Growing Philanthropy Through Giving Circles: Lessons Learned from Start-up to Grantmaking

Source: Association of Baltimore Area Grantmakers

Date: 2003

Giving circles are a relatively new way to engage donors in a more enriching and rewarding philanthropic experience. A giving circle is a pooled fund, generally hosted or sponsored by a charitable organization such as a community foundation, through which members make grants together. Circles are typically organized around a particular issue or area of interest, such as women’s issues, quality of life, or the environment, and are considered a higher-engagement form of philanthropy because donors usually engage in collective decision making and educational activities. The circle’s grantmaking functions—which may include issuing a formal request for proposals, proposal review, and site visits—engage members in a participatory process that, when combined with the increased impact of pooled charitable dollars, has strong appeal to many donors. This research explores and communicates the lessons learned from two giving circles initiated in Maryland: the Baltimore Women’s Giving Circle (BWGC) and the Women’s Giving Circle (WGC) of Howard County. The purposes of the research were to: Document how the decisions made during startup through early grantmaking affect circle operations and the overall resource commitment of participants and host organizations. Understand the financial and organizational underpinnings necessary for hosting a successful, sustainable giving circle. Identify and share lessons learned for both those who want to start a giving circle and potential host organizations. As both of the circles in our study are still relatively young, we focused our research on the lessons learned from start-up and early grantmaking experiences. Although the research was geared primarily toward community foundations and potential circle founders, we hope that the learnings also inform the field of philanthropy generally. The lessons learned have been many. Successful, sustainable circles require significant volunteer leadership and mutually beneficial and reinforcing relationships with the right host. In particular, our research suggests that giving circles should be capable of operating almost autonomously (within the terms of the hosting agreement) and are best hosted by foundations with a significant capacity to meet a newly formed circle’s resource demands. In the absence of existing capacity, considerable start-up resources should be sought. These resources would serve not only to initiate the circle but also to further the foundation’s organizational development.

Link: Growing Philanthropy Through Giving Circles: Lessons Learned from Start-up to Grantmaking

Keyword: Field Building Partnership

Region: Northern America