One Approach to Greater Impact: Giving Circles

The podcast below is from the series, “Shaping the Future of Philanthropy: Voices from Next Gen Donors”, produced by Grantcraft. Give it a listen and read Jackie Fishman’s related story about her experience with creating real impact through a giving circle.

by Jackie Fishman

Several recent studies have documented the importance of “making an impact” to younger donors. The 2013 Millennial Impact Report, for example, tells us that millennials “want their contributions, no matter the type or amount, to help achieve tangible results for a cause.” One of the key findings from Next Gen Donors: Respecting Legacy, Revolutionizing Philanthropy is that the next generation wants to use “any necessary strategies, assets, and tools – new or old – for greater impact.” And as the Connected to Give study of American Jewish Philanthropy points out, younger givers “are much more likely to have made a contribution using an innovative giving method such as via mobile phone text message, crowdfunding website, giving circle, microloan fund, or voting in an online competition…” While the desire for impact is one that donors share across the generations, the studies do bring to light the important role that these new philanthropic models can play in enabling younger givers to have greater impact by engaging them and their networks in active, thoughtful philanthropy.

The giving circle – where a group of people come together to pool their contributions and decide together where to distribute their collective funds – is one such model with tremendous potential for engaging young givers in meaningful ways, with a focus on achieving real impact. I’ve seen this firsthand as the Program Officer of the Natan Fund, a giving circle comprised of young Jewish philanthropists. Natan supports social entrepreneurs and emerging nonprofits around the world that are finding innovative ways to tackle challenges in Jewish communities. I oversee our grantmaking process, which utilizes a hands-on approach to engage young Jewish givers in strategic philanthropy. When members join Natan, they pool their charitable contributions, set our grant committees’ respective philanthropic agendas, read through multiple stages of grant proposals, meet with organizations, and allocate the group’s funds. Despite busy and conflicting schedules, members have a deep desire to be involved in the process, and they come around the table because they recognize the financial, social and intellectual power of giving collectively.

There are many reasons to join a giving circle; but let’s be honest: it’s not for everyone. It’s hard to trust your money to group decision-making and it can be a challenge to set aside differences with other circle members. Those who do decide to be part of a giving circle recognize that in exchange for some autonomy, they are gaining tremendous leverage. By combining their contributions and their knowledge with that of others, they can give much larger – and even smarter – grants than they could on their own, and thereby, hopefully, make a much greater impact on the organizations and issues they care most about. For many people this is a powerful feeling, especially if they’re not yet able or willing to give away large amounts of money on their own.

I’m always impressed by the conversations that take place when our members are making grant decisions. Natan members think critically about the applications, ask important questions related to the kind of impact they want to make, and consider the many ways that their grant dollars can make a difference. They also think beyond their financial impact, brainstorming non-financial assistance they can offer to grantees, including feedback and advice, and access to their networks of potential partners, fellow travelers, supporters, and field experts. It’s this kind of thinking that elevates the conversation, leverages members’ social and intellectual capital, and challenges group members to be critical, thoughtful, and strategic in their decision-making.

Natan happens to focus on supporting early-stage ventures in the Jewish community, but one of the beautiful things about giving circles is that they are infinitely customizable. Giving circles reflect the priorities of the people who join them: they can be small or large; in-person or digital; social, personal and/or professional; support start-ups or longstanding institutions, and so forth. What giving circles all have in common, though, is that they enable their members to have greater impact with their money and their time by giving together rather than by giving alone.

Jackie Fishman is the Program Officer at the Natan Fund. She is responsible for overseeing the grants process, researching new grants initiatives, advising Natan members on key trends in the Jewish community, and facilitating some of Natan’s grantmaking committees.

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