Giving circles bring people together to
practice collective philanthropy. In the same spirit, representatives of giving
circles and giving circle networks across the U.S. are now convening to build
power. In April 2019, 82 members of dozens of giving circles in the U.S. met
for two days in Seattle, Washington, to share stories, hopes and plans for
building a stronger giving circle movement. Women are playing a leading role in
Giving Circles Grow and Set Goals
Giving circles allow friends, neighbors, families and people with
religious, civil, cultural and other connections to learn about issues of
shared concern and decide where to donate their money. They are usually
created by women and/or members of ethnic minority, LGBTQ or other marginalized groups — those who
typically hold a lesser share of power and money in the U.S. — though many
open their doors to anyone with common values. Women make up most of their
Eileen R. Heisman, CEO of National Philanthropic Trust (NPT), has a 30 year record of professional achievements in philanthropy, but it all started with being a social worker. I wanted to learn more about Heisman’s early social work origins, and also about how she led NPT from a small nonprofit in 1996 to the $6 billion dollar grantmaking organization it is today, making an indelible imprint on the landscape of modern philanthropy.
When we began our conversation, I asked Heisman to comment on what it felt like to run the country’s largest host organization for Donor Advised Funds. “When I read my own bio, sometimes it feels kind of like an out of body experience,” said Heisman with a chuckle. “But it’s nice to be able to say all those things are true.”
For all the time and energy Heisman has put into growing NPT over the past 22 years, she says the things that have kept her up at night were more parenting-related than work-related. Her children are now young adults and Heisman, now age 64 (“I feel like I’m about 39!”), is still steering NPT toward bigger and better things, with NPT now managing over 7,400 Donor Advised Funds and continuing to grow. NPT has raised over $13 billion in charitable contributions and currently manages $7.4 billion in charitable assets, making it one of top 25 largest grantmaking institutions in the US.
Vision + Decision-Making = Success
With her breadth of experience, I asked Heisman to talk about what attributes she sees as critical to success for philanthropists today.
“Two things are key to success: having a vision and being able to make decisions in a timely way,” said Heisman. “Even if you make a wrong decision from time to time, people want to see leaders who are decisive.”
Heisman emphasized that being able to envision growing the organization is critical, even if plans take a change of direction. “I like planning and I would do a lot of incremental planning about how it was going to work.”
In terms of how to make decisions, Heisman advised, “knowing your conscience and being a great data gatherer,” as a key combination.
While seemingly obvious, Heisman says paying attention to these two key elements — vision and decision-making — will put you leagues ahead as an organizational leader. Next, Heisman credits her ability to hire well and form successful professional relationships with her staff. “Hiring smart people, making sure they have enough resources to do their job, that they’re well trained, and relying on them when you’re not the best person to make a decision,” said Heisman. “I loved the idea of hiring people who were better at something than I was, and giving them the chance to do it.”
Leadership: It’s About the Relationships
I commented on how Heisman depended on relationships to build the strength of NPT as an organization. “I think relationships are almost more important than knowledge sometimes — learning who you can trust, who is a big picture thinker, who is a detail person, who do you go to when you’re upset and angry, who can go to who to process information and they aren’t threatened by it or upset by it.”
For Heisman, this kind of relationship-building is a big key to NPT’s growth over the past two decades. She talked about keeping a close eye on the roster of people around her, choosing carefully who to be in contact with, and what the intent is of the relationship. “I love having those thought partners around me.”
Heisman also described how leaders need to be fluent in dealing with disagreement, and create an environment where people can be different but also stay connected. “So if you have divergent points of view, how do you have civil discourse about it?”
Women’s Leadership and Political Giving
On the role of women in leadership, Heisman expressed frustration at the slow pace of change. “I think that women are really effective leaders, and I’m astounded at how few women are on corporate boards or running publicly traded companies. I find it really sad and unfortunate.”
While criticizing the lack of leadership opportunities for women, Heisman suggested that the most effective way for many high net worth women to influence this problem is through political support for candidates and PACs.
“The way women come to the forefront on topics like gender equality is through PAC’s and supporting campaigns of the leaders taking us there,” said Heisman. She sees tremendous potential for philanthropic women to direct some of their resources toward gender equality political action. “Philanthropy does effect the fringes of how some ideas get started, but the real substantial things happen when the government gets involved.”
Heisman cautioned, though, that NPT’s intent is not to direct donors in giving in any way. “Donors come to us from all different arenas and political points of view,” she said. “I’m in a different position [at NPT] where my personal points of view are really not important. I really have to stay out of that public discourse, and it’s hard sometimes.”
