It was a cold December evening, but the Macalester Alumni House was toasty-partly from the fire, but mostly from the energy of the 40 to 50 women sipping wine, sampling appetizers and cookies and talking animatedly about politics, work and their favorite British actors (consensus pick: Colin Firth). But this wasn’t just a social affair; once the program began, the small groups merged and the focus shifted to the shared passion that drew them there.
Anne Bertram of Theatre Unbound surveyed the room and asked: “Who knew there were all these fabulous women?”
Not just fabulous-but also philanthropists.
Theatre Unbound was among five nonprofit organizations receiving part of the $19,000 that the group-Women of Influence (WIN) Giving Circle-had raised in about six months’ time, and was now merrily giving away.
Five years ago, giving circles were under the radar. Now they’re an established philanthropic force, with women in the vanguard.
Typically, a giving circle is a group of friends or colleagues who pool their charitable donations and decide together how to distribute the money to the causes they value.
One of the first locally was the Hmong Women’s Giving Circle-20 Hmong women and girls who formed to promote philanthropy, encourage activism and raise money to invest in their community. Convened in 2004 by Hmong staff at the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota, it was the nation’s first Hmong women’s giving circle. It’s now affiliated with Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy. After the Hmong circle was launched, two African-American board members of the Women’s Foundation took note and liked what they saw, said Carol McGee Johnson, Women’s Foundation vice president of community philanthropy and programs. The Women of African Descent Giving Circle (WADGC) formed in 2005.
Members decided to focus on education-as McGee Johnson noted, a longstanding priority in the black community-but with a twist. “We weren’t looking only at education that happens in schools,” she said. “We believe education also happens in many places like the community and in the churches, and we need to value education wherever it happens.”
Sometimes it happens out on the streets-literally. One of WADGC’s grantees-Kwanzaa Community Church-used the funds for its “Sidewalks Saving Lives” project, in which teams of youth assisted by professional artists paint sidewalks across north Minneapolis with artworks reinforcing HIV/AIDS prevention messages.
WADGC members commit to contributing $250, $500, or $1,000+ annually. It took about two years to raise $12,000, and in fiscal year 2007, WADGC was able to make grants to three organizations. The group has a dozen active members, plus others who give but don’t participate actively.
“It’s extremely important for African-American women [to do philanthropy],” McGee Johnson said. “So often we end up being the recipients. When you shift that power focus and we become the givers, it’s a wonderful dynamic.”
A higher purpose
Rachel McDonough, the child of missionaries, went to Kenya at age 10 and spent several years there with her family. Ever since, she said, “The African tradition of Harambee has always had a place in my heart.”
It means, she said, “Each one gives a little.”
Now a financial advisor with Merrill Lynch, McDonough meets daily with middle-class and affluent clients-and times are tough. When life is tough for the well-off, she noted, it’s “devastating” for those at the bottom-and that realization drives her participation in Women of Influence, of which she’s a relatively new member.
To her, the multiplier effect of giving circles-doing big things by pooling relatively modest sums-is especially exciting. “We’re not asking anyone to change the world alone,” she said. “We’re choosing to change the world together.”
Are giving circles just a new name for a not-so-new concept?
“Collaborative giving, or pooling, has been around for centuries,” said Buffy Beaudoin-Schwartz of the Association of Baltimore Area Grantmakers, a national expert on giving circles. “But it’s become more structured in the past 10 years or so.” She traces the modern giving circle to the 1990s West Coast tech boom, when “young technology entrepreneurs were coming into money, and they wanted to be more engaged in their giving.”
One of the most longstanding circles, she said, is the Washington Women’s Foundation in Seattle. Since its founding in 1995, it’s granted over $8 million.
Why are women leading the way?
“Women have always done social activities-book clubs, quilting together,” noted Lee Roper-Batker, president and CEO of the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota. “And women have always been givers, but as they control more money, they’ve begun shifting the idea of who is a philanthropist, what does a philanthropist look like.”
