Giving Circles: Philanthropy with a New Twist

Have you heard the story of jilted bride who turned her wedding reception into a benefit for disadvantaged children? When Kyle Paxman learned six weeks before her wedding that her fiancé was cheating on her, she called off the wedding and her reception became a benefit for the Vermont Children’s Aid Society and the international relief organization CARE USA.

Paxman is admirable both for her ability to turn a bad situation into something positive and for her innovative approach to philanthropy. In fact, advisors around the country are reporting that individuals and families they work with desire to do more to support the charities they care about than simply write a check. Across the country, donor-advised funds and foundations are on the rise. But you don’t have to start a foundation to become more engaged in and more satisfied with your philanthropy.

A giving circle is a relatively new charitable giving vehicle that has gained in popularity over the last ten years. As a kind of social investment club, a giving circle involves a group of donors who place their charitable dollars into a pooled fund and decide as a group which charities to support. Giving circle donors often commit to participate for several years at an established dollar level, but the amount of money varies greatly. For example, the Daily Muses Fund in Boston requires just a $1 a day investment whereas the Barnabus Fund in Indiana requires an annual contribution of $20,000 from each individual or couple.

In addition to leveraging the impact of their monetary contributions, many giving circles also offer their expertise to the organizations they support. That is, in addition to providing funds, circle members volunteer with the organizations in an effort to contribute more to — and to learn more about —  the causes they care about.

Giving circles vary in structure, size, and charitable focus. Some giving circles are nothing more than a group of friends with a bank account who meet in each other’s homes to discuss and decide on where their funds will go. Giving circles are also popular business colleagues. For example, AOL has established Giving Tree Circles that allow AOL employees with common interests to join together to volunteer and/or make charitable contributions. The Robin Hood Foundation in New York City is a collective of Wall Street bankers and brokers that focuses on community and economic development. Giving circles can also be affiliated with foundations. For example, the 120 or so women’s community foundations around the country commonly offer a variety group activities, including giving circles. (You can find more information on women’s community foundations at the Women’s Funding Network’s web site at http://www.wfnet.org.)

The vast majority of giving circles start small. For example, the Daily Muses Fund is made up of ten Boston area professional women interested in fostering the well being of women and children. However, other giving circles have hundreds of members and governing boards, and, as the amount of money they control becomes significant, many use a community foundation to manage the financial aspects of their giving.

While giving circles can control substantial amounts of money, what members universally report to enjoy most is the opportunity to work in a group of like-minded individuals and to connect meaningfully with the communities and causes they support. In the same way that venture capital supports innovation in the business world, by providing financial and intellectual capital, as well as networking resources, giving circles are paving the way for future innovations in philanthropy.

Interested? For more information, visit the Giving Network (GNet) at www.givingnetwork.org and the Giving Forum at http://www.givingforum.org.

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