We Are Unstoppable: Giving Circles Organize Into a Movement

Marcia Quinones, member of East Bay Latina Giving Circle. (Photo credit: Latino Community Foundation)

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 these efforts.

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 members.

These philanthropic clubs are often housed at community foundations and tend to address local needs, but some do focus on national or international causes. Along with direct grantmaking, giving circles are known to serve as a springboard for members to become more civically engaged in their local communities.

A 2016 study found giving circles had tripled in number since 2007, rising to 1,500. The researchers estimated the giving circles in their database had granted up to $1.29 billion in total since their inception. Giving circles engage tens of thousands of people and dole out tens of millions annually.

Giving circle representatives at the April 2019 convening. (Photo credit: Gates Archive / Bruce Tom)

“Giving circles are a major part of the future of American philanthropy… people are coming together, pooling their money, networks, and expertise, and investing in the change they want to make in the world,” Marsha Morgan, chair of the Community Investment Network (a network of African-American circles) said in a statement.

The Community Investment Network and four other giving circle networks are in the midst of a yearlong “co-design process” for the entire movement, tied into the April event for the broader giving circle community. The other four leading networks are Amplifier, which centers on Jewish values; the Asian Women Giving Circle; Catalist (formerly the Women’s Collective Giving Grantmakers Network); and the Latino Community Foundation (LCF), which is home to the largest Latino giving circle network in the U.S.

“There is a rich history of generosity and collective action in our diverse communities. We are learning to look to each other for investments, and that’s powerful,” LCF CEO, Jacqueline Martinez Garcel, tells Philanthropy Women.

Following the recent gathering, the leaders released a shared vision with five general goals. They are, in short, to increase public awareness of giving circles, develop more trainings and resources on democratizing philanthropy, create an incubator program for new and developing circles, support new tech that can connect circles with each other and grantees, and begin hosting more regional and national convenings.

Giving Circles as Vehicles for Feminist Philanthropy

Starting in 2018, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation led the support for this giving circle collaborative design process and event, along with 19 other funders including institutional philanthropies, giving circles, networks and members. Given that most giving circles are primarily made up of women, this support aligns with the Gates foundation’s, and particularly Melinda Gates’, increased focus on women’s needs and gender equity in the last few years, both in the U.S and abroad. Melinda Gates’ recently published book, The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World, explores these issues through a personal lens, with a special focus on the importance of women’s health and education in low and middle-income countries.

Fittingly, many women-centric giving circles took part in the spring event, including For Her: A Black Women Giving Movement for Black Girls, the Women’s Catalytic Fund, Dining for Women, the Inspired Women Paying It Forward Network and others.

At LCF, one of the five leaders of this movement, the majority of staff members are women, as are most of the more than 500 members of its 21 giving circles. Marcia Quinones of the East Bay Latina Giving Circle, which is part of LCF, tells us how and why giving circles work for women:

Since the beginning of time, women have come together in circles to make magic, support our communities and heal one another. Giving circles are our modern day solution to the challenges all women are experiencing today in our communities — isolation, a feeling of helplessness, and a lack of opportunity to lead and voice our own visions. When we come together, we are unstoppable.

Beyond Planning Fundraisers: How Women’s Giving Circles Move Millions for Children’s Nonprofits

Jacqueline Caster

“When you think of the big gala events, you have to scratch your head and say, ‘why do people go to all that effort?’ I mean, those can be effective fundraisers, if done responsibly. But when they net very little or fail to  break even, doing nothing but raising awareness, I don’t buy into that.”

These are the words of Jacqueline Caster, founder and president of the Everychild Foundation, and master of the art of creating women’s giving circles—an effective and increasingly popular way to raise money.

The Everychild Foundation model has had a significant impact, and not just locally. It has been replicated by over 15 organizations, including two in London, some in other states, and many throughout California.

So how did this model arise? In part, it was a reaction to the grind of other approaches, especially galas, that were a common way for women to raise money for causes they care about—but which Caster and many other women did not find to be the best use of their time, treasure or talent. Caster writes eloquently of the different nature of her philanthropy in an essay in the Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly. “For a growing number of contemporary women, particularly the highly educated, arranging fundraising events is often not, in fact, fulfilling or stimulating. For many, it under-utilizes their intellect, talent, education, professional skills, and general life experience.”

So what’s a highly educated contemporary woman to do? She might consider starting or joining a giving circle.

“Giving circles can be created at any price point, for any cause, and with any demographic as the membership,” said Caster in a recent interview. “You can do it with no paid staff and a tiny percentage of operational costs, compared to bigger foundations.”

