Giving Circles


“If you want to go quickly, go it alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

-African proverb

In its most basic form, a giving circle is a group of individuals who pool contributions and collectively decide where to give their money. 

There is no more democratic and arguably no more fun method of philanthropy than a giving circle. Because they are inclusive of all members, giving circles are an ideal vehicle to foster collaboration among funders and ensure their money has a larger impact on an issue all members care about. It’s the kind of philanthropy that cuts to the chase. There’s no bureaucracy, no prescribed roadmap to follow. Members remain in control of their money. The only agenda: a desire to do some good.

That was the sentiment conveyed by Nancy Fox, co-founder of the Philadelphia-based Acharai Fund, during a JFN webinar: “We wanted to focus on some areas that may not be on everyone’s radar as much as some others. We really can have a huge impact.”

Giving circles can take on many forms and affiliations. But they tend to share these characteristics:

  • Members pool their money and provide an annual contribution, from as little as $50 to $100,000 or more per year.
  • Members collectively decide where their money will go. Some circles operate via consensus. Others use a majority vote.
  • They are a great way to build community. Giving circles are as much about learning as they are about grant-making. Many giving circles focus their donations on a city or region where most, if not all, of their members live. By being involved in the decision-making, members are more motivated to find out about areas of need in their communities. The result is giving that is more rewarding and meaningful.
  • Most circles tend to be small—from five to 25 persons—and informal. This enables all members to be as fully engaged in decision-making as they want. However, even larger giving circles, which may have a more formal structure that includes a board and committees, still retain the egalitarian spirit that makes giving circles so special.  A great example of such a fund is Natan, which has allocated nearly $10 million since its founding in 2002.

Giving circles also have some other, perhaps unintended benefits, as cited by Sharon Stewart, a founder of Anne Arundel Women Giving Together, a 200-member giving circle in the Baltimore area. For example, in the process of reviewing proposals, conducting site visits and following up with grantees, members are learning various grantmaking skills that can be applied to other aspects of philanthropy.

Giving circles like Stewart’s may also hold educational events throughout the year, where members can learn more about issues they may be more prone to fund. In the process, members can also acquire leadership skills by taking turns serving as officers or committee chairs.

In the end, giving circles are very much what you make them, and that’s their beauty. It’s a place where you should never hear, “Well, that’s the way we’ve always done it,” because the structure of a giving circle allows for new and innovative ideas to be explored and perhaps funded. If one of your objectives in philanthropy is to make a difference, there may be no easier way to accomplish that than a giving circle. The organizations you fund will benefit. And so will you.


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