How to Join or Start a Giving Circle (It’s Awesome and Easy)

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If you want to practice solidarity and generosity and become personally involved with the people and causes you care about, you might want to join or start a giving circle. Giving circles are groups of people who practice Philanthropy together; members contribute funds and then decide together where they should donate. Philanthropy literally means “the love of people” in Latin, and giving circles can offer everyday people a powerful way to exhibit love for one another. By combining resources, giving circle members make bigger impacts than they can alone and often gain meaningful connections with and deeper understanding of their neighbors and communities along the way. Pooling funds to distribute communally is an age-old, international practice -- it’s known as Susu in some West African communities and tanda in some Mexican ones.

Circle members often unite because of shared hometowns, communities, identities, interests, concerns, and/or dreams. A few examples of the many circles out there include the LGBTQ Latinx Giving Circle, the Utah Women’s Giving Circle, and the 1% for the Planet Giving Circle.

 Many groups keep their funding sphere local, while others set their sights on the global stage. Their rituals and methodologies take many forms; they may function independently, distribute money informally, or be part of a larger grant-making organization like a community foundation.

And, these groups are growing in popularity and diversity. According to research from the Collective Giving Research Group, they tripled in number between 2007 and 2016 when there were about 1,500. While the amount of money that individual giving circles disperse ranges widely, their impact is significant -- the same 2016 study estimated circles had “given as much as $1.29 billion since inception.”

“[Women] will be able to own the term philanthropist because of the work of giving circles.”

Marsha Morgan, a founding member of the Birmingham Change Fund

According to a current giving circle directory run by the nonprofit Philanthropy Together, there are now more than 2,000 active circles around the globe. Philanthropy Together launched in 2020 to showcase, scale, strengthen, and sustain the giving circle movement and democratize and diversify Philanthropy.

In the next few years, “[Women] will be able to own the term philanthropist because of the work of giving circles,” says Marsha Morgan, a founding member of a giving circle called the Birmingham Change Fund, and past chair of the Community Investment Network, a national network of circles which works to “inspire, connect and strengthen African Americans and communities of color.”

While circles still consist primarily of women, the new members fueling this blossoming movement tend to be more varied when it comes to gender, race, age, and income level. “As the movement brings more diverse voices into philanthropy, I look forward to seeing more cross-race, cross-class, and interfaith circles starting, as well as more solidarity work,” Sara Lomelin, executive director of Philanthropy Together, says.

These collaborative, generous groups have historically met in person but most successfully moved online during the pandemic, and they were able to move money and other resources to their communities quickly. Recent years have seen the launch of new collective giving apps and online trainings. It’s easier than ever to join or start a circle, and the rippling impact of the giving circle movement is expanding significantly. For example, the platform Grapevine facilitates online giving circles and is co-developing the giving circle directory with Philanthropy Together.

If you are interested in starting a circle, “Just do it!”

Sara Lomelin, Executive Director of Philanthropy Together, says.

If you don’t know of a local circle you want to join or can’t find one that appeals in the directory, you may want to launch one yourself. On its site, Philanthropy Together suggests a basic five-step process for starting a circle. In short, the steps are: gather (people), discuss (visions and goals), decide (pool money and choose recipients), give (distribute money), and engage (take further aligned action beyond the donation). Giving circles have long been a way for members to expand their community involvement, and it's common for participants to go beyond financial or material donations to volunteer, advocate, or otherwise practice solidarity.

If you are interested in starting a circle, “Just do it!” Lomelin says. “Think about two or three friends that have networks and know other people, and share why you are passionate about giving and why you want to do it together. This model is so engaging, thoughtful, and fun that once you convince your core group, there will be a ripple effect, and those friends will bring in their friends, and so on. Invite them over for lunch, establish some grounding rules, and get started!”

Morgan recommends “looking for engaging, like-minded individuals who you trust and respect. This doesn’t mean finding people who agree with you or want to only support the same causes as you, but finding individuals who are aligned with how you’d like to move the community forward.”

Like Lomelin, Hali Lee, founder of the Asian Women Giving Circle, advises women who want to start a circle, “Just do it!” She says. “I get calls all the time from women who want to start giving circles, and they get hung up on logistics, worries, and obstacles that aren’t really obstacles. You can figure most of it out along the way. Get a group of friends together [and] get aligned around a short set of common values and goals. Then go.” Lee also recommends Launchpad, a virtual training program to help anyone launch a circle, offered by Philanthropy Together.

Tags: empower, Faith and Social Justice, Giving

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Written By

Julia Travers

Julia Travers is a writer who often covers social and cultural topics. Find her at NPR, Art News, YES! Magazine and other outlets. See Full Bio

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