Liveblog of WPI: How Giving Circles Diversify Philanthropy

On July 16, the Women’s Philanthropy Institute hosted a live Q&A with Sara Lomelin of Philanthropy Together, to discuss the ways philanthropy can be democratized, empowered, and fueled by diversity. In light of current pressing issues like the Black Lives Matter movement and COVID-19, WPI and Philanthropy Together seek to answer the question, “How can giving circles transform the future of trust-based giving?”

Image Credit: WPI and Philanthropy Together

WPI Director Jeannie Sager kicked off the conversation by encouraging the participants to share their locations – people chimed in from all over the US and beyond.

Sager introduced the concept: “For too long, philanthropy has been seen as an exclusive club. Yet today, our country is experiencing a drastic reckoning… Who is called a philanthropist?”

Sager introduced Sara Lomelin, Executive Director of Philanthropy Together.

“Sara is a connector of people and ideas, a relationship-builder, and a firm believer that everyone can be a philanthropist,” said Sager.

Philanthropy Together: A Network For Giving Circles

Sara Lomelin, Executive Director of Philanthropy Together. (Image Credit: Philanthropy Together)

Lomelin took over to share more information about Philanthropy Together. She started off by showing us a screenshot of a group Zoom call, with very diverse participants: different races, economic backgrounds, political persuasions, and more. Lomelin revealed that these people are all part of a new giving circle through Philanthropy Together’s launchpad program.

She shared the benefits of giving circles, highlighting the collaborative experience of giving and focusing on ways to improve giving by giving together. “There are collective giving efforts all around the globe under different names,” Lomelin explained, pointing out that giving circles have existed for decades.

The four key factors of a giving circle are:

  1. Donors pool their dollars.
  2. Donors engage in discourse and learning.
  3. Donors decide together when and where to give.
  4. Donors have a lot of fun and build community together.

Lomelin highlighted the importance of giving circle networks, which exist to elevate and amplify the missions of other giving circles. These networks support giving circles for a variety of issues, such as programs for women and girls, social justice campaigns, campaigns for gender and racial equity, and more.

Over the last two decades, American giving circles have engaged 150,000 people and given away as much as $1.29 billion.

Philanthropy Together works to support the giving circle movement by creating more circles and helping existing ones to thrive. “Our mission is to democratize and globalize philanthropy,” Lomelin said of the five-year initiative. The organization’s main goals are to teach the world about giving circles, strengthen existing ones, scale the movement with hundreds of additions, and create a lasting giving circle movement.

This mission becomes even more important in today’s climate, where isolation, polarization, and stagnation and disengagement threaten to cut giving. Giving circles offer participants the opportunity to feel more engaged and connected while learning more about the issues they support.

“We’re just getting started,” said Lomelin. “I’m very excited about starting this conversation.”

How Giving Circles are Responding to COVID-19

Sager congratulated Lomelin and Philanthropy Together for the completion of the first five-week Launchpad program, an incubator for giving circles.

“COVID-19 is and will continue to have a devastating impact on not-for-profits and individuals for the foreseeable future,” said Sager. “How are giving circles rallying to support, and how are they changing their practices in response to the need for social distancing?”

Lomelin praised giving circles for “doubling down” on trust-based giving. This gives giving circles speed to respond to non-profits’ needs, sending funds where they’re needed most as quickly as possible.

“A lot of giving circles called their grantees to say, ‘What do you need? How can we help you?’” said Lomelin. “Giving circles are just a group of people at the end of the day. The giving circles rally together to support each other.”

“These are not your regular crowdfunding or check-writing donors. Giving circle donors roll up their sleeves and come to work.”

Giving circles can be much more nimble than other organizations. It’s been relatively easy for circles to move from in-person meetings to online spaces, and continue to make their work a reality.

What’s happening in our communities of color?

Lomelin spoke to her own experience as a Latina woman. “Giving circles represent a very easy and accessible front door into philanthropy.”

“Diverse communities have participated in giving circles for many, many years.” Lomelin pointed out research that points to even more diversity forming in giving circles, naming the sense of community as a potential explanation for participation from the LGBT community, people of color, and women.