The Potential Chilling Effect of the New Tax Law on Small Nonprofits
I offered Heisman a chance to comment on the effects of the Trump tax laws on charitable giving, particularly the laws which took away the charitable giving deduction for a certain segment of the middle class. “I think small gifts to charities are going to decrease,” said Heisman. “The question is how much. You need two or three or four years of data points to see a trend. Maybe by that time, the tax laws will change back to being more reasonable relative to giving.”
“Another trend is even scarier,” added Heisman. “Twenty million fewer households are giving in the US, but giving is going up. So the wealthier are giving the lion’s share of the gifts in the US and regular everyday households are already giving less. Then we add the tax law change,” said Heisman, and suggested that the new tax law will likely even further exacerbate the trend of reduced giving from small donors and increased giving from the ultra-rich.
“Do we want giving in the US to be only the domain of the ultra wealthy? I think no,” said Heisman. She sees philanthropy’s definition as tied to the definition of a democracy in which people can use charitable giving to organize at the grassroots to improve their communities. “I think the idea that fewer people are giving is concerning,” she said, “And if I were running a small human services charity in a community, I would be concerned right now.”
Heisman described a dynamic whereby high net worth givers get cultivated by hospitals, universities, and research institutions and end up giving large sums in that direction. Meanwhile, small charities have a hard time accessing wealthy individuals, so there is a big division between the haves and the have-nots in how this plays out.
“This is going to be the first time people are trying these new regulations on,” said Heisman. “There’s been a big push on Capitol Hill to have a universal deduction, where people get to deduct every charitable gift regardless of where they stand for income. If I had my wish as a policy maker, that’s what I would be promoting.”
Editor’s Note: Fascinating things are going on in the realm of giving circles and community giving projects. We are pleased to share this piece by Cheyenna Layne Weber, one of the founders of Solidarity Economy Giving Project in New York City, which aims to bring together donors in new ways.
From Cheyenna Layne Weber:
There are more than 2,000 solidarity economy organizations in New York City, most of them founded and maintained by women. These democratic, member-led groups take different legal forms, but hold certain values in common—social and racial justice, ecological sustainability, mutualism, and cooperation. They include low-income credit unions; cooperatives providing food, affordable housing, and childcare; cooperatives of farmers and workers; community gardens and land trusts; and community-supported agriculture. Together, these form a solidarity economy based on meeting material needs rather than making profits. (Explore these models in this short video.)
Women form solidarity economy organizations as creative solutions to systemic oppression faced in workplaces, families, housing, food systems, and financial institutions. Latinx women in Staten Island formed worker co-operatives that operate cleaning or childcare businesses while providing living wages and control over working conditions. Bangladeshi women in East New York grow food for their families in a community garden they control. In the Bronx in the 1980s, low-income women formed affordable housing co-operatives , which endure despite rising real estate values. Around that time, women of the Lower East Side formed a low-income credit union that not only continues to serve the immigrant community but has expanded to Harlem and Staten Island. In all five boroughs, no matter the race or ethnicity of the community, women are building a solidarity economy.
So why have you never heard of it? The erasure of women’s labor in the home has been well-documented, and a similar dynamic emerges for women’s labor in communities and workplaces. This is especially true when the labor is not designed to add value for shareholders of a corporation, but rather benefits the community members who control and make use of the services of a solidarity economy organization. Many innovative women are also overlooked because they do not fit patriarchy’s conception of the entrepreneur: white, male, affluent, able-bodied, straight, and Christian. Thus, dominant institutions like government, philanthropy, and the private sector have little understanding of the incredible entrepreneurial role women often take up, and until recently had expressed little interest in learning more. This is beginning to change as cities like New York and philanthropists such as Robin Hood Foundation have begun investing in worker co-operatives to ameliorate poverty.
But it is not enough. Solidarity economy organizations often lack funding, especially those run by and serving women who are of color, immigrants, low-income, disabled, queer and/or trans. While a few co-op loan funds and investors offer capital (such as The Working World or Cooperative Fund of New England), it is almost impossible for these women to find micro-grants to cover costs like training and technical assistance, crowdfunding matches, emergency support, or event sponsorships. Of the available grants, arduous application processes, requiring professional grant-writing or prior relationships to power (such as alumni networks), exclude women working within solidarity economy organizations.
