Philanthropy Through Giving Circles

The first time I heard the phrase "giving circle" was as a graduate student. I was a teaching assistant for an undergraduate course on philanthropy at the University of Maryland, and one of the guest speakers for the class was a member of the Baltimore Women's Giving Circle. It turns out that even as a TA, I could still learn from the class I assisted, and like most of my students, I enjoyed learning about how the group pooled their resources and decided collectively how to award grants each year. They had set procedures for evaluating and voting on nonprofits to support, and in addition to their philanthropic work, their group had an undeniable social aspect as well. It seemed like a fun way to give money, but as I learned, most giving circles are formal organizations, comprised of committees that require annual donations of $250 to upwards of $5,000. Joining a giving circle was attractive, but as a 24 year old graduate student living on Ramen, seemed like something that would have to wait until much later in life.

Fortunately, I have not been alone in finding the idea of amplifying my single donation by pooling with others appealing, and the number of giving circles has skyrocketed in recent years. Notably for me, and my peers, more people are embracing looser definitions of what giving circles should be. In addition to funding nonprofits, giving circles are being used to connect people with common interests, educate members and provide a forum to discuss relevant issues, while often keeping the minimal donation low to engage people of all income levels.

One of these circles with multiple purposes is Hannah's Giving Circle, a group dedicated to supporting innovative non-profits both domestically and in Israel and named for a dear friend. In 2000, several American and Canadian students studying at Hebrew University in Jerusalem became especially close. Six years later, one of them was tragically killed in a hit-and-run in NYC. Her name was Hannah Engle. Over the years, the group struggled to stay connected because of their disparate geography and ever-changing lives. Yet, Hannah's passing created a bond within the group and it seemed only fitting to start a giving circle and name it in her honor. Hannah was dedicated to the pursuit of social change both domestically and abroad. Her leadership and vision served as a guide for the mission of Hannah's Giving Circle. Rachel Gold helped to start Hannah's Giving Circle to continue Hannah's legacy. Gold explained that in addition to financially supporting the efforts of organizations in North America and Israel, the circle has also become a "constructive space for members to have nuanced discussions about Israel." The circle has grown to include members who did not know Hannah, but are interested supporting the cause and being a part of this community.

Sarah Tuttle, a resident of Texas, recently began a giving circle to support reproductive justice efforts. Her circle supports local capacity building groups while integrating awareness about racism, feminism and transgender issues into their daily work. She is excited to bring together people with similar interests and pool their resources to have a larger impact on the organizations they support. The giving circle, she explains, "is an opportunity to learn about new organizations and expanding our understanding of the current need. It is also a great chance to talk social justice with friends."

Each of these circles embraces education, awareness and community, equally, if not more than, financial contribution. It is these types of circles that appeal most to Millennials and are providing an important avenue to engage this key generation in philanthropy. A 2009 study found that participation in giving circles influences members to give more, to give more strategically, to give to a wide array of causes, and to become highly engaged in their communities. More recent studies have also revealed that people who begin to give at an earlier age are more inclined to give throughout their lifetime. Getting Millennials involved in philanthropy now will be key to supporting the nonprofit sector in the coming years and giving circles have emerged as a way to make philanthropic efforts social and educational, bringing people together around a cause or common interest.

I am now a member of two giving circles. One is small and comprised of other alumni of the same University of Maryland program that first introduced me to giving circles and we fund specific initiatives at our alma mater. The other is a large, national circle made up of other Next Gen philanthropists that rotates through five different issue areas. The scope and size are different, but both are ways for me to amplify my impact. It is through giving circles that I, and many of my peers, have begun our philanthropic journeys.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in celebration of #GivingTuesday, which will take place this year (2013) on December 3. The idea behind #GivingTuesday is to kickoff the holiday-giving season, in the same way that Black Friday and Cyber Monday kickoff the holiday-shopping season. We'll feature at least one post from a #GivingTuesday partner every weekday in November. To see all the posts in the series, click here; follow the conversation via #GivingTuesday and learn more here.

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