By Felicia Herman
This article is Part 2 in a series about giving circles. (Read Part 1 here.) 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.
Part 2 – More than Money: Engagement, Education & Building Community
The first thing most people think of when they hear “giving circle” is money. That makes sense: as I discussed in Part I of this series, giving circles are about giving money and empowering givers to give proactively and thoughtfully to effect real change in the world.
But we unlock giving circles’ true power when we begin to think about them also as multi-faceted programs with tremendous potential for engaging, inspiring, educating, and building community. That people are also giving through this mechanism is often just icing on the cake.
Part of Amplifier‘s goal is to demonstrate the diversity of giving circles, helping people to realize that anyone – any group of individuals, any institution – can adapt the model in beneficial ways. Giving circles are yet another example of the trend toward empowered Jewish experiences – an excellent way to experience being part of a Jewish community of your own making. What independent minyanim have done for Jewish religious life, what Kevah is doing for customized Jewish learning, and what Moishe House does for creating grassroots living communities, giving circles can do for Jewish giving. Just like we believe people should feel empowered to give in ways that resonate with their values and goals, we also believe that individuals should be empowered to create their own communities and to be inspired by real and substantive engagement with the issues that mean the most to them.
Form Follows Function
We like to say that giving circles are infinitely customizable. Form follows function: each giving circle reflects the culture and the goals of the people who are engaged in it, the type of giving the group wants to do, and – sometimes – the goals of an entity that is hosting or sponsoring the circle.
There are (at least) four ways to classify Jewish giving circles; each circle may very well plot itself differently on each spectrum:
As an example, the giving circle that I lead, Natan, lands on the left on all four spectrums. We strive to emulate best practices in philanthropy in our grantmaking; we see our grant review process and our event calendar as ways to educate members, connecting them to Jewish issues and Jewish life in new ways (including an annual trip to Israel); we plan events, meetings, and other network-weaving activities, positioning Natan as an important personal and professional community for our members; and we primarily support Jewish and Israeli organizations. These traits and decisions reflect the interests of our particular group of members.
Other circles look very different – and that’s a good thing. There’s no standard, no “right” way to set up a giving circle: a successful circle understands its goals, maps its assets, and creates a structure to fit.
This is even true in terms of how a giving circle defines what it means to be a “Jewish” giving circle. Amplifier defines a Jewish giving circle as one that is explicitly inspired by Jewish values – no matter where it gives. This maximally inclusive description enables anyone to participate in a Jewish giving circle – you don’t even have to be Jewish! Some circles are inspired by Jewish values to give universally; others split their funding between Jewish and non-Jewish organizations; and others, like Natan, focus primarily on giving to Jewish organizations. (We discuss this topic in a little more depth in Giving to Jewish Organizations in the Amplifier Resource Library.)
Indeed, being “infinitely customizable” means that there’s no end to what giving circles can accomplish, no set of rules that giving circles must follow. It also means that there’s no limit to how many people can be engaged, in what ways, and for which purposes. Consider the following examples of the many purposes that giving circles can serve. Hopefully they will jumpstart your thinking on how you or your organization might create a giving circle in the near future!
Giving circles can engage people in Jewish life, Jewish values, and Jewish issues (and different groups can define those terms differently, as they see fit).
- A group of families can create a giving circle as a way to teach their children about giving, to engage in community service together, and to create their own Jewish community. They celebrate holidays together, talk about Jewish values around giving, and complement their financial support of local organizations with volunteer time. (Philadelphia’s Acharai Fund exemplifies much of this.)
- A program focused on expanding access to Jewish learning can create a giving circle with a curriculum exploring Jewish values about giving. For example, alumni of The Dorot Fellowship in Israel use serious Jewish learning to guide the giving of their HEKDESH giving collaborative. (Check out their incredible resources.)
Giving circles can build sticky, values-driven communities, offering families, friends, colleagues or neighbors a way to connect regularly while doing something meaningful together.
- A group of friends can create a giving circle as a substantive way to get together (in person or virtually) with each other every month or so. They may want to stay connected and to have conversations about issues that matter to them. The focus area of the giving might change over time as new issues come to the fore. They’re invested in the impact of the circle on the group – its ability to deepen their connections to each other in meaningful ways – as well as in their giving. (Some examples are T’Micha, The Giving Circle, Jewish Giving Circle – Berkeley, and The Givers’ Minyan.)
Giving circles can educate people about particular issues – while actually doing something about those issues (i.e. giving).
- A community foundation, a private foundation, or a Federation can host a short-term giving circle for donors interested in a particular issue, where the philanthropy and education pieces are taken very seriously, but building an ongoing community of people who regularly give together may be less important. (For example, see Ripe For Change, a collaboration between 21/64, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, and the New World Foundation to educate and catalyze giving to transform food systems.)
- A group of donors interested in a particular issue or field can come together to learn about and transform it. They leverage each other’s experience, expertise and financial investments, and they do a mix of collaborative and independent grantmaking. The emphasis is less on community-building, and more on learning about the field and devising new ways to collaborate. (See Areivim and The Westbury Group, among many other examples.)
Giving circles engage people in voluntarism and civil society, and educate them about the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors.
- A teen foundation might prioritize building a Jewish community within the group and giving members experiential leadership education. Very few parameters might be put around what the group can give to – but a lot of energy is dedicated to the experiences and education of members in the group. (Check out Rose Youth Foundation, The Jewish Community Youth Foundation, and the 100+ other members of the awesome Jewish Teen Funders Network.)
- Nonprofit professionals, business leaders and others who have expertise to give in addition to money can create giving circles that provide pro bono organizational consulting to grant recipients … while also building a professional network for circle members. Grants can be given to organizations working in any issue area – the criteria for selection might focus instead on grant recipients’ organizational development needs.
Giving circles can involve stakeholders and new people in organizations in new ways that can (but don’t have to) involve giving to that organization as well.
- Alumni of a program or fellowship can participate in a giving circle as a way to continue to engage experientially with the values of their program and to build a community and network of alumni. Again, where the money goes isn’t as important to anyone as is the opportunity to continue to engage with the program and to meet other alumni. (So many examples! The Dorot Fellowship’s HEKDESH, The Bronfman Fellowships Alumni Venture Fund, Challah For Hunger’s Alumni Giving Circle, Wexner Heritage Program Alumni in Atlanta …)
- A JCC (or a synagogue or a community foundation) can use a giving circle as part of its mission to build values-driven communities among subgroups of members, using the organization’s resources to engage them in Jewish life as well as in giving, whether the money goes to the organization itself or elsewhere.
In the next part of this series, I’ll walk through some of the steps to starting up a new giving circle. For now, I hope it’s clear that anyone, at any level of giving, with any focus area, caring about any issue, in (just about) any organizational framework – or independently – can start or be part of a giving circle. The clearer you can be about the many goals of your circle, the better chance you will have of creating a meaningful experience for yourself and other participants.
Take the (Easy) Next Step
I’ve drawn heavily on Amplifier’s Giving Circle Directory in this post to give a sense for the diversity of existing Jewish giving circles. For deeper dives on some of the issues covered in this post, check out Amplifier’s Resource Library; in particular the Case Studies of different circles; Giving Circle Essentials, our introduction to giving circles; and Map Your Assets: The 3Ts / 3Ws, which discusses the many things people might “donate” to a giving circle beyond money.
And stay tuned for the next installment in this series, Part 3 – Getting Started.