calls for applications, and the administrative tools for circles enable them to review, discuss and select applications with their group.
Offline, Amplifier is providing support and advice to giving circles through incubators, coaching, training, and convenings. (You can still register for upcoming convenings in February in San Diego and March in Tel Aviv.)
Our first pilot program, a giving circle incubator, launched 16 new giving circles around the world with 150+ members who have already given over $75,000 to organizations focusing on a wide range of causes.
Our goal is nothing less than to transform the experience of giving inspired by Jewish values, and to inspire more people to use giving as a way to engage in Jewish values and Jewish life. As we’ve seen at Natan and in the circles we partner with, being part of a giving circle is a way that all of us can be actively, joyfully involved in the holy work of spreading our money around, encouraging things to grow. If you are interested in learning more, please reach out to Hello@AmplifierGiving.org.
Next up: More than Money: Engagement, Education & Building Community