An Unusual Women’s Giving Circle in Boston Fuels Social Change Globally

Members of the NEID Women’s Giving Circle, from left to right, front row: Diana Rowan Rockefeller, Rebecca Obounou, Odette Ponce, Emily Nielsen Jones, Jackie Jenkins Scott, Amy Brakeman. Back Row: Constance Kane, Liz Sheehan, Mary Kay Miller, Laura DeDominicis, Ina Breuer, Clare Reilly, Nika Elugardo, Ellen Remmer, Kathy LeMay.

We know from the research coming out of the Women’s Philanthropy Institute that giving circles are growing, and women’s giving circles in particular are on the rise. But what does a giving circle really look like on the ground? How do they make decisions that are well-informed and that carry out the group’s intentions?

To find out more, I recently attended the New England International Donors (NEID) Global Changemaker’s Gala in Boston, an event that brought together a wide range of givers and giver groupies to celebrate the NEID Giving Circle’s donations to social change. The event featured a keynote conversation between NEID member David Campbell and Petra Nemcova, supermodel and philanthropists specializing in disaster relief rebuilding and education (she has funded the creation of 165 schools), who spoke to the group about the way in which disaster relief tends to focus on first response. Nemcova takes a more holistic (and, I would argue, feminist) approach to disaster relief — committing to long-term support to help countries affected by natural disasters.

Petra Nemcova, supermodel and philanthropist, with grant recipient for Dandelion Africa, Wendo Aszed.

At the gala, Nemcova and Campbell had an exciting announcement of their own to make — the merging of two nonprofits that they lead, Happy Hearts Fund and All Hands Volunteers, to create a new organization called All Hands and Hearts.  It seems here at Philanthropy Women, we are constantly discovering more women leaders in the field  who can articulate problems in a new and compelling way. Nemcova is a strong voice worth following in women’s philanthropy, and I look forward to watching her new collaborative venture, All Hands and Hearts, unfold.

Karen Keating Ansara, Founder of NEID, who also spoke at the gala, pointed out that while giving circles are a growing trend, only a small number of giving circles donate internationally.  In fact, according the WPI’s recent research on giving circles in America, only 7% of giving circles have an international focus to their giving.

When I attended the first meeting of the NEID Giving circle in January of 2017, the sense I got from the group was that their passion for international giving was aligning, in the wake of the Trump presidency, with an awareness that more needed to be done to lift up women and address gender equality. The group expressed both a desire for more collaboration in philanthropy on the ground (the giving circle model) as well as a desire to stretch their reach internationally.

With that first meeting in late January 2017, NEID’s giving circle got right to work — the work of discussing how gender roles may have influenced their own journeys in philanthropy. Eleven months later,  the circle had raised $70,000, and he night of the Global Changemakers Gala at the Park Plaza Hotel, NEID received another $15,000 gift to the giving circle. Inspiring $15,000 gifts on the spot after hearing about NEID’s Giving Circle — that is some powerful collective grantmaking.

What made $70,000 in global grantmaking for women and girls possible in 11 months? Ina Breuer, NEID Executive Director, credits NEID Board member and donor activist Emily Nielsen Jones, who is also the Founder and President of Imago Dei Fund. “Emily has such a wonderful way of asking questions about gender — she makes it both personal and manageable,” said Breuer. “It gets people thinking about their own biases and experiences, and how things might be different.”

Emily Nielsen Jones has been pioneering her own brand of gender lens grantmaking for almost ten years through the foundation she and her husband, Ross Jones, created in 2008, Imago Dei Fund. With the NEID Giving Circle, Emily and her husband strengthened their networks on the ground in Boston, engaging both new and experienced donors for the purpose of empowering women and girls.

“It’s not easy to collaborate, to really do it well,” said Jones. “We had NEID to provide the support to incubate a giving circle. Not everyone can do that.” Jones and her colleagues at NEID used that support well by developing a new model for how women can collectively engage and deploy funds  particularly aimed at gender equality.

“The two of us were very aware from the beginning that what we needed to do in supporting the circle is ‘make decisions easy,'” said Breuer. “We wanted to facilitate the conversation in a way that felt natural, and we also wanted to enhance people’s ownership of the process so they could take action.”

“I was trying to be organized with all the data I collected,” said Odette Ponce, who handled much of the administrative load for the giving circle’s process. “I tried to back up every decision with data as much as possible.”

This kind of support had a strong impact on the giving circle participants, particularly those new to philanthropy. “I certainly do not think the same way I did just six months ago about international philanthropy,” said Rebecca Obounou, one of the nineteen members of the NEID Giving Circle. For Obounou and many other members of the group, the giving circle experience was transformative for them personally.

One thing NEID Giving Circle members did early on was make an effort to reach out and diversify the group.  “After the first meeting, we recognized that we had very little diversity in the circle, and so everyone made an effort to invite different voices in,” said Breuer. “And we were successful in some ways. We didn’t have diversity in terms of males, but we did bring in more diversity in terms of race and culture.”

