Sharing Power to Unlock Collective Giving Growth and Systems Change

Editor’s Note: The following Op-Ed is by Sara Lomelin, executive director of Philanthropy Together and Sudha Nandagopal, chief executive officer of Social Venture Partners International and Reimagine Giving.

2020 has been a year of crises on top of crises. Yet despite millions being out of work and the COVID pandemic raging, Americans are civically engaged like never before—whether through the elections, protests for Black Lives Matter, forming mutual aid groups or giving in record numbers. 

sharing power
Sudha Nandagopal, chief executive officer of Social Venture Partners International and Reimagine Giving (Image Credit: Sudha Nandagopal)

Indeed, donations during the coronavirus crisis quickly surpassed amounts given following the September 11 terrorist attacks. And giving to racial justice organizations, civil rights groups, and bail funds reached unprecedented levels following the murder of George Floyd.

This outpouring of support sends an encouraging message: those in a position to give are eager to help. But what comes next? For too many donors, the answer is not much. Broad societal problems like the ones we see today—racial and gender injustices, broken economic systems, environmental challenges, to name a few—require a systemic response. Individual giving—which accounts for more than 80% of the sector—is crucial, but is more often than  not done on a whim, without intention, strategy, or long-term commitment to addressing these same societal problems.

Sara Lomelin, executive director of Philanthropy Together (Image credit: Sara Lomelin)

As philanthropy leaders adapt to this moment, we must help those awakened by these crises stay engaged for the long-term. Large philanthropy, specifically large foundations, need to embrace innovative models, donor networks, and intermediary organizations that encourage sustained and deeper levels of engagement. Here’s a roadmap for catalyzing even more giving and collective power.   

Institutional Funders Must:

1. Redefine Who Qualifies as a Philanthropist  

For too long, an idea has persisted that only those with exorbitant wealth could make worthy philanthropic contributions. This gave wealthy donors outsized power and influence over how communities addressed societal problems. As a result, individual donors today are often viewed as people with wealth to give, rather than as members of communities they are committing to change. Their wealth becomes an end in and of itself, rather than a means for creating lasting movements. Reframing philanthropists as people in communities committed to making change—no matter their level of wealth—removes this disconnect and encourages deeper involvement.

We have seen how this shift can be successful through collective giving vehicles such as Social Venture Partners (SVP) and giving circles—groups of individuals that pool their talent, time, and resources to address a community-based cause.

2. Reimagine What it Means to Give and Share Power

Writing a check is a great first step for a donor. But to maximize the impact of those dollars, donors who are becoming active need opportunities to learn together, bring others into the fold, and share their power. 

One way we’ve seen donor engagement enable this is by creating spaces for donors to be alongside community leaders and for each to see each other as peers and colleagues in learning about and creating systems change. Giving circle members are often connected to the causes and organizations they support through their own lived experiences. This makes them especially effective voices for change, and people who are well-positioned to use their power on behalf of social change leaders. SVP’s research found that donors within their network had a 66% increase in volunteering and research on giving circles overall have found that members give more, more strategically, and are enticed to join a giving circle because of the opportunity to engage more deeply on a cause or issue.

This kind of work strengthens our movements from the ground up and models the world we are trying to build rather than reinforcing the systems that made philanthropy a requirement in the first place. 

3.  Reshape How Donors Give from Individual to Collective

Giving as a collective is much more powerful than giving in isolation, both for the donor experience and for community impact. 

If we want donors to participate in efforts led by those closest to these systemic challenges—Black, Indigenous, and People of Color communities who have long been left out of major philanthropic funding—collective giving models make an important impact.  Encouraging donors to give collectively, and supporting the infrastructure needed to make that possible, provides a simple way for donors to give and to shift power and authority for decision making to these communities. A collective giving approach also enables donors to have a birds eye view of the broader system and to become aware of new opportunities to direct their resources to grassroots organizations instead of only funding large, well-known organizations. 

Many social change leaders worry that the donor support of 2020 will wither in the coming years as distance grows from some of this year’s immediate crises. Giving circles are a way to convert individual action into a systemic response and enable a robust and equitable culture of giving. This approach raises more money and shifts philanthropy from a transactional step to active participation in movement building. 

The bottom line: Large foundations seeking to catalyze more racial and gender justice and systems change must step up funding for philanthropic infrastructure and donor engagement.   

Funders are moving big dollars to rapid response funds and those hardest hit. However, it would be shortsighted not to support the long-term engagement of donors who can become true advocates for those changes. To leverage and multiply the impact of funding direct COVID-19 relief and racial and gender justice organizing, we will need donor networks and giving circles to sustain and engage donors in systemic change. Donors are seeking new opportunities to participate in systems change and the enthusiasm for giving circles continues to grow; it’s time now to make these transformational changes. 

As communities continue to grapple with COVID-19 and ongoing work for racial and gender justice, philanthropic leaders are looking inward. As a historically exclusive sector, it’s time for us to ask ourselves how we can become more inclusive and movement-aligned as we respond to the urgency of this time. We have an opportunity to capitalize on this moment and organize one-time donors in a way that forges lifelong two-way relationships with all of our communities. Let’s seize it. 

Sara Lomelin is the executive director of Philanthropy Together and Sudha Nandagopal is the chief executive officer of Social Venture Partners International and Reimagine Giving.


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Author: Kiersten Marek

Kiersten Marek, LICSW, is the founder of Philanthropy Women. She practices clinical social work and writes about how women donors and their allies are advancing social change.

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