Inside Philanthropy has covered giving circles before, including ones raising money for niche areas, like the Asian American LGBT community, or nonprofit work in specific locales like Philadelphia. Giving circles play to women’s strengths as networkers and collaborators, and they offer a way for smaller donors to be part of something larger—but not so large they have no meaningful voice.

Caster developed her alternative approach for giving in Los Angeles in 1999, and incorporated Everychild Foundation as a 501(c)(3) the following year. The model is relatively simple. The foundation’s mission is to ease suffering of Los Angeles-area children whether due to disease, disability, abuse, neglect or poverty. Each member makes an annual $5,000 tax-deductible donation. The money is then pooled to fund a single, targeted $1 million grant to a local organization with a dream project. The project ideally involves an innovative prototype that can be replicated, thereby leveraging the dollars even further.  

Less than 10 percent of the funds collected are used to operate the organization. There is no rent or salaried staff. Caster and all the other members donate all of their hours. However, there are some accounting, bookkeeping and a few other miscellaneous costs, plus the services of a professional grant consultant who advises the grant board.

Starting with 56 members in 2000, Everychild has now grown to its target of 225 members, giving it the financial muscle to make $1 million grants each year since 2006.

One of Everychild’s earliest grants tells an interesting story about impact. The foundation made a 2001 grant to Queenscare to fund a mobile dental clinic staffed by the University of Southern California School of Dentistry. When dentists started serving large numbers of low-income children in the first months, they uncovered such a huge unmet health need in the community that Queenscare sought out funding from other major local foundations; three more dental clinics were added, for a total of four clinics, all still operating today.

Each member of the Everychild Foundation donates the same amount and is permitted one vote on the million-dollar grantee for the year, so there is no inequality between the donors. “Members have frequently expressed how refreshing it is to participate in a charity without the typical hierarchy of  donors who are treated differently according to their gift size,” said Caster.

The Everychild Foundation begins soliciting proposals at the end of each calendar year. From January through May, the grant screening board narrows that pool of proposals down from roughly 25 to about six or eight. The board then evaluates items such as their financials, success handling other large grants and sustaining new projects. Next come site visits to each group in this final pool in May. “We meet the board, see the facility. We send questions before and after the site visit,” said Caster.

“We eventually vote on two finalists who spend the summer putting together a full proposal. The presentation to our membership takes place in October. About half the members attend the hearing every year.”

Members then mail in their ballots in the following two weeks. “Some discuss the choice in online chat groups. They talk it over at the dinner table with their families and partners,” said Caster. “It becomes a really interesting period as the final proposals are discussed.”

The model affords a great deal of latitude for participation, from not much at all to active involvement in the grantee review process or grant monitoring after the grants have been awarded. Some members don’t even vote for which grantee is chosen, trusting that the group has done its due diligence. Interested Everychild members also have the opportunity to advocate for a variety of children’s issues at the county, state and federal levels as part of the Public Policy Committee.

The Everychild Foundation’s level of due diligence in selecting the finalists has become legendary in the Los Angeles community. “Directors at other prestigious local foundations have said that if a project can survive Everychild’s rigorous review process, it must have merit,” said Caster.

Consequently, not only do Everychild’s chosen grantees receive $1 million, but the runners-up in Everychild’s process often see significant dollar support, either from Everychild members, or other foundations, not infrequently, even receiving the full million.

Which brings us to this year’s winner and runner-up.

The winner is Richstone Family Center, which will be creating a new healing arts center with the $1 million grant. “Richstone serves the areas of L.A. County experiencing the highest concentration of gang violence, child trafficking, drug-related crime, prostitution, and poverty,” said Caster in a press release about the winner. “The Everychild Foundation Healing Center has the ability to change the life trajectories of at-risk and abused children and their families.”

The runner-up this year is also providing vital services in the community, and is ripe for scaling up with additional funding. Jovenes, of Boyle Heights, helps homeless and at-risk children and families. The project it pitched will provide housing and other supportive services for hundreds of homeless community college students, many of whom are aged-out former foster youth. Caster acknowledged the difficult letdown of not getting the Everychild grant, but sometimes being the runner-up can actually surpass winning the Everychild Foundation’s grant. “One year, the runner-up received $2 million from another funder,” said Caster.

“We work really hard to help find funding for the runner-up,” said Caster. This year, after announcing the winner, she sent out an email about the runner-up, and already heard back from one funder who wanted to provide a five-figure grant and another who might be interested in funding the whole thing.

More information about Everychild’s grant process is here.