Ina Breuer, who comes to NEID after 17 years as Executive Director of Beyond Conflict, had a revelation about the way in which the giving circle was a “safe space” where newcomers could consider carefully how to get involved in international philanthropy. “Once we had that 19 group gathered, I realized we were bringing in people who were new to philanthropy, and this was a safe space for them to go through the process of learning what it feels like to be an international donor. What sort of questions do you ask a grantee when you’re thinking about who you might want to give some money to?”

“I’m always thinking in the back of my mind, ‘How can we expand the table around giving for the advancement of women and girls,” said Jones. She acknowledged that it was extra helpful to have the administrative support of NEID, so that she and other members could focus on bringing together different voices in the circle. “It made it more interesting that people were all over the map in their learning,” added Jones.

Keynote Speaker Petra Nemcova with 2017 Giving Circle Honorees. From Left to Right: Louise Ruhr (CREATE!), Petra Nemcova (All Hands & Hearts), Gretchen Steidle (Global Grassroots), Wendo Aszed (Dandelion Africa), Lauren LeBlanc (Komera).

“We made the process anonymous so that everyone could nominate the organizations they were passionate about even if they had some connection to them,” said Ponce, a key aspect of the giving circle’s process. At the same time, NEID staff sent information and articles about women’s giving to the giving circle members.

“We tried to give people a sense of what is out there,” said Ponce, so she sent information and articles, including a report from Women Moving Millions that described many women-led organizations working internationally. “We also brought in a few organizations to have meetings with us.  So the donors got exposed to the people themselves doing this work.”

Jones described how the giving circle shifted into a different mode when it came time to land the plane and decide where to give the grants. “We just got started without knowing 100% how we would shift from getting to know one another and learning about the global gender terrain to the actual proposal vetting process. In sort of an organic way, we came up with a process that felt right and ‘narrowed the funnel’ of so many incredible organizations to a shortlist we felt good about making grants to.”

“We had everyone vote beforehand, and then were presented the vote as people were coming into the room. And then we discussed, ‘Did we get this right?’ in terms of the vote,” said Breuer.

“The way the voting system worked was like a ranking system, from 1 to 5, with 5 meaning the organization fully matched the Giving Circle’s selected criteria. That allowed me to easily add up points, and created a point system for winners,” said Odette Ponce. “We then let the giving circle make the decision and used the point system to back up that decision, and it worked out really well.”

People seemed to get more engaged in the process, and excited about the process, as the NEID Giving Circle moved toward decision time, and all that excitement appeared to bring most members to feeling very good about their giving — confident that the vote represented their intentions quite well.

And the Awardees are: (Drumroll, please!)

Dandelion Africa: Based in the Rift Valley of Kenya, Dandelion Africa’s mission is to improve the livelihoods of women and youth in marginalized areas. Wendo Aszed represented Dandelion Africa at the Gala, and talked about her own experiences of growing up as a woman in her community, where female genital cutting is a time-honored ritual, and where many women lack access to basic information about birth control. NEID awarded Dandelion Africa $30,000 to support the organization’s work educating both boys and girls on gender issues, including female genital cutting, in order to improve health and education outcomes for girls.

CREATE!: This organization works in rural Senegal to empower women and girls. CREATE! partners with women’s cooperatives to foster economic growth and teach sustainable agriculture. The program improves food security and access to clean water using renewable solar energy. NEID Giving Circle awarded $20,000 to CREATE! to support women and girls in rural Senegal participating in training in sustainable market gardening.

Global Grassroots: This organization works in Rwanda and Uganda, with a mission to “develop women and girls as leaders of conscious social change in their communities.” Global Grassroots runs a social venture incubator for underserved women, helping women design and construct their own water enterprises. NEID Giving Circle awarded $10,000 to Global Grassroots to support leadership training to build non-profit water ventures run by women.

Komera: The mission of Komera is to work with young women in Rwanda. Komera invests in adolescent girls and their families. Komera provides educational scholarships, community mentoring, and sports to adolescent girls. NEID Giving Circle awarded $10,000 to Komera to support leadership and business training for young women transitioning into adulthood.

And what does the future hold for NEID’s Giving Circles? It appears the success of the first circle has spawned a replica. This coming year there will be two circles — one focused again on women and girls, and a new one which will be focused on climate change.

The circles are also considering exciting possibilities for expanding outside of Boston.  “We want to make the circles available to people outside of the Boston area,” said Breuer. “What we’re proposing to do, if people in another area want to participate — you have to have a minimum of 5 people in each location. Those groups will meet separately on the same days as we meet in Boston, and then we will create online sessions when all the different nodes come together to assess different potential grantees.”

Sounds like another innovation to the NEID giving circle model is in the works. With its global focus, but local community-building impact, NEID”s giving circle model adds an important page to the growing literature on giving circles in America.  Stay tuned to NEID’s next moves by visiting their website. And if you are interested in joining, please reach out to Odette Ponce.

Editor’s Note: Emily Nielsen Jones is a Lead Sponsor of Philanthropy Women.


Author: Kiersten Marek

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

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