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Nonprofit Strategies

Better together: An introduction to giving circles

Learn about the rich history of giving circles, how they work today, and ways you can get involved in this movement that’s changing the landscape of philanthropy.

Kyson Bunthuwong
December 21, 2022
December 2, 2021
Nerd Mr Butter

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More than ever, people are waking up to the realization that you don’t have to be of a certain demographic, background, income, or culture to be a philanthropist. 

Giving circles are a growing movement that is shifting the landscape of philanthropy, enabling everyday givers to amplify their community impact by joining with others.

We’ve got the answers to your most burning questions about giving circles, including:

What is a giving circle, exactly? 🤨

Put simply, a giving circle is a group of individuals who come together to support the causes they care about. 

A collaborative, participatory approach to philanthropy, giving circles bring together people with common interests, concerns, or backgrounds to support causes that matter to them.

People join giving circles with like-minded people in their community to maximize group donations to nonprofits and other community-based groups. By pooling together their knowledge, money, and other resources, giving circle members can make a much greater impact on the issues they care about than they ever could as individuals. 

Far beyond the scope of mainstream philanthropy, giving circles are multi-dimensional vehicles that create community, bridge divides, promote viewpoint diversity, and create opportunities for civic engagement. They provide a setting in which anyone, regardless of who they are or how much they have to give, can hone the skills to effectively participate in a robust and diverse democracy. 

How do giving circles work? 🤝

Giving circles come in all shapes and sizes with countless different ways of operating. Members come together and intentionally develop the group’s culture, requirements, and preferences. With complete flexibility, these parameters include how often they meet and how many organizations they’ll give to.  

Giving circles can be formed by friends, family, community members or coworkers making pooled donations of any amount. More formal giving circles tend to have more structure, usually, with minimum donation requirements, a vetting process, and voting systems. 

Others are much more informal. Members don’t have a required donation amount, and, instead of grants being issued, individual checks are collected and sent to an organization as a lump sum.

But the value of giving circles often extends well beyond its cash donations. Members frequently organize group volunteer activities, events, and actions to raise awareness about various issues within their community in partnership with the organizations they support. 

Giving circles promote more thoughtful, intentional, informed, and ethical giving and are infinitely customizable and adaptable to givers’ diverse philanthropic interests, geographies, and giving levels. 

Powered by the people who contribute what they can, giving circles have the potential to open the doors of philanthropy to millions of people—indeed, they already have.

The rich history of giving circles 🌍

While the term “giving circle” is relatively new, the practice of collective giving has been around for centuries, taking on different forms throughout the course of human history. 

🤝 Susu, for example, is a longstanding system of group economics popular throughout West Africa and the Caribbean, in which community members contribute and distribute funds (known as a "hand") to the wider collective. 

💸 Here in the United States, the communal giving models of mutual aid societies, credit unions, and even self-help groups have benefited a wide range of individuals since the 1700s. 

🚀 By the 1990s, the giving circle movement was on the rise. According to Philanthropy Together, what was only about 50 small collective giving groups in 1995 grew to more than 2,000 giving circles by 2020, tripling between 2007 and 2016 alone. 

To date, giving circles have rallied hundreds of thousands of people to contribute billions of dollars to good causes—and they’re just getting started. 

What giving circles look like today ✊

Today, the membership of giving circles is most often rooted in individual donors' identities, interests, and geographical location. 

The Collective Giving Research Group found that 84% of giving circles offer grants directly to causes in their local community, whereas only a small number contribute to international or even state-wide organizations. 

Giving circles are often formed around race and ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and religious or cultural background—particularly for groups that have been historically marginalized by mainstream philanthropy, including Jewish, Black, Latino, Asian-American and Pacific Islander, and LGBTQ+ people. Women make up the majority of giving circles, with 70% of groups reporting that females make up more than half of their membership. 

There are 2.5K+ giving circles around the world supporting a wide range of causes, including:

♻️ 1% For the Planet Individual Member Giving Circle: A giving circle with members committed to helping communities disproportionately affected by climate change.

🎨 Vital Little Plans: An artist collective and giving circle which supports arts-driven and community-led creative, equitable, and vital plans for neighborhoods and communities.

🌈 LGBTQ+ Latinx Giving Circle: A giving circle based in the San Francisco Bay Area and comprised of LGBTQ+ identifying members who pool their resources to support local nonprofits working with the LGBTQ+ Latinx community.

This tiny sample demonstrates the extraordinary diversity of the collective giving field and highlights giving circles’ unique abilities to directly impact the communities around them. 

Beyond “doing good” by supporting important issues or underfunded causes, giving circles promote philanthropic synergy, collective wisdom, networking opportunities, social connections with like-minded individuals, and informed decision-making, putting their members in touch, on a deeper level, of what’s going on in their community. 

Sounds amazing! How can I get involved? 🙌

You don't need a large group of people or plenty of capital to join in this growing movement to diversify and democratize philanthropy. All you need is a little structure and a desire to make an impact in your community.

 Here are the first few steps we'd recommend for gettings started:

1. Start your own giving circle

Follow this step-by-by step guide to launch your own giving circle. Looking for additional support? Meet fellow changemakers and gain valuable tips and tools by joining Launchpad For You, a virtual training program for budding giving circle leaders.

2. Join an existing giving circle

To find a giving circle in your area or a point of contact, check out the first-ever global giving circle directory.

3. Spread the word

The collective giving movement is growing exponentially, but we need your help to tell others about this incredible form of philanthropy. 

Whether you’re a nonprofit looking to partner with giving circles in your community, or a giving circle looking to grow your membership, consider these options for reaching out to others who want to make a difference:

  • Throw a BAF (bring-a-friend) night, where each member brings one guest 
  • Create a peer-to-peer campaign for your next fundraising drive
  • Host a webinar where you explain what your organization does and your community impact to-date

Giving circles are changing philanthropy—you in? 😎

When it comes to collective giving, "the more the merrier," has never been more true. There is a home for everyone in this diverse, collaborative, and community-oriented space. 

Get out there and find the right community of changemakers for you! 

Givebutter made a $100 donation to Kyson's campaign of choice, The Trans Asylum Seeker Support Network, for his guest blog.

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