“’Oh my God, I feel like I just came home,’” Lomelin remembers hearing from a giving circle member at her first meeting.

In terms of responding to the current moment, Lomelin shared that within a few hours of the first BLM protests, Philanthropy Together was able to get a number of giving circle networks together on the phones, finding ways to respond to the crisis and support the organizations working to help these communities.

“We called them and we said, ‘OK, here we are, all of these philanthropy network leaders – what can we do?’”

Among its other programs, Philanthropy Together created a webinar series to address the BLM protests, gathering 500-700 people for critical conversations about racial equity and “how our dollars and voices can truly make change in a very quick way.”

What is Philanthropy Together doing to elevate the impact of collective giving?

After the two webinars, Philanthropy Together saw the incredible engagement from its community and created “a community of practice.”

“This is about action, and giving circles are about action.” More than 100 people signed up for a six-month deep-dive learning course into putting giving circles into action. On July 30, the first session begins for this program, to elevate the power of collective giving through education and sharing success stories.

Through a contract with a PR firm, Philanthropy Together aims to “share the amazing work that giving circles are doing,” and make sure that people around the world know what these circles are and how they work. By making giving circles accessible, clear, and popular, Philanthropy Together can highlight the movement.

Lomelin encouraged any participants on the call who are part of current giving circles to contact Philanthropy Together in order to share their stories with the media.

How are you working to scale the collective giving movement in a way that prioritizes equity and representation?

Lomelin brought up the example of the Philanthropy Together Launchpad. 40 participants launched 36 giving circles, most of the founders being people of color or women, ranging from high school students to people in their seventies.

“We’re being very intentional in how we do our outreach, because we want to start a lot of giving circles with very diverse voices.”

In particular, Lomelin called out the intention to start a network of giving circles founded by and supporting Native American and Indigenous women.

“We can control where we put our money – and giving circles give you that control,” said Lomelin. “We are committed to equity in everything we do.”

How can we go about joining or starting our own giving circles?

Lomelin spoke again to Launchpad. This program features five weeks of curriculum “to give change-makers the tools that they need to get their giving circles started.”

“You can always be flexible – start small, grow big – we are not dictating how to do it, or what model to follow,” said Lomelin. “There is so much flexibility in the giving circle model, and that’s the beauty of it.”

Lomelin introduced another feature from Philanthropy Together, which builds on the original program. Launchpad Pro will be a secondary program, launching in the fall, which will be designed for community foundation leaders and other philanthropic intermediaries who want to launch giving circles.

“Sometimes, diverse donors don’t go to community foundations because the floor to open a donor-advised fund is too high,” said Lomelin. “But with a giving circle, it’s doable.”

How else can we tap into our networks or our communities to support the causes that we care about?

“A lot of people want to support local causes and the smaller organizations,” said Lomelin. She spoke to giving circles’ ability to vet and build relationships with local organizations. “Those organizations are so overlooked by the big organizations and high-net-worth philanthropy. They’re just not on the radar.”

Giving circles, on the other hand, can support these local organizations much more quickly.

Lomelin gave the example of Grapevine, a platform that giving circles can use to connect and raise funds.

“How can we all come together? How can we stop trying to reinvent the wheel and unite forces?”

How will the pandemic and anti-racist protests shape the evolution of collective giving, and what will giving circles look like five years from now?

“I know we’re all tired of Zoom,” Lomelin joked. “But what it’s helping here is the reach: Now we’re able to go beyond the local. We already heard of at least five giving circles who are hoping to go large and national, meeting virtually.”

Instead of being restricted by geographical restraints, giving circles can “go national” and use tech platforms to manage money, reach more people, and grow.

“Those parts are going to stay,” Lomelin said of the “COVID-era” technologies and paths giving circles are taking now. “On the equity front, the response has been amazing from so many giving circles saying, ‘We want to embed racial equity in everything that we do.’” She gave the example of diversified memberships, boards, and grant-making, putting everything through a racial equity lens.

“We’re also putting together a YouTube channel, because we know there is so much we can give through Launchpad.” The Philanthropy Together YouTube channel features conversations between giving circle leaders, information on trust-based philanthropy, and tips for collective giving.

