January 12, 2017
When the sixth call asking for our help came in days after the presidential election, we started to realize that interest in giving circles — groups of people who come together, pool their charitable donations, and decide together how to give those resources away — had never been greater.
“We’ve only ever given to our universities and political campaigns,” one caller said, echoing the sentiments of many others we spoke to. “We have no idea how to make an impact right now on the issues that came up during the campaign — but we know we want to, and we want to do it together.”
Whether you woke up on November 9 feeling shell-shocked or optimistic, you probably asked yourself: What do I do now? How can I be more engaged in my community and in causes that interest me? How can I help my obviously divided country come together and heal in the months and years to come?
If those are the kinds of questions you’ve been asking yourself, starting a giving circle might just be the answer.
In the hundred and eighty years since French diplomat and political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville published the first volume of his monumental Democracy in America, America has been known for the willingness of its citizens to form and engage in civil associations. Today, giving circles are a way for Americans to come together around their similarities — and reconcile their differences — while making a difference in their communities and society. Importantly, especially at fraught national moments like these, they also can help us find meaning in our lives by empowering us to give, in partnership and fellowship with neighbors, friends, and family, in ways that reflect our values.
Indeed, everything that giving circle members do, they do together.
Giving circle members learn together. Members of giving circles talk about the values and passions they hope to bring to their giving and then decide where and how they want to direct their resources. Together, they learn about the landscape of organizations and activists working on or with the issues and communities they care about. Instead of simply reacting to a grant proposal or fundraising appeal, giving circles offer their members proactive opportunities that start with the question: “What’s the change we want to make in the world?” — and provide a platform from which they can help drive that change.
Giving circle members give together. Rather than simply learning about issues and organizations doing good work, giving circle members do things together. They pool their charitable resources, enabling them to have a greater financial impact than any one member of the group could have on his or her own, and, together, they direct those resources to people and organizations in a position to use them. Giving circle members also build relationships with the organizations to which they give, frequently provide strategic guidance or pro bono services, and in many cases even agree to serve as board members for those organizations. For most people, giving circles provide a powerful experience of giving — active, hands-on, and with endless opportunities for impact.
Giving circle members are together. Giving can be a solitary affair in which a person with resources and a checkbook or credit card responds to a direct request for funds. Giving circles transform this experience into something that is vibrant, values-based, and communal. Imagine sitting in a room with people you like, talking about how to make a difference together on issues that matter to all of you, or meeting new people in your community who are interested in coming together to create positive change. Giving circles fulfill a fundamental human need for sociability and friendship, and can be as formal or informal, homogeneous or heterogeneous, social or educational as their members need or want them to be.
America finds itself in a moment of flux. This is your chance to shape the moment by starting (or joining) a giving circle. It’s easier than you think, and it will connect you to your community — and your country — in ways you might never have imagined. What are you waiting for?
Felicia Herman is the executive director of Natan, a giving circle in New York, and is founder and incoming advisory board chair of Amplifier. Joelle Asaro Berman is the executive director at Amplifier.