On Wednesday, February 3rd, Philanthropy Together hosted the second part of their webinar series surrounding giving circles and social justice. Moderated by LiJia Gong of Radfund, the panel featured Sarah David Heydemann (Radfund), Mario Lugay (Justice Funders Giving Side), Marsha Morgan (Community Investment Network), and Sian Miranda Singh ÓFaoláin.
Sara Lomelin, Executive Director of Philanthropy Together, introduced the day’s moderator and panelists, and encouraged attendees to share their locations and organizations.
The Social Justice Giving Circle Project
Gong began by introducing The Social Justice Giving Circle Project, which explores the relationship between giving circles and today’s social justice movements, both how it currently exists and what’s possible in the future.
She asked for survey responses for The Social Justice Giving Circle Project. In partnership with Philanthropy Together, The Social Justice Giving Circle Project aims to explore how giving circles can embody values of social justice, and how they can work within social justice movements.
“What can we do together that we cannot do apart?” Gong asked. “We are all mutually bound together.”
Gong encouraged thinking about giving not from the perspective of charity, but rather from the perspective that we are all bound together — and by working together, we can elevate each other.
Gong turned the conversation over to Mario Lugay who began with a gratitude exercise to set the tone for the conversation.
Lugay encouraged attendees to offer thanks to the influential people who have led them to the world of philanthropy and giving circles. Each of the panelists shared the people they are most grateful for in their philanthropic journeys.
“Our legacy as organizers is tied to the personal transformations you allow others to have, and the way others are transformative for you,” said Lugay.
Our Vision for Social Justice
Gong kicked off the panel by asking about the “big picture” of the panelists’ hopes for social justice, as well as how giving circles can fit into it. “What is your radical vision for social justice?” she asked.
“Liberation,” ÓFaoláin said. “By that I mean being free from, and healing from, all forms of oppression.” She stressed the importance of the economy to this process, when society is set up to equally support all people, as well as the idea of “collective liberation,” rather than liberation for a select few.
“I don’t think my vision is very radical,” said Morgan. “I think it’s just the way things should be.” In Morgan’s vision for social justice, “people have the ability to thrive,” and society exists as a joyful, happy, and connected community. “When I think of barriers to that, that is what keeps us from that ‘radical vision.’ A lot of times when people hear the term ‘social justice,’ it can be offsetting to them — but we’re not talking about something that is unfair or oppressive, we’re talking about what should be toward the greater good, for all of humanity, for everyone.”
“We need direct accountability for people in power,” added Heydemann. The current system does not allow societies to hold their leaders accountable in the ways necessary for progress toward social justice.
How Does Collective Giving Further Social Justice?
Heydemann shared the structure of Radfund, a New York-based giving circle, which asks participants to pledge 1% of their income and 0.1% of their wealth to a “collective pot,” in which the funds are redistributed to causes and organizations furthering social justice. She pointed out that for people who might struggle to provide a flat-fee contribution, like the average $1,000 attributed to American giving circles, associating a 1% contribution instead makes it possible for more people to participate and further their impact.
“We recognize the power and privilege that comes with the wealth and income that we have, and we’re committed to breaking down the barriers between our communities with the giving process,” she said.
Morgan, a member of the Birmingham Change Fund, spoke to her organization’s mission to improving life in Birmingham for African Americans. “When I think of ‘radical vision,’ the beauty of being part of a giving circle is that it allows you to own the solution to the problem,” she said. “We believe that community knows what community needs, and giving circles allow us to hear from the community. We listen and lead with the community, instead of having a top-down approach.”
ÓFaoláin spoke to “giving projects,” which are housed at social justice foundations. These projects are 6-month programs with around 20 people, who come together to learn skills in fundraising and grantmaking, while also raising funds within their communities. These programs encourage “one-on-one direct asks with people [the participants] have real relationships with,” as opposed to online “parties” or platforms like GoFundMe. At the end of the education program, the participants complete a grantmaking period with the funds they’ve raised.
“There’s a lot of overlap with social justice giving circles, too,” she said. “These projects advance liberation by preparing participants to recognize how we’ve all experienced the connection between money, race, class, and all those different dynamics.”
“Fundamentally, it’s about disconnecting ourselves from our sense of worth based on the funds we have access to,” she added, speaking to dismantling the sense of shame many people feel for their senses of financial value within an already broken system.