To meet this gap young philanthropists and organizers created the Solidarity Economy Giving Project (SEGP). A program of the Cooperative Economics Alliance of New York City (CEANYC),a democratic membership organization for NYC-based, solidarity economy enterprises, the Giving Project is the only solidarity economy grantmaking effort in the United States controlled by grassroots leaders. The Project includes a multi-racial, multi-gender, and intergenerational Giving Circle whose members each give a minimum $2,000 gift annually and jointly host a fundraising party. Giving Circle members lead the program, which includes learning from local solidarity economy leaders about their work; developing an analysis of racialized capitalism; building skills to improve social justice philanthropy; and plenty of time to enjoy being with others dedicated to redistributing their wealth to address capitalism’s harmful impacts. Members also encourage each other to do more than just move money — to also become advocates and participants in the solidarity economy. Organizers initially hoped to raise $15,000 in the pilot year and ultimately raised $50,000. Now midway through year two, the Project has raised $61,000 in total.
Grassroots leaders designed the grantmaking process, which includes a very brief application and a reduced reporting structure. The grantmaking committee is comprised of the elected members of CEANYC’s Board of Directors. SEGP donors do not participate in fund disbursement, and grantees are not burdened by site visits or extensive interviews with funders. Instead, donors trust the solidarity economy community to distribute these funds. This transfer of control flies in the face of traditional philanthropy, where a donor’s name is often affixed to a gift, and breaks with the convention of foundation-based Giving Projects where full-time staff support participants in grantmaking decisions.
The impact of the Giving Project has been profound, even in its first full year of grantmaking in 2018. Grants included support for:
Nine women (seven women of color) to attend cooperative leadership trainings;
An affordable housing co-op in Brooklyn to prepare a vacant unit for a new family;
Manhattan community gardens to provide programs for low-income Latinx children;
Expanded staffing and ownership opportunities at catering and food processing worker co-ops led by people of color; and
Crowdfunding matches for a healthcare co-operative and a new food co-op that both serve Brooklyn communities of color.
The SEGP is something that like-minded donors could do in any city, and it is sorely needed. (Check out the solidarity economy in your area!) Whereas most funding is piecemeal,such as support for community gardens by health funders or credit unions by Community Reinvestment Act funds— we need resources to unify these disparate models in a single solidarity economy vision.
The Hildegard Fund and Economic Justice grantmaking of New York Women’s Foundation and the new Solidarity Economy Initiative funders collaborative in Massachusetts are promising steps by funders in support of a united solidarity economy rests on the power and potential of women’s leadership. Key to such efforts is acknowledging that this work must be self-directed from the grassroots, and that resources must flow to under-resourced, dedicated innovators, not to well-connected charismatic white men or existing grantees who happen upon co-ops as a good idea they want to adopt.
A solidarity economy that meets all of our needs and welcomes all of our contributions is possible. The Solidarity Economy Giving Project is a small step in that direction.
We welcome any opportunity to support others who want to implement a similar program. Reach us at any time via firstname.lastname@example.org.
With $200,000 in new funding, sex worker organizations and advocates across the U.S. will have more resources to address safety, worker’s rights, and political power in the new year. Third Wave Fund, a 20-year-old foundation, recently announced its inaugural grantees from the first and only Sex Worker Giving Circle, a new collective created by the fund in 2018.
This new giving circle is unique in many ways. The Sex Worker Giving Circle (SWGC) is the first sex worker-led fund housed at a U.S. foundation. SWGC consisted of 10 Fellows who were trained and supported by Third Wave Fund in order to raise more than $100,000 of the grant funding, design the grant-making process, and decide which organizations would receive funding grants, which ranged from $6,818 to $21,818.
“Sex worker organizing is both more necessary and more under-funded than ever. The SWGC is a critical new funding source for sex worker movements,” said SWGC Fellow Janis Luna, referencing the “increasing discrimination and violence under SESTA/FOSTA” that many sex workers report they are facing. The SESTA/FOSTA laws passed in 2018, which seek to end online sex trafficking, were both celebrated and sharply criticized by different parts of the feminist community. Some feminists, such as Mary Mazzio, director of the film I Am Jane Doe, which shed light on the tragic sex trafficking of children in America, supported passage of the laws, while other groups like Survivors Against SESTA, argue that the laws are driving sex workers back into exploitative situations with pimps, and back onto the street where they face increased harassment and criminalization.
SWGC Fellow Janis Luna says that many sex workers today “are struggling to make ends meet” and need all the support philanthropy can provide. In general, philanthropy tends to avoid the subject of sex workers and their rights, leaving only a tiny sliver of funding, $1.1 million for the entire U.S., going to aid and support sex workers.
