Get Out and Give Back: Giving Circles Made Easy

by WL Author

Philanthropy is the new black as women (and an increasing number of men) form giving circles to strengthen their communities.
By Jane Hess Collins

Seated left to right: Cathleen Phelps, Linda Strup, Karen Snow. Standing left to right: Deb Roepke, Regina Hall, Ana Collins. Photo by Jane Hess Collins

Seated left to right: Cathleen Phelps, Linda Strup, Karen Snow. Standing left to right: Deb Roepke, Regina Hall, Ana Collins. Photo by Jane Hess Collins

Think of it as a 90’s investment club with a conscience. With the combined appeal of flexibility, socializing and the power to affect positive community change, what’s not to love about joining, or starting, a giving circle?

Over coffee and apple walnut coffee cake at the ACT for Alexandria office in Old Town Alexandria, women from the Many Hands Giving Circle, Giving Circle of Alexandria, Giving Circle of Hope and Healthy Alexandria Giving Circle shared their stories of giving, community strengthening and lessons learned. Over the course of two hours (coincidentally, the time limit on Old Town’s parking meters), we discussed how giving circles fill the need for connection and giving back locally through strategic, results-focused gifting.

Back to Basics

A giving circle is a group of people who combine their money and decide where to donate it, according to the Regional Association of Grantmakers’ Giving Circle Knowledge Center. (This is a great site to learn everything about giving circles, including the step-by-step on how to start one. Check it out).

Typically each giving circle is focused around one or more social causes. Donations among the giving circle members interviewed for this story ranged from $150 – $1,000 per person. The funds can be held at a community foundation as a donor-advised fund or in a separate account. Each year (or every two years for Many Hands), giving circles accept requests from local nonprofits to fund specific projects. The nonprofit applications are screened and evaluated by the giving circle members, with each member having one vote.

The Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers counted 400 giving circles across the country in 2007, up 100% from 2005. And while women still dominate giving circles, the men are closing in fast, with 47% of giving circles having co-ed members.

Getting Together

“I love the fact that each giving circle is different and unique to its own community,” said Linda Strup from Reston’s Giving Circle of HopePeggy Morrison-Curtis, a member of the Giving Circle of Alexandria, was attracted to the “strong tradition of women coming together and working together for the good of the community.” Regina Hall and Ana Collins, two of the seven founders of Many Hands, had enrolled their last child in school and were looking for ways to be involved in their communities without the structure of a fulltime job. As they pored over requests for donations and fundraiser invitations, they realized that they could create greater social impact if they combined their donations into less frequent, but larger, sums of money. With over 100 women donating $1,000, Many Hands awards $100,000 on alternating years to improve health, housing or education in the district.

Cathleen Phelps of the Giving Circle of Alexandria also wanted to involve herself in her community after her kids started school. As the co-president with Karen Snow, they and the giving circle’s 400 members grant priority gifts to programs that support parental engagement and children up to five years old, and smaller gifts to help other programs that support Alexandria’s children and families.

Deb Roepke, a member of both the Giving Circle of Alexandria and the newly-formed Healthy Alexandria Giving Circle, founded Healthy Alexandria because she and her friends wanted a reason to socialize over their shared interest in diet and exercise. Still only a few months old, Healthy Alexandria’s men and women members meet monthly with their spouses. (I loved both the “healthy” focus and monthly gatherings, and joined them last month).

Giving Back

Many giving circle members volunteer with the agencies with whom they become involved.  The Giving Circle of Hope takes it one step further by administering five direct service programs for kids, the elderly, homeless and at-risk women and families of children with cancer, according to Strup.   Their two annual fundraisers, Empty Bowls in the spring and the recent Gifts that Give Fair in the fall, fund Food for Others and other nonprofits and people in need.

Shoppers check out gifts to buy and causes to support during the Giving Circle of Hope's Gifts that Give Fair. Photo by Jane Hess Collins

Shoppers check out gifts to buy and causes to support during the Giving Circle of Hope's Gifts that Give Fair. Photo by Jane Hess Collins

Hall added that the Many Hands members who volunteer in area nonprofits enjoyed the hands-on chance to find out what’s going on. And, she added, once giving circle members volunteer, they’re more likely to increase their donations.

Giving circles fill a community gap, Strup said, by supporting the high-impact but small nonprofits that don’t have their own marketing or grant-writing resources. Whether they can publicize these nonprofits to attract a donor or offer their own financial gift, giving circles can raise a nonprofits’ profile. Some giving circles, Snow added, serve as a mini community foundation by helping givers direct their funds toward a cause that resonates with them. Or, a giving circle could have an emergency network where members can decide to use their personal funds to help others in an emergency.

The toughest part of the job, they all agreed, was deciding what organizations would receive their financial gifts. Many great nonprofits apply for help, but as always, there’s never enough money to go around and sometimes even the best applications are denied. The quality of the project, not the nonprofit, is an important distinction, and sometimes it’s better to fund an innovative project over a proven program, even though the risk of failure is greater.

Good Advice

Although giving circles are always on the lookout for new members, they’re also happy to see new giving circles form. The advice from these giving circle veterans came fast and furious:

Diversify the talent in your giving circle. Ideally, giving circle members have expertise in marketing, law, tax issues and technology.

Be gentle with each other.  Everyone in a giving circle is a volunteer and many of them are friends with each other. Grant-decision time can be emotional and stressful, especially for those giving circle members who have volunteered with an organization and now need to vote on where to give money. (Tip: All voting giving circle members should visit the nonprofits who are final contenders for a grant).

Outsource sensitive tasks and focus time and energy on doing good in the community. Asking a giving circle volunteer to take on a project that can be evaluated or critiqued (think logo or webpage design) may lead to some un-intentioned hard feelings.

Budget a small amount of money to pay for speakers, mail, printing, food and beverages.

Partner and volunteer with the nonprofits you fund.

Keep the grants small and don’t make the application process too hard. Many of the nonprofits that need the support don’t have the staff to devote to completing a complex application.

Check a nonprofit’s solvency, review the financial statements and consider the effectiveness of the nonprofit director when considering grant applications to fund.

Have fun!  Giving circles should be fun with a purpose – the very best kind of fun.

Other Area Giving Circles

Anne Arundel Women Giving Together

Black Benefactors

Cherry Blossom Giving Circle

Dining for Women (several chapters in the DC area)

Giving Circles Network

Global Sojourns Giving Circle

Washington Area Women’s Foundation (several giving circles are included here)

Washington Womenade

Womens’ Giving Circle of Frederick County

Womens’ Giving Circle of Howard County

Women for Wise Giving of Alexandria

Jane Hess Collins is a former Air Force colonel helps and encourages people to give back through her writing, speaking, coaching and workshops. She also established game nights for at-risk families throughout the country. You can contact her at

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