Note: The author would like to thank reviewers and editors of NVSQ for their helpful comments.
Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, vol. 35, no. 3, September 2006 517-532
© 2006 Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action
Giving Circles: Growing Grassroots Philanthropy
Angela M. Eikenberry
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
Giving circles entail individuals pooling money and other resources and then deciding
together where to give these away. More than this, they educate members about com-
munity issues, engage members in voluntary efforts, provide social opportunities, and
maintain independence from any particular charity. This article reports on an
exploratory study of giving circles in the United States, addressing the questions:
What are giving circles and their impacts and how are they unique to the new philan-
thropy environment? The article concludes by discussing the implications of the giv-
ing circle movement for philanthropic and nonprofit professionals.
Keywords: philanthropy; giving circles; voluntary associations
There has been revived attention to community in recent years (Putnam,
2000; Staeheli, 1997), especially at the local level in the United States (Fung,
2004; Kemmis, 1990). Embedded within this larger societal focus, several
claim a new era has begun in American philanthropy (see, e.g., Bianchi, 2000;
Byrne, 2002; Cobb, 2002; McCully, 2000; Schweitzer, 2000; Streisand, 2002).
This “new philanthropy” is unique in that it is more engaged, guided by
individual donors with an emphasis on collaboration; hands-on, unconven-
tional modes of giving and volunteering; and a focus on small organizations
and grassroots, entrepreneurial problem solving (McCully, 2000). Leading
the shift in philanthropy are what some have called “new and emerging
donors” (The Philanthropic Initiative, 2000, chap. 4). Dissatisfied with the
mainstream approach to philanthropy, these donors have sought out a more
engaged philanthropy (Briscoe & Marion, 2001; deCourcy Hero, 2001; Grace
& Wendroff, 2001, chap. 7; Wagner, 2002). As noted by one of these donors,
“the traditional approach of writing a check to a charitable organization or
serving on a board did not seem very fulfilling. There was a desire to be
more engaged in the process of giving back” (Brainerd, 1999, p. 502).
A funding mechanism to emerge within this environment is the “giving
circle.” A giving circle has been described as a cross between a book club and
an investment group and entails individuals “pooling their resources in sup-
port of organizations of mutual interest” (Schweitzer, 2000, p. 32). More than
this, as discussed in more detail below, giving circles include social, educa-
tional, and engagement components that seem to connect participants to
community, perhaps to a greater degree than other forms of philanthropy.
It is impossible to say how many giving circles exist in the United States
because of their grassroots nature. More than 225 giving circles have been
identified by this author, though there is strong indication that many more
exist. Giving New England has distributed hundreds of “Giving Circle
Starter Kits” (Kong, 2001), the Women’s Philanthropy Institute has pub-
lished a popular handbook on Creating a Women’s Giving Circle (Shaw-Hardy,
2000), and New Ventures in Philanthropy, an initiative of the Forum of
Regional Associations of Grantmakers to identify and share strategies and
tools for increasing philanthropic assets in the United States, recently created
an online Giving Circle Knowledge Center (Forum of Regional Association
of Grantmakers, n.d.). This is matched with the effort by several philan-
thropic institutions across the country to promote giving circles as a means
for improving and increasing philanthropy in their communities (see, e.g.,
The Baltimore Giving Project, 2000; “Start a Giving Circle,” 2003). Finally,
New Ventures in Philanthropy identified at least 220 giving circles and esti-
mates that they have been able to locate only one of every two or three
giving circles nationally (Rutnik & Bearman, 2005, p. 5).
Little research, beyond studies on specific types of giving circles
(Community Wealth Ventures, 2002; Jovanovic, Carolone, & Massood, 2004),
case studies for use in the classroom (Ahn, 2003; Sbarbaro, 2002; Stanford
University, n.d.), organizational evaluations (Guthrie, Preston, & Bernholz,
2003; Orloff, 2002), and reports or manuals for philanthropic practitioners
to help them promote and create giving circles (Clohesy, 2004; Rutnik &
Bearman, 2005; Rutnik & Beaudoin-Schwartz, 2003), has been done to under-
stand giving circles and their broader impacts. Scholars such as Peter
Frumkin have pointed out the need to study emerging forms of philanthropy,
including giving circles (Frumkin, Long, Hammack, & Ostrower, 2004). Thus,
this article offers a comprehensive picture of the giving circle movement in
the United States and addresses questions about their impacts, uniqueness to
philanthropy, and implications for philanthropic and nonprofit professionals.