Rhode Island recently experienced a bit more interface with the sex worker community as one of the state’s longest-standing strip clubs, The Foxy Lady, was shut down by the city of Providence for promoting prostitution. Employees of the shut-down club came forward on Facebook with a GoFundMe page, and comments from community feminist leaders ranged from supporting the fundraiser to suggesting that now would be a good time to organize a worker’s union and reopen with a better workplace environment. Stories like Rhode Island’s suggest there is a great deal of work to be done to ensure that women’s health and safety are a priority in sex work.
SWGC grants will go toward projects to build power and well-being within sex worker communities. In New Orleans, Women With A Vision will be using part of its new grant to organize their second annual Black & Brown Sex Workers event called Second Line. Other grantees such as WeCareTN (Memphis) and The Outlaw Project (Phoenix) will use grant funds to support trans women of color sex workers as they advocate for increased safety, employment, and political power.
It was an amazing year for women’s philanthropy. Amid an increasingly hostile political climate, women managed to get elected to public office in record numbers, partially due to the influence of women donors. In addition, the events of #MeToo and the Kavanaugh hearings served to highlight how prevalent sexual assault and harassment are, and how far we still have to go to become a culture that truly values women and prioritizes their safety and equality.
Our top posts here at Philanthropy Women were focused on emerging leadership for the sector as well as noteworthy strategies for giving. We profiled unique givers like Abigail Disney, and talked with new strategists in the field like LaTosha Brown. These posts highlight a diverse array of ways that women’s philanthropy is forging new ground and bringing needed attention to a wide range of social and cultural issues.
#1: Bringing on New Leadership for Women Moving Millions
With the advent of new technologies to accelerate donating money and distributing grants, giving circles are the cutting edge of how many communities are finding and funding their causes. Now, a significant group of giving circles and funders are coming together to enhance the potential for giving circles to impact the philanthropy landscape.
This new partnership is led by five giving circles and collective giving networks, many of which bring unique social and cultural foci to the collaboration. These five networks are coming together to “engage dozens of stakeholders across the philanthropic sector to design efficient and effective infrastructure to scale and strengthen the American giving circle movement.”
How are these giving circles finding the resources to grow the American giving circle movement? From some of the largest and most powerful funders in today’s philanthropy landscape. These funders include “Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, The Lodestar Foundation, Delores Barr Weaver, and Global Impact,” according to a press release announcing the project.
According to the Collective Giving Research Group, giving circles are a growing phenomenon in the United States, with the number of giving circles tripling over the past two decades to more than 1,500 in 2016. The research also shows that giving circles are responsible for as much as $1.29 billion in giving, and currently engage $150,000 people in the U.S.
The Five Giving Circles/Networks participating in this new collaboration are:
Amplifier: Advisory Board Member Felicia Herman is leading her organization’s involvement in this new collaboration. Amplifier’s mission is to “grow the movement of intentional, collaborative giving by building and sustaining giving circles inspired by Jewish values.”
Asian Women Giving Circle & Faces of Giving: Hali Lee is the contributing partner in this new collaboration. Asian Women Giving Circle is “first and largest giving circle in the nation led by Asian American women.” Lee is also a co-founder of Faces of Giving, which seeks to organize and empower giving in “minority, ethnic, immigrant and new American communities.”
Community Investment Network: CIN is a national network of giving circles working to cultivate giving leadership in communities of color in order to influence mainstream philanthropy. CIN Chair Marsha Morgan will be working with the new giving circle project.
Latino Giving Circle Network : Comprised of 18 giving circles, LGCN describes itself as “the largest network of Latino donors united by a shared sense of justice and generosity.” Sara Velten, Vice President of Philanthropy for LGCN, will be engaging with this initiative.
Bringing in the Big Funders
Anchor funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for this initiative is a great indicator of how the large foundation may be pivoting further in the direction of feminist philanthropy. Readers of Philanthropy Women will recall that The Gates Foundation recently hosted both Women Moving Millions and the Women’s Funding Network in Seattle, in order to further explore and support strategies around gender-based giving. The Gates Foundation’s commitment to this new effort for giving circles suggests that the organization is being further influenced in the direction of democratizing philanthropy and making it part of the experience of more people. This new support also suggests that the Gates Foundation is funding multiple strategies to support giving by women. Research shows that giving circles are heavily female-dominated, with women leading 640 of the 706 giving circles surveyed by the University of Indiana in 2017.
Discovering and Capitalizing on Giving Circles
Donors, including large foundations, are discovering that starting a giving circle is a great way to infuse more money into the causes they care about. Simultaneously, women’s philanthropy is growing in new directions, and one catalyst for this growth is women’s giving circles.
