Giving Circles: On-the-Ground Philanthropy and Civic Engagement (from Arts Watch)

Posted by Ms. Pam Korza, Jun 16, 2010 0 comments

According to the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers, giving circles are a growing trend in philanthropy that is rooted in tradition and here to stay. Also called donor circles, they are a relatively simple way for everyday people to pool their money and decide together where to give it away.  They have emerged over the last decade as a significant philanthropic trend among donors of all wealth levels and backgrounds. The Forum has identified more than 400 circles across the country engaging more than 12,000 donors, and giving close to $100 million over the course of their existence.

Giving circles, like the individuals who form them, are wide ranging—from a group of neighbors meeting around a kitchen table to loose networks to formal organizations.  A circle develops its resource by pooling funds from any combination of members’ own donations, fundraising events they produce, and/or solicitation of other individuals, businesses, or resources.

Animating Democracy has been learning about giving circles through research for our Arts & Social Change Mapping Initiative which has set out to identify and learn about who is funding work that employs art to advance social and civic change. Amidst traditional foundations and public sources where movement to fund this work is slowed by competing interests and a dire economy, giving circles offer a fresh alternative to consider.

Although Animating Democracy’s interests have been about support specifically for arts and social change, here are two reasons for all of us to pay attention to giving circles:

Giving circles are giving to the arts.  A quarter of the 160 circles surveyed by the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers in 2006 said they give to arts and culture. (See the report, “More Giving Together.”)

Giving circles are a form of and are enhancing civic engagement.  Another report by the Forum (The Impact of Giving Together) reveals that giving circle donors express a sense of civic responsibility.  They often report getting more involved in efforts to address problems they have learned about through their circles. In addition, the report finds that giving circles influence members to give more and to give more strategically; that is, they give to advance a vision for change and to take into consideration cultural differences and race, class, and gender when making decisions.

Here are a couple examples of giving circles that our research revealed:

  • The Fire This Time Giving Circle (FTT) in Chicago, now in its fifth year, is an all volunteer organized, independent giving circle that supports small-scale, creative social change projects that are not typically getting funds from other traditional sources. The FTT Circle has about a dozen core members—artists, activists, and educators.  It has granted approximately $40,000 total to date; giving about a dozen $500 to $1,000 grants annually.  FTT operates independently with a simple bank account.
  • Asian Women's Giving Circle describes itself as a “motley crew of Asian women in New York City ranging in age from 20 to 70 and representing a wide range of cultures, ethnicities, and professions.” Recognizing a general lack of philanthropic support to Asian American communities, the circle gives grants to Asian women using arts and culture to achieve social justice goals. A core group of women each contribute $2,500 to a pool which is supplemented by contributions from 150 others. Since 2005, it has distributed over $270,000, giving about $75,000 annually. The Asian Women’s Giving Circle operates as a donor advised fund of Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy.

Christopher Ellinger, who co-founded the Arts Rising Circle, believes that giving circles work because they are so participatory.  “People tend to be philanthropically reactive rather than proactive. They have a feeling of disengagement in their giving.  Donor circles offer people a partnership in which they’re helping to make decisions about what’s important to support.  To grow, they need to be part of a donor community that reinforces their work and donation.”

Look for Animating Democracy’s report on Arts for Change Funding in the fall. In the meantime, we’re curious if giving circles are being employed in your community to support the arts generally, or more specifically arts for change, arts education, or any other particular arts and cultural interests.

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