The research design for the current study used a qualitative framework
comparing and contrasting several types of giving circles. A qualitative design
was appropriate because the current study explored a new area where little is
known (Creswell, 1998, p. 17) and sought to understand complex issues or
processes within their contextual environment (Marshall & Rossman, 1995,
p. 43). In addition, because no list or contact information for giving circles
existed at the start of the current study, a qualitative approach was necessary
as a first step. Primary data were gathered from a purposefully selected sam-
ple of giving circle leaders and/or members or staff (some of whom are also
members) of several types of giving circles, a purposefully selected group
of philanthropic professionals creating or providing support to giving circle
members, and self-selected members of one case study giving circle. To deter-
mine the sample, a database of giving circles was created. Groups included in
the database were those that described themselves, or were described by
others, as giving circles. Donor circles—fund-raising efforts initiated by a par-
ticular charity where donors have no significant voice in how the funds are
used—were not included in the database. Four characteristics—membership
fee, organizational structure, size of membership, and activities—were taken
into account to preliminarily categorize giving circles, and from this, a repre-
sentative sample was drawn to gain maximum information and understand-
ing about giving circles’ processes and impacts.
Primary data were gathered through in-depth, semistructured personal
interviews; telephone interviews; and document analysis. A total of 30 indivi-
uals were interviewed for the current study. Giving circle leader/members
(10), staff/members (3), staff (3), members (7), and philanthropic professionals
(7) were located across the United States. Interviews took place between April
and September 2004 and ranged in length from 20 min to 2 hrs. Interviews
were recorded and transcribed. News articles, Web sites, and other documents
written about giving circles were found and gathered through Google, Lexus-
Nexus, and article database searches. Secondary data from a Web-based sur-
vey conducted by New Ventures in Philanthropy (see Rutnik & Bearman,
2005, pp. 42-45, for survey questions) and several published case studies were
also included in the current study (Ahn, 2003; Guthrie et al., 2003; Orloff, 2002;
Rutnik & Beaudoin-Schwartz, 2003; Sbarbaro, 2002; Stanford University, n.d.).
Finally, though not a source of data directly, participant observation was used
to inform the design and structure of the current study.
Because giving circles are newly emerging phenomena, locally based, and
little studied, it was difficult to create a comprehensive list of existing giving
circles. Because every giving circle and its characteristics may not be
accounted for, there is a chance that the giving circles chosen for the current
study do not adequately represent all the information available about giving
circles and their impacts. It is also likely that the data available are skewed
to the larger, formal giving circles that are affiliated with community foun-
dations and other organizations because they have received the most atten-
tion from the news media and from researchers. These problems were
addressed by the triangulated use of multiple interviews, case studies, and
document analysis to ensure greater trustworthiness of the data (Berg, 2001,
p. 5). Beyond these measures, there is always a chance that interviewees
were reluctant to share personal information. For example, money and the
Giving Circles 519
giving of money is often a sensitive issue. The assurance of anonymity was
used to encourage participants to speak candidly.
MAXqda qualitative data analysis software (available at www.maxqda
.com/maxqda-eng/index.htm) was used to systematically organize, code,
and analyze data. Analysis followed a strategy set out by Maxwell (1998,
p. 90), which involves an iterative process including contextualizing and cat-
egorizing strategies. This process included reading interviews and other doc-
uments completely through to get a sense of the whole, rereading interviews
and coding segments, and recoding and grouping codes into broad clusters
of similar topics or nodes—primarily around the research questions though
allowing for emergent topics. These clusters were then iteratively recoded
into more specific and simplified nodes, creating “trees” (Coffey & Atkinson,
1996, p. 29). This process continued until no new codes emerged. Tables and
matrices were constructed from the data and used to identify patterns, com-
parison, trends, and paradoxes across cases (Miles & Huberman, 1994).
Validation of data was achieved by comparing interview findings with each
other and with other studies and documentation as well as looking for and
analyzing negative cases in the data (Borman, LeCompte, & Goetz, 1986,
p. 44). Theoretical validation was sought through regular presentation and
discussion of emerging conclusions with colleagues (Creswell, 1998, p. 202).