The Role of Relationships, Community, and Connections: Growing Beyond Giving
Morgan shared a story from the Birmingham Change Fund, in which the organization narrowed its focus on education and moved beyond simple financial giving. “We connected with everyone from teachers, retired librarians, and parents to the school superintendent. We wanted to make sure we had a true understanding of what was happening in our school system.”
In visiting schools and connecting with the community, the Fund was able to identify areas for improvement in the school system, and catalyze its members and community to fight for civil change. Two members of the Fund ran for the district school board based on this campaign, one of whom went on to become the President of the School Board, and later, Mayor of the city of Birmingham.
“Giving circles are in the community and of the community,” she said. “They are a tremendous way for you to understand the needs of the community, and for you as an individual, organization, or community to come together to solve the problems within our communities.”
“One key piece of the way we give [at Radfund] is that we don’t require any reporting,” added Heydemann. “We respect that it takes a lot of money and time to engage with funders. We want to build a relationship — we’re trusting these organizations to carry out the kind of work [that inspired us to] come together in community in the first place.”
Alternative Funding Sources for Alternative Solutions
ÓFaoláin spoke to the formation of the “giving project” structure, which is based on community engagement. “We were in this moment [after the 2000s recession] where we wanted to combine political education, participatory grantmaking, and community funding. We developed the giving project system out of necessity, to bring in younger funders and people of color.”
ÓFaoláin described giving projects as “an alternative to mainstream outlets of funding,” after seeing the difficulties many classic organizations have to immediately respond to landmark moments like the murder of George Floyd or the COVID-19 pandemic. “For the giving project, we tend to have a diverse mix of people, including representatives from grassroots organizations, high net worth individuals, and working class folks. Through this experience, members have been able to build their own leadership.”
“How do we shift our relationship to money so that we can make demands around the distribution of wealth?” she asked. “Instead of making capitalism ‘nicer,’ how do we change the system?”
Expanding Impact with Political Homes, Not Just Giving
Lugay spoke to encouraging community members to run for office. “Imagine that your giving circle was a place that actively sought to see each other’s leadership in the room,” he said. “Answering that call is a powerful story.”
He also stressed the importance of the role of “political homes,” places within our communities that offer alternate perspectives to our own and give us the opportunity to expand our values and further our own social missions. According to Lugay, giving circles offer a new kind of “political home.”
“Giving circles find themselves at this fork in the road: In one direction is the pull of ‘big philanthropy’ and wealth,” he explained. “This forces giving circles to prioritize the financial part. The other direction are the ones shared [in this call], to move toward a political home. Places that are great with giving, but also form relationships with social justice movements and encourage us to develop critical skills.”
Lugay also spoke to the value of love within these political homes. “It’s a type of love that is explicitly challenging. Big philanthropy has a vested interest in the spread of philanthropic culture. The centrality of giving money in our social justice movements often hides a bigger question: Are they a good person?”
“We’re not asking how giving circles are ceilings to the ways we participate,” he said, “but how they are springboards that propel us to consider all of the ways in which we might contribute collectively.”
The afternoon closed with breakout groups in Zoom, as webinar attendees shared their experiences with founding, joining, and growing giving circles.
To learn more about Philanthropy Together, visit their website at www.philanthropytogether.org.
About the Panelists
LiJia Gong is a lawyer working to support state and local governments in protecting and advocating for civil rights, economic justice, and environmental protection at Public Rights Project. She is a founding member of Radfund, a giving circle that gives to folks organizing around racial economic justice in NYC.
Mario Lugay partners with philanthropy and field practitioners to design, pilot and scale both innovation and coordinated action that advances social movements through his work at Justice Funders. He is also the founder of the technology platform, Giving Side. Mario is a long-time philanthropic and nonprofit consultant, speaker and trainer.
Marsha Morgan is one of the founding members of the Birmingham Change Fund. Currently, she serves as the immediate past Chair of the Community Investment Network, a national network of 19 giving circles impacting African American and communities of color. Marsha has a background in engineering, regulatory compliance, and project
management, with nearly 20 years of energy industry experience.
Sarah David Heydemann is a long-time labor and workers’ rights advocate. She is a founding member of Radfund. She works as a Senior Counsel at the National Women’s Law Center, engaging in state and federal policy advocacy and litigating on issues like sexual harassment, equal pay, and pregnancy discrimination.
Sian Miranda Singh ÓFaoláin is Co-Director of the Giving Project Network, a collaboration of 10 social justice funds. Sian has worked as an organizer, evaluator, and fundraiser within social justice organizations focused on economic justice, migration, human rights, and racial justice for over ten years.
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