A prime example of a donor building out terrain in giving circles is Delores Barr Weaver, one of the funders of this new giving circle infrastructure-building project. Barr Weaver is one of five founders of the Women’s Giving Alliance of Jacksonville, a 473-member giving circle initiated by The Community Foundation for Northeast Florida. Barr Weaver is also a Women Moving Millions member, and is invested in advancing rights for girls and young women in her community, particularly those at-risk because of juvenile justice or child protective issues.
While women’s giving circles are a growing phenomenon in the United States, we thought it would be interesting to touch down in the real world with a giving circle that has newly arrived on the scene: Waterbury, Connecticut’s Inaugural Women’s Giving Circle.
This new giving circle formed in 2017 and is housed at the Connecticut Community Foundation, a foundation serving 21 towns in the Waterbury/Litchfield area. For its first year of grantmaking, it gave out $34,000 in grants to seven community groups working to empower women and girls.
“It’s a thrill to award the first grants from the Women’s Giving Circle—made possible by the generosity of nearly 90 women in Greater Waterbury and the Litchfield Hills!” said Kathy Bower of Southbury, chair of the Women’s Giving Circle, in a recent press release on the grants. “We are energized and activated, and are driven to make lives better for women and girls and uplift local communities in the process. Our hearts and doors are open to welcoming more people into the Women’s Giving Circle and building on the momentum—and impact—of our first year.”
Women’s giving circles, new and growing ones like the Waterbury Women’s Giving Circle, and more established ones like Dining for Women, are bringing more women into the first-hand practice of grantmaking. This new giving circle in Connecticut requires an annual contribution of at least $500, and entitles you to participate in activities and events, and also to cast your vote at the annual meeting to determine how the circle’s funds will be given out in grants. You can join with the $500 on your own, or bring together friends to share in the $500 fee. Either way, the $500 membership means you will have one vote in the grantmaking process.
How This New Giving Circle Fits into the Connecticut Philanthropy Landscape
According to a report in HartfordBusiness.com, Connecticut saw a decline in the number of foundations and individuals making charitable donations and grants in 2015. Despite this, however, giving for the year increased by 11% (about $500 million) that year. The bulk of 2015 increase reportedly came from bequests, which increased from $90 million to $330 million that year. In 2014, giving declined by 3.2%.
Like in many states, Connecticut philanthropy professionals are concerned that the Trump Tax (Tax Cuts and Jobs Act) will deter giving, since it takes away the itemized deduction from those who formerly met the threshold at $12,000. By moving the threshold for taking the charitable deduction up to $24,000 per household, many philanthropy analysts are predicting that the loss of itemization could reduce the tax income subsidy for giving by 33% and shave off millions, if not billions, of philanthropy dollars in the process.
Despite uncertainty in giving trends, for women in the Waterbury and Litchfield communities, the desire to give collectively has turned into a significant amount of grantmaking at the grassroots. These grants are going to funding-starved community efforts to help women and girls develop into healthy members of society.
Check out the grantees to see how these giving circle dollars will enhance the lives of women and girls in greater Waterbury and Litchfield:
Sharing food: one of the ultimate human communing experiences. Now imagine sharing food with a group of generous women who, like you, want to make every dollar they give to charity count toward helping women and girls and addressing gender equality in developing countries.
Welcome to Dining for Women (DFW), a global giving circle dedicated to funding social change for women and girls. At monthly potluck dinners, members come together and discuss today’s issues impacting women and girls, particularly the organizations being funded that month, and in the process, these 8,000-plus women raise more than a million dollars annually to fight for gender equity. Dining for Women was founded in 2003, and many chapters have already had 10 or even 15 year anniversaries.
“Global citizens,” is how Dining for Women President Beth Ellen Holimon describes the women who participate in the growing movement. “Through member education, grantmaking and advocacy, DFW builds community here in the U.S.,” said Holimon, but that’s only the beginning of their positive impact.
Each DFW meeting helps to raise awareness about how women and girls are experiencing life worldwide, with presentations and information about organizations currently being funded. As they share a meal, members also share camaraderie and open discussion. Big issues now being funded by Dining for Women include helping Syrian refugee women find employment in Jordan and joining UNICEF’s effort to end gender-based violence in South Sudan.
One of the features that got me wanting to know more DFW was the organization’s attention to social policy and advocacy. On June 1 of this year, Betsy Dunklin, Chair of Dining for Women’s Advocacy Committee, sounded the alarm bells in a post about devastating cuts to International Aid proposed in the U.S Government’s 2019 budget. “The Administration has proposed a more than 30% cut to the International Affairs (IA) budget for FY2019,” she wrote. “Dining for Women opposes cuts to the US foreign aid budget because they disproportionately affect women and girls, who already suffer the most from global poverty, inequality, and humanitarian crises. Many of the proposed cuts fall most heavily on gender equality programs.” DFW’s advocacy position on these cuts is fully explained in Raise Your Voices for Women and Girls, DFW’s advocacy guide.
