Activating Philanthropy – Part Four: How to Start a Giving Circle

Editor’s Note: This article is Part Four in our four-part Activating Philanthropy series. In this series, we explore ways to bring your philanthropic ideals into your everyday life, activating the lessons we’ve learned along the way. For the rest of the series, check out Part One: Philanthropy in Daily Routines, Part Two: How to Call Your Congresswoman, and Part Three: Talking to Family Members About Giving. 

giving circle
The Women’s Giving Circle of Harford Count presented TasteWise Kids a $5,000 grant for its Days of Taste Program. The check presentation included Kim Malat, Sherifa Clarke, Riva Kahn, Ennise Bloom and Alice Welsh Leeds. In 2019, the Women’s Giving Circle of Harford County awarded 13 grants to nonprofits serving women and children, totaling nearly $45,000. (Image Credit: Jessica Moser / Baltimore Sun)

We’re almost finished with our Activating Philanthropy series! Thanks for joining us for this four-week series on activating philanthropy in your everyday life. Now that we’ve covered the basics, we’re tying everything together with one of the simplest and most effective forms of collaborative philanthropy: the giving circle

What is a giving circle? How do they work? And most importantly, how do you form a giving circle? 

What is a giving circle?

A giving circle is a group of people who pool their resources to drive social change. Most circles focus on the philanthropic side of things, providing funding to charitable foundations and grassroots organizations focused on a specific campaign or cause. Other circles, known as investment circles, drive change through impact investing: fast capital for companies and organizations committed to social change, rather than funding for specific campaigns. 

Both types of circle follow a similar model, in which members contribute a specific amount (usually a flat “membership fee” or percentage-based tithe system), then vote on which organizations will receive funding from the circle. The circle then takes the pooled funds and makes gifts based on the circle members’ votes. 

For more information on the “giving circle vs investment circle” question, check out our interview with Ellen Remmer of Invest for Better and Elisabeth Williams of AWE Partners, LLC

How do I form a giving circle?

There are five basic steps for forming a giving circle:

  • Step One: Decide on your goals, mission, and structure. This includes how many members you want in your circle, how much your “dues” will be, any specific impact areas you want to focus on, and how you’ll dole out funding. On the logistical side, also consider where and how often you’ll meet, your system for voting on grantees, and the time commitments required from members.
  • Step Two: Recruit members and assign roles. Talk to your friends, your family, your coworkers, and your dentist — bring in as many people as possible who are charged up and ready to make a difference. At your first few meetings, assign roles as needed — such as a treasurer to collect the dues, a communications expert to keep everyone in touch, and a facilitator to take votes and moderate meetings.
  • Step Three: Collect dues. This might not be everyone’s favorite part, but it’s crucial to the success of your organization. When you decided the structure of your giving circle, you decided when and how much each member should give — for example, annual dues may be collected upon joining the circle, then on a quarterly or annual basis. If members of the circle struggle to meet a flat rate minimum, consider a percentage-based commitment or “sponsorships” from other circle members. Many successful circles only assign one grantee vote per member, regardless of the amount of money they’ve contributed.
  • Step Four: Distribute funds. This is the fun part! Based on members’ votes and dues, decide on the placement of your funds. Some circles choose to make one lump sum donation to one organization per year, while others choose a few tiered grantees to receive smaller amounts each quarter. Whatever works for your circle, establish trusted methods of distributing funds to your grantees.
  • Step Five: Evaluate your progress. Look back on your progress from your first grant cycle. What went well? What would you improve on next time? Now, start recruiting more members and collecting dues again — and get ready for the next round of grantees! 

How do I expand my giving circle’s impact?

The best way to grow a giving circle is to communicate and collaborate. Establish relationships with other circle leaders and circle members, coordinate cross-circle events, and stay up to date with campaigns on social media. 

As a bonus, you might consider joining a circle incubator, like Invest for Better’s Circle Leader program or Philanthropy Together’s Launchpad program. These programs offer resources and mentorship for new circles, as well as case studies from past circles that have maximized their impact.

For more information on starting and growing your own giving circle, check out the 2020 update to Sondra Shaw Hardy’s “how-to” booklet, created in partnership with WGCI and the Women’s Philanthropy Institute. “Creating a Women’s Giving Circle: A Handbook” is available in full color (and with interactive workbook pages!) on Amazon.

Giving circles are just one of the many ways you can activate philanthropy in your everyday life.  By pooling our resources, expertise, and experiences, we can make a greater impact on the world. 

And that’s a wrap on our Activating Philanthropy series! For more ways to activate philanthropy in your life, check out the first three articles in the series: Part One: Philanthropy in Daily Routines, Part Two: What It Means to “Call Your Congresswoman”, and Part Three: Talking to Family Members (Who Don’t Want to Talk to You).


Related:

(Liveblog) Women’s Giving Circles: The Future of Latin America

Liveblog of WPI: How Giving Circles Diversify Philanthropy

Enrolling Now: Launchpad, a Giving Circles Incubator

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Author: Maggie May

Maggie May is a small business owner, author, and story-centric content strategist headquartered in Annapolis, MD and Philadelphia, PA. She has a passion for finding stories and telling them the way they're meant to be told.

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