Welcome to the wonderful world of collective giving

Aug 14, 2020

Through the rolling and roiling crises of the first half of 2020, while so much of American life has been on hold, philanthropy, and in particular collective giving, has continued to innovate, iterate and create. Philanthropy Together, an initiative that was launched on 4/1/2020 to support and build the field was able to, within a few weeks, stand up a Giving Circle incubator, Launchpad, that ran a five-week curriculum for 40 individual potential founders. They have also created programming including two webinars and a six-month Community of Practice to help Giving Circles center anti-racism in their work. All of these programs have had hundreds of participants. This is all very good news for the nascent collective giving movement.

By way of introduction, I am a member and Past President of Women’s Giving Alliance in Jacksonville, FL. WGA was founded by 5 influential local women in 2001. It’s 450 members generally grant $500K per year to organizations that serve women and girls in our five-county region. I am also the Chair of Philanos (formerly WCGN), a national network of over 70 women’s giving circles, and women’s funds and foundations that practice collective giving, and which have 15,000+ individual members. These groups annually invest over $15Million in their communities. The network provides individual mentoring for the leaders of these groups, monthly webinars and other tools, and hosts a very popular biennial conference, where the sense of common purpose and Sisterhood is very powerful.

Emily Rasmussen, CEO of Grapevine, asked me to write a guest blog to speak to those of you who are considering starting Giving Circles, or at the beginning of this journey. I thought what I could offer are some ideas of things you might want to consider before you have your first big meeting and/or make your first round of grants. So, in no particular order:

  1. What Matters Most? Hali Lee, who founded both the Asian Women’s Giving Circle in NYC and the Donors of Color network likes to say that because she isn’t religious, her giving circle is where she goes to talk about values. Some very well-established groups with hundreds of members are going to be having interesting and perhaps uncomfortable conversations around their shared values in the next few months. You have the opportunity to put what you believe and value right up front, and we are all living in an environment when this has become an expectation. Ideally, this would be the result of a conversation among the founder(s) and several other committed founding members.
  2. What Needs are the Greatest? Lots of collective giving groups have done “disaster philanthropy” with some or all of their funds, others have stuck to their grant cycles as laid out before COVID. To be clear, there’s no wrong answer here. There are countless frontline organizations battling both the pandemic and institutional racism that need immediate funding. But as Joanne Cohen, of the Community Foundation for Northeast Florida, which hosts WGA, has said, recovering from this set of crises will require that folks invest in the entire non-profit sector; we will need not only disaster relief, but investments in social services, educational institutions and the arts to fully restore our society.
  3. How do we respond to #BlackLivesMatter? I listened to a webinar recently in which Marcus Littles of Frontline Solutions acknowledged that many Giving Circles will struggle to diversify their membership, and basically said, your circle members are who they are, but there are other ways to help: Consider who you hire to advise you, (and please, if you look to NPO CEOs of color to advise you, compensate them), who consults with you, who you order food and other products from for your circle or your events. You can support black business owners, locally and nationally.
    We can also all learn more about anti-racist philanthropy. Reading and resource lists abound on this subject. Feel free to use the Philanos Building Anti-Racist Organizations page. Philanthropy Together has already produced two excellent webinars on the topic already, which you can watch here.
  4. What stories will you tell about your Circle? Lots of GC leaders like to talk about the “Four Ts: Time, Talent, Treasure and Testimony” as the most significant, and equal, assets they bring to the work. I was fortunate to be in Seattle a few months ago and was invited to the founding meeting of a group called Impact 100 Seattle. Laura Midgley, a Philanos Board Member, friend, and member of Washington Women’s Foundation in Seattle came along with me, to a wine and cheese reception in a locally owned shop a couple of miles north of what was recently #CHAZ. She told the founders, women in their 30s, to take lots of photos, and “remember this night, because in 10 or 15 years, you’re going to be telling the story of the night you launched.” The founders were pretty wide-eyed at this. It was great advice when we could meet in person, but if your launch is going to be virtual, you can also make it memorable. I have been on Zoom calls with musicians, poets, multi-question polls, all kinds of “ice-breakers” and celebrity guests. Invite your mayor or a member of your State or Federal Congressional delegation — they will be delighted to meet some generous local citizens. There will also be non-grantmaking effects of your work, especially as you grow, and you should keep track of those stories as well. How many local Non-profit employees are part of your Circles? What non-monetary assistance did you provide to a grantee: volunteers, board members, advice, connection to other resources? Which of your members changed their path to work with Nonprofits? Who founded an organization to fill a gap in services you learned about? These kinds of stories abound within Philanos and the other Giving Circle Networks, and they lend a great deal of credence to the work.
  5. Consider Funding Democracy? Philanos held a conference in Seattle in late February, 2020 which was called PowerUP! The Spark that Ignites Change and was DEI-focused. The final plenary speaker, Pia Enfante of the Whitman Institute said something that I will admit has haunted me, especially in light of the rolling state of crisis in which we find ourselves. Her advice: “consider funding democracy, and if your members think it’s too political, ask them if they want to breathe air and live in a democracy?” Even if you can’t get your nascent group to think about aligning around values in politics, there are non-partisan groups in every State working to register people to vote and turning out the vote that you could support. You can also watch this video about the nexus of philanthropic and political giving circles, which is particularly relevant in this election cycle, and in which, spoiler alert, I appear.

I’m envious that you are all at the beginning of what I am certain will be an incredibly satisfying journey in collective giving and hope to meet many of you at a future in-person conference. You’ll meet lovely humans, make lifelong friends and learn a lot about your local NPO ecosystem. There will likely be wine involved. This is not a moment, it’s a movement. Welcome.

Paula Liang.jpeg

Paula Liang

Chair, Philanos


Start Your Grapevine!