In her call to action, Dunklin also helped members understand the added impact of their advocacy by providing the context in which DFW operates as a member of the US Global Leadership Coalition — a 500 member nonprofit and business coalition. “We have the power as US citizens living in a democracy to stand up for women and girls around the world,” she wrote.
Doubling Down: How Some Organizations Become Sustained Grantees
Another way that Dining for Women amplifies the work they do is by choosing certain organizations formerly funded as a featured grantee for sustained funding. Starting in 2012, DFW began making two- and three-year grants totaling $40,000 — 60,000 to organizations chosen by a Grant Selection Committee. Grantees who have demonstrated significant progress toward achieving grant goals are eligible to become sustained grantees. Organizations such as Girl Determined in Myanmar and the Nepal Youth Foundation are able to get help to achieve specific goals, such as in Nepal, where Napal Youth Foundation is helping to eradicate “Kamlari,” the traditionally-accepted practice of selling young girls into servitude.
The Impact, Globally and Locally
In January of 2018, DFW Chair Susan Stall shared the latest 2017 stats on impact with members in the newsletter. “Thanks to your record-breaking donations, in 2017 we were able to fund grants and partnerships that directly impacted the lives of nearly 40,000 women and girls in 18 countries around the world,” she wrote.
In the still-small-but-growing world of gender equality philanthropy, that is a significant impact. Imagine if DFW’s membership went from 8,000 to 80,000 — and 400,000 women and girls were reached. Then we might really see the way that gender equality can shift economies and cultures in a positive way.
What It’s All About: Feeding Ourselves, Feeding the World
In case all of this isn’t enough, there are also the DFW recipes — a wide-ranging collection of favorite dishes from all over the world like Bolivia, Guatemala, Myanmar, and Chad. Joining DFW might also mean you get to try out new foods and recognize how different cultures provide nourishment in amazing and creative ways.
Another big plus: in joining DFW, you don’t have to worry about the level of your financial commitment. There is no pledge or yearly minimum. Members pay what they can, with the hope that as they get more supported by and investing in the group, their donation will organically grow.
“As we share food, we share something of ourselves and we honor each other.” So begins the Dining for Women Affirmation that women say collectively when they come together. The affirmation also recognizes the added burden that women experience as the main food providers in much of the world. If you’re one of the main family cooks like me, you probably suffer periodic episodes of cooking burnout. But the benefits of feeding others ultimately seem to outweigh the burdens, particularly for longtime members of DFW who continue to feel inspired and supported in their efforts to value and improve the lives of women and girls.
Editor’s Note: The following guest post is written by Dr. Froswa Booker-Drew, philanthropist and founding officer of the HERitage Giving Fund.
As a child, I saw my parents in Shreveport, Louisiana helping others. At the time, I didn’t realize that the trips to visit the sick, the donations to those in need or even delivering cooked meals, were part of philanthropy in my community. My involvement in service began as a teen volunteering and has not stopped. I have made a life of giving. I now call myself a philanthropist, something I would not have called myself years ago because I didn’t realize that, like my parents, I was a part of this work.
I discovered in my nonprofit career that so few foundations support organizations of color. Foundations also often focus on narratives of brokenness, instead of supporting organizations that are already community assets, but may not have everything on the checklist to get approved for funding.
I got more involved in African-American giving through the work of Tracey Webb, the founder of the now defunct blog, Blackgivesback.com. In this blog, Tracey offered a glimpse into everyday individuals who were making a difference through their giving. I had the pleasure of writing for the blog for a number of years, which strengthened my awareness of the impact of black philanthropy.
Working with Tracey introduced me to the idea of giving circles. Tracey started Black Benefactors, a giving circle based in Washington, DC, and was wildly successful at bringing a group of African American professionals together to donate not just money but time and talent to African American causes and leadership. This year, Black Benefactors made grants to The Black Swan Academy and Scholarchips, two important organizations working in the community to enhance youth opportunities, even for the most marginalized.
I got further inspired about black women’s philanthropy after learning about the African American Women’s Giving Circle in DC, and seeing the success they had in supporting causes for African American women and girls. Black Philanthropy Month (coming up in August!) was also something that inspired me to get more involved in the space of black giving.
