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  Giving Circles Potpourri

Canadian FundRaiserThey're really making an impact - with mixed results - in the US

Giving circles, those elusive “little old ladies in tennis shoes” Canadian FundRaiser wrote about wistfully (CF November 30, 2005), may still be an elusive phenomenon, if they exist at all, in this country, but south of the border they continue to increase in numbers and impact on the voluntary sector.

Calling them a “cross between book club and investment group”, Jessica Bearman of Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers and Angela Eikenberry of Virginia Tech say they pool and give away personal resources, educate and engage members, provide a social dimension for their members, and are independent of any formal body. There are apparently 400 of them (identified) across the country in 45 states.

Reporting to the International Fundraising Conference of the Association of Fundraising Professionals on a 2006 survey of 160 of those giving circles, the speakers say they found they engaged more than 11,687 donors, had raised more than $83 million and had granted more than $63 million, more than $12 million of it in 2006.

Range in size, organization

What makes this new phenomenon hard to get your arms around is that giving circles come in all shapes and sizes – small groups, loose networks, formal organizations – ranging from tiny to huge, from formal structure to very unstructured, with diverse thresholds for financial and engagement commitment, and hosted or unhosted.

They tend to think local, the speakers say, with 79% funding within their communities, 9% within their state, both small grassroots and well-established organizations.

Funding priorities are likely to be women and girls, education and youth development, health and nutrition, community improvement, and arts and culture.

Among their impacts on their members, according to the speakers, are that they: demystify philanthropy; leverage resources to make a difference; teach about issues, needs, and organizations in the community; result in members giving and volunteering beyond the giving circle, and make giving more informed, thoughtful, focussed and strategic.

A typical nonprofit receiving funds from a giving circle, Bearman and Eikenberry suggest, is small and locally-based, has a proven track record of filling a need in the community but was probably started in the past five years, is undergoing a transition period, and has an Executive Director in the mid-30s to early 40s, who may well have started the organization.

Giving circles provide multi-dimensional support, they note. It’s very much about relationship-building and can be more personal, fun, and less formal than other types of philanthropy.

Value-added elements

The value-added elements beyond funding may include volunteers and in-kind resources, connections and access to networks and new resources, a seal of community approval, and a convening of funding recipients.

All is not butter and roses, however. The relationship can be more complicated – it’s typically short-term, unpredictable, donor-driven funding (flavour of the month giving), and there can be a lack of transparency, with individual members being difficult to identify and contact.

Giving circle funding is “not necessarily transformational”, say Bearman and Eikenberry, if there is no value-added beyond funding. Also, the circle members sometimes don’t “get it”, and dealing with them can be time-consuming and unpredictable.

In summary, the speakers say, “be ready for giving circles”: understand the changing structure of fundraising/philanthropy; be aware of the existence of giving circles in your community (Ed. note: if you can find them); find a champion in the giving circle; be “out there”, build awareness of your organization and if possible join a circle to become part of the network; be ready to respond when you are “found”.

“But also be cautious.”

For more information: Jessica Bearman, Consultant, Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers, info@givingforum.org; Angela M. Eikenberry, Assistant Professor, Virginia Tech, 540/231-6946, aeik@vt.edu.

Canadian FundRaiser
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