“It’s important for us to trust ourselves,” said Lomelin. “This moment in time moved us all to the core. It’s time to evaluate what we’re doing, and ask how we can be doing things better.”

Sager turned the Q&A over to the participants, pulling questions from the chat.

How can fundraisers identify and build relationships with giving circles?

Philanthropy Together is working on building a national database of giving circles, relying on research from industry leaders.

“One of our projects is to put together a very comprehensive database of giving circles,” said Lomelin. “The idea of this directory is that you can plug in your zip code, issue area you care about, geographical area, or demographics—are you looking for a giving circle that’s all female, or LGBTQ?—and build a very comprehensive search for that database. Hopefully it will be ready in the next six months. In the meantime, you can reach out to us—the low-tech kind of thing—and we can figure out how to connect you.”

How can we best support diversity beyond gender through these giving circles?

“Something we tend to overlook is diversity in ages,” said Lomelin. “It’s so important to bring in young voices. The best way to do it is to think about your membership model: Is it accessible?”

Lomelin pointed out that many young people can’t give $1,000 per year (a typical donation minimum for giving circles) so flexibility in minimum donations, such as scholarships for younger members, donation matching, or working with community foundations can help young, diverse voices get entry into these circles.

Tips for Giving Circles, New and Established

For the final question of the event, Sager asked, “What makes a giving circle successful?”

Lomelin said, “First of all is trust. You need to create community. People need to love attending the giving circle. All of us are part of giving circles because we want to be, we’re doing it in our spare time or as volunteers. We could be doing so many other things!”

Lomelin called out the importance of creating community at every meeting. She encouraged taking five minutes to ask people how they’re doing, share icebreakers, and even get silly. “What made you smile this weekend?” Lomelin suggested.

She also shared the importance of transparency, in membership requirements, donation strategy, and communication with community members.

Third, “Be mindful of what you ask of your grantees. They are not going to be able to change the world with your $10,000 grant in a year. Be a partner—break the power dynamic of saying, ‘We’re the donors and we’re here to save you.’”

“Be the vehicle,” Lomelin encouraged.

The webinar closed with much of the audience sharing encouraging messages in the chat — We all left energized. I for one felt the immediate urge to start my own giving circle, and I know I’m not alone.

About Sara Lomelin: Sara Lomelin is a connector of people and ideas, a relationship builder, and a firm believer that everyone can be a philanthropist. Most recently she served as Senior Director of Leadership Philanthropy at Opportunity Fund, the largest nonprofit lender in the United States. Previously at the Latino Community Foundation, Sara served as Vice President of Philanthropy for seven years, and brought her high-energy approach to creating the Latino Giving Circle Network™, the largest network of its kind in the country. Sara is dedicated to a vision in which everyone is invited to participate in philanthropy. Sara graduated with honors from Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City and received her Administration and Management Certificate from Harvard University, where she also earned the prestigious Katie Y. F. Yang Prize. Born and raised in Mexico City, Sara now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her three teenage children. She enjoys hiking, cooking and laughing with friends.

About WPI: The IU Lilly Family School of Philanthropy is globally recognized as the first of its kind. School faculty and staff train and empower students and practitioners to innovate and lead—and to create positive and lasting change in the world. Within the IU Lilly School, the Women’s Philanthropy Institute seeks to research women’s philanthropy to enact real change. According to WPI’s mission statement, “To tackle challenges large and small, our world needs more strategic philanthropy. Women can lead this charge, harnessing their growing wealth and influence to create a more just, equitable, and healthy society. To unlock the full potential of women’s philanthropy, we must understand how gender shapes giving behavior. To build a powerful and diverse force of female philanthropists, we need to understand more about what drives women to give. The Women’s Philanthropy Institute exists for that reason: to conduct, curate, and disseminate research that grows women’s philanthropy.”


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Author: Maggie May

Maggie May is a small business owner, author, and story-centric content strategist. A Maryland transplant by way of Florida, DC, Ireland, Philadelphia, and -- most recently -- Salt Lake City, she has a passion for finding stories and telling them the way they're meant to be told.

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