Ultimately, a documentary called the The Contradictions of Fair Hope, which won for best long documentary at the Newark Black Film Festival’s Paul Robeson Awards, also reeled me in to the world of black giving. The film provides an example of African American giving by highlighting the Fair Hope Society in Alabama. Formed by freed slaves in 1888, the Fair Hope society helped those most in need: the sick, the hungry, and those who had lost a loved one and needed funds for burial. The society worked as a form of insurance, where members paid 10 cents a month to be entitled to the services, and leftover funds went toward a yearly celebration.
When Akilah Wallace, the founder of the HERitage Giving Circle approached me and Dr. Halima Leak Francis to be a part of creating the first African American Women’s Giving Circle in Texas, I was reminded of our legacy from the past, and wanted to be part of something even more powerful for the future. HERitage Giving Fund was founded August 2017, during Black History Month. The mission of the HERitage Giving Fund, a giving circle at Dallas Women’s Foundation, is to encourage philanthropy in the African-American/Black community, to contribute in a strategic and meaningful way, and to bring a new source of funding to nonprofit organizations serving African-American women and girls throughout North Texas.
HERitage is committed to engaging Black women of varying economic status and backgrounds, who have a heart for investing in organizations, often grassroots, and/or start ups. Often these organizations have limited access to funding sources to support basic operating needs (staff income, supplies, transportation, etc.), help to increase service capacity and reach, and sustain much-needed program services over time. This is why Heritage Giving Fund and other giving circles are so important.
The HERitage Giving Fund awards grants to organizations that are located in North Texas, led by African American women, using a gender lens to frame strategies, and have a sound mission and objectives for impact. HERitage Giving Fund also serves as a hub for social events and discussion on how to build empowerment through philanthropy.
I serve as a Founding Officer and Grants Committee Chair. To date, we have raised more than $20,000 (and are still collecting funds through the end of July). We will accept applications in August and announce those selected to receive funds from the members in the late October/November. We are successful because of our members’ commitment. It has been amazing to work with a group of women who are so committed in their local community. It is even more impressive that these community role models use their resources to continue this rich legacy of giving.
“I remember standing up at a conference 16 or 17 years ago and saying that my dream is that there will be a women’s giving circle in every city in America,” says Sondra Shaw Hardy. “I feel that my goal now is to take giving circles worldwide.” To that end, Shaw Hardy is starting a new organization called Women’s Giving Circles International, which will make expanding the giving circle model globally its primary goal.
Shaw Hardy has been called the “mother of giving circles,” and she will talk about the concept at the North American Community Foundations summit in Mexico City in early February. Shaw Hardy’s panel talk, “Meaningfully Engaging a New Realm of Donors for Local Action,” dovetails perfectly with the summit’s focus on locally generated, sustainable, equitable development.
This is not Shaw Hardy’s first professional visit to Mexico; in September 2017 she and long-time colleague Martha Taylor were invited to Monterrey to discuss female-centered charitable giving. While many of the women Shaw Hardy spoke to had considerable means, few had previously considered the concept of philanthropy by women, for women. They quickly embraced the idea, forming the Damos Juntas Giving Circle, and are taking “Círculos de Ayuda” beyond Monterrey (the country’s third largest metro area) to Mexico as a whole.
Shaw Hardy’s experience in Mexico confirms her previous impression that pooled direct-giving by donors is a compelling concept the world over. In June 2017, Shaw Hardy was invited by the German ambassador to the UK to speak at Germany’s embassy in London. The topic was women and politics in the United States, but Shaw Hardy also mentioned women and philanthropy, and found that her remarks on giving circles galvanized a cosmopolitan audience mostly composed of diplomats’ wives.
Shaw Hardy has been working in the women’s philanthropy field for 30 years, with a focus on giving circles for the last two decades. Her interest in giving circles was sparked when she picked up a People magazine (on a plane, she is quick to point out) and chanced on an article about Colleen Willoughby, the Seattle philanthropist. Willoughby was a founder of the Washington Women’s Foundation, and a pioneer in the field of “collective giving grantmaking,” a close cousin to giving circles. Willoughby had started a circle with two other women, and Shaw Hardy realized the power of women working together to fund change in their community.
Originally from Flint, Michigan, Shaw Hardy has lived in Traverse City—three hours northwest of Lansing on Lake Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay—for decades. When we spoke by phone, she was in South Carolina, unsuccessfully trying to fend off the cold as the South had been recently blanketed by snow and ice. She lives most of the year in Traverse City with her husband, and has three children and eight grandchildren.