Philanthropy didn’t initially bring together the women who gathered at the Macalester Alumni House: WIN began as a social networking group for professional women.
“They were doing golf, wine tasting, supporting each other professionally,” Roper-Batker said. These are all good things-but after awhile, “they wanted to network with a higher purpose” of giving back to the community.
“We took the hopes and dreams of every board member and put them in a big pot,” said WIN President Gayle Hayhurst. What rose to the top was a passion for promoting equality and economic justice for women and girls in Minnesota.
WIN members partnered with the Women’s Foundation and began studying how to issue an RFP (Request for Proposal), conduct site visits and evaluate grants. Their model was Impact Austin, a group of 510 Texas women that’s distributed $1.5 million in its first five years-including five $100,000 grants in 2008. “Networking is great-but women are busy, and need a purpose to get together,” said WIN board member Michele Jensrud. “When we added a charity arm, women seemed really excited by it. Women get busy with careers and families, and there can be a tendency to lose sight of what they’re passionate about.” What board member Karen Trouba finds most exciting is that “you can see the impact of what your dollars are doing.” She recalled an early giving circle meeting at which a teenage Girl Scout addressed the group, describing what the Scouts’ Beta Gamma program meant to her.
“I thought back to where I was at that age-no way could I have stood up there and been so eloquent,” Trouba said. “I thought: Yes, this is really worth the time and energy.”
It was also a reminder, she said, that “the five groups we’ve funded-they’re real people, and what we’re doing makes a real difference.”
‘My project was me’
Some circles fund individuals rather than organizations-like the Women’s Philanthropic Leadership Circle (WPLC) at the University of Minnesota. Founded in 2002, it makes grants of $1,000 to $3,000 to women graduate students, staff and nontenured “rising star” faculty. Grants have been used for tuition, research projects and professional development.
Coordinator Raleigh Kaminsky said most of the 35 or so members are U alumna and over age 50; goals include encouraging young women to join. The financial commitment might be imposing to some: Membership levels are Gold, at $3,000 over three years; Maroon, $1,500 over three years; and Lifetime: contributions, pledges or planned gifts of at least $10,000. (Kaminsky stressed that no matter how much they give, each member has an equal voice and vote.) “We have a $100 annual student membership,” she added, “but haven’t promoted it extensively.” “One of the great things about a giving circle is that you can see the results,” Kaminsky said. Each June, members attend a reception to meet grantees and hear about their plans; grantees are also asked to report back.
Sometimes the results are dramatic: For Venoreen Browne-Boatswain, it was nothing less than a re-awakening of her career.
Currently the multicultural coordinator in the University of Minnesota’s College of Education, Browne-Boatswain has worked in higher education for 30 years. “When you’re in one field that long, it can become routine,” she said. WPLC’s grant allowed her to enroll in the Management Institute for Women in Higher Education at HERS (Higher Education Resource Services), housed at Wellesley College. HERS seeks to improve the status and opportunities of academic professional women.
Browne-Boatswain had considered seeking a grant enabling her to take part in some kind of community service project. She does some mediation work in the community and thought of delving further into that, “but I wasn’t really passionate about it,” she said. Instead, she recalled with a laugh, “I decided my community service project was me.”
Now, she’s working on a HERS assignment that requires her to interview five top administrators at the U. “These are not people I’d be interacting with otherwise,” Browne-Boatswain noted. “It’s provided me a bigger arena in which to work.”
“I look forward to coming to work now,” she added, laughing.
At the table
Buffy Beaudoin-Schwartz expects giving circles to keep proliferating because they offer social networking, education about issues and causes and flexibility. “There’s no real right or wrong way to develop one,” she said. “It could be a group of neighbors who throw money into a shoebox when they go out to eat once a month-they’re not cookie-cutter.”
“And,” she added, “they allow those who haven’t considered themselves philanthropists to sit at the philanthropy table.”