FINDINGS AND ANALYSIS
THE GIVING CIRCLE LANDSCAPE
As noted earlier, more than 225 giving circles have been identified in the
United States, though there is indication that many more exist. There were
188 giving circles included in the data analysis for the current study. For sev-
eral of these, only partial information was available. Giving circles are
located in at least 37 states and Washington, D.C., and Canada and tend to
cluster in the Northeast, upper Midwest, and West Coast. Although data in
this area are limited, it is estimated that at least $32 million has been given
away (for all years giving circles have been in operation). More than 8,000
individuals participate in giving circles, and most giving circles are rela-
tively new, having started in the past 5 years. Three major types of giving
circles make up the giving circle landscape. These include small groups,
loose networks, and formal organizations.
Small groups. Small groups consist of a small number of people who tend
to pool funds in equal amounts ranging from $50 to $5,000, though there are
several small groups where the amount paid into the fund is left to the dis-
cretion of the individual. Unlike the other two types of giving circles, in small
groups it is typical for everyone to be involved in agenda setting, discussion,
and decision making, and leadership is often shared. The two major foci of
small group giving circles are social and educational activities. The social
aspect is emphasized through informal group interaction and discussions.
The educational aspect is relatively informal, taking place through the grant-
making process, site visits, meetings with nonprofit staff, and information
sharing among group members. Some small groups have staff support (typi-
cally provided by a community foundation) to help with administration or
An example of a small group is Shared Giving in Durham, North Carolina.
Shared Giving is made up of 16 members who all belong to the same
Unitarian Fellowship. Each of the members gives $500 a year with a 3-year
commitment, though some give more than the minimum. Members meet
every other month to discuss potential fundees and community issues. They
gather information about nonprofit organizations by conducting site visits or
speaking directly with nonprofit executives about the needs of the organiza-
tion and make decisions about granting money through a consensus-style
format. The group focuses on social justice issues, giving to local, small orga-
nizations. They gave their first grant in early 2002 and since then have given
grants of between $1,000 and $5,000, usually for specific programs or projects,
to places like a family violence prevention center, a community center that
provides tutoring for Hispanic children and their parents, and an organiza-
tion that helps seniors with medical prescription costs and management.
However, as noted by several members, the social aspect and discussions in
the group have become, perhaps, the most important part of the process.
Loose networks. Loose networks are structured with a core group of people
overseeing the group—who do the ongoing organizing, planning, and grant
decision making—surrounded by a loosely affiliated group of individuals
who tend to come together around a specific event such as a potluck dinner
or other type of fund-raiser. There is typically no minimum fee to participate.
There is also no paid staff support within these groups; rather, they are com-
pletely volunteer driven, and members praise these groups for their flexibil-
ity and organic nature, low overhead, and for being nonbureaucratic. Loose
networks seem to be especially attractive to women, and many who partici-
pate in these groups see it as an opportunity to fit “doing good” into their
busy lives. What is unique about this type of giving circle is that loose net-
works tend to give money and in-kind gifts directly to individuals in need
or to individuals doing good work. Thus, grant decision making often
occurs in an ad hoc fashion in response to the needs of individuals. Among
the three types of giving circles, loose networks seem to do the most to con-
nect members directly to those in need.
There are at least two major subtypes of loose networks. Bread for the
Journey is an organization, based in California, that has helped create at least
22 chapters across the United States and Canada. Womenade is a national
Giving Circles 521
movement that has inspired the creation of more than 25 groups across the
country. The movement started in Washington, D.C., when Doctor Amy
Kossoff and her friends decided to hold a potluck dinner and ask attendees
to donate $35 to a fund that would enable Kossoff to continue to give finan-
cial assistance to her clients for prescriptions, utility bills, and rent. Kossoff
did much of her work in homeless shelters and public clinics and regularly
provided assistance to her clients out of her own pocket. The women held
their first potluck in March 2001. Nearly 100 women attended, raising $3,000.
A year-and-a-half later, Real Simple magazine did a story on Washington
Womenade (Korelitz, 2002), including a section on “How to Start a
Womenade,” and the idea took off.
Formal organizations. Formal organizations are more formal in their struc-
ture and decision-making processes than the