In the late 90s, Shaw Hardy was president of the Women’s Resource Center in Traverse City, and organized a giving circle, which grew to 65 members in four years. That circle’s goals were aligned with those of the Resource Center, and Shaw Hardy notes that giving circles typically fund applicants that focus on life’s essentials, including alleviating poverty, increasing women’s economic capabilities, and providing greater access to healthcare. “There is hardly any women’s giving circle that doesn’t have something to do with human services,” she says.
Shaw Hardy notes that she has helped set up over 30 circles, and while groups across the country are diverse, there are certain commonalities and guideposts in their founding: Circles need to be composed of people who enjoy each other’s company, members should have similar interests and goals, and five to seven people is a good number for launching a circle. Finally, members need to participate in the grant-making process so that all are active decision-makers. Established giving circles typically average 150 members, and some have as many as several hundred.
The movement was formalized and given a boost in 2001 when Wendy Steele established Impact 100 in Cincinnati. The model of a pass-through foundation that relies on its members to make grants to local organizations in culture, education, environment, family and health soon spread to other cities throughout the country. According to Impact 100, its affiliated organizations had given away more than $45 million by the close of 2016.
The advantage of giving circles is that they leverage modest individual donations into a critical mass. “By pooling their monies,” says Shaw Hardy, “women are seeing the impact they can have versus giving small amounts.” Shaw Hardy suggests that this collective giving is literally empowering women, giving them an input and influence far greater than if members had donated the same amount as individuals.
Circles are also essential in putting women into decision-making positions. “Giving circles have emboldened women to become members of nonprofit boards,” says Shaw Hardy. Previously, women were often reluctant to serve on boards, says Shaw Hardy, but now they have greater knowledge and confidence. The result is more women heading organizations, and women becoming increasingly comfortable leading campaigns to raise money for causes important to them.
This larger grant-making influence has an important consequence: “Women have become more political as a result of their involvement,” says Shaw Hardy. “In addition to belonging to a giving circle and contributing money, they are also giving money to political candidates who favor their issues, and even running for office themselves.” Shaw Hardy says that along with promoting self-esteem in girls and increasing opportunities for low-income women and girls, “getting more women to run for office” is a personal priority for her. She has her own experience to draw on, and says, “I didn’t know I was a feminist until I found myself serving on a County Board of Commissioners with 14 men.”
Shaw Hardy says the significant growth in women’s philanthropy is partly due to women’s more prominent role in the work place. “Women have careers, they have more than just jobs. They earn more money than before.” Shaw Hardy believes that by increasing their giving and being involved in grant-making, women have achieved greater financial agency and power.
“Women are now talking about money, a subject that was once considered inappropriate for them to discuss,” says Shaw Hardy. “And that, combined with control of their money, whether earned, inherited or married, has resulted in women’s participation on organization finance committees.” The result, she says, is that women no longer fear balance sheets or financial plans, and their greater financial acumen has “changed the face of philanthropy, and the way couples give.”
Shaw Hardy has been on the ground floor of many organizations, and says she is happy to get something going, and then move on. Most recently, Shaw Hardy helped launch Woman2Woman TC (the TC is for Traverse City). It formed in 2016 in support of Hillary Clinton—and drew a crowd of 400 at its first meeting—and has since continued to support progressive female candidates, including Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow. The group, which counts over 2,500 members on Facebook, also encourages local women to run for office.
Shaw Hardy’s position as the doyenne of giving circles, and supporter of progressive female-centered causes, has an unusual origin: initially, she started out at as a Republican Party fundraiser. She obtained the position after graduating from Michigan State University in Lansing. Shaw Hardy subsequently earned a law degree, and then went to D.C. to become a Republican lobbyist, a position at which she says she did not distinguish herself. Part of the problem was motivation. “Let’s just say that I did not share the philosophy of the Reagan administration on abortion rights, or on U.S. involvement in Latin America.”
Shaw Hardy broke with the GOP and moved to Madison, Wisconsin, where she started fundraising for non-profits and working with Martha Taylor of the University of Wisconsin Foundation. In 1991, Taylor and Shaw Hardy founded the forerunner to the Women’s Philanthropy Institute, which became part of the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University (IU) in 2004. Shaw Hardy has served as an adjunct professor in philanthropy at IU, and in the 1990s was head of development at her alma mater, Western Michigan University. Regardless of her position, she has maintained a focus on women donors, and has written six books on the topic, many of them collaborations with Taylor, including the 2010 volume Women and Philanthropy: Boldly Shaping a Better World.
Now Shaw Hardy is embarking on another journey in shaping a better world by launching Women’s Giving Circles International. The organization’s website is under construction, and plans are afoot to make more ripple effects in the giving circle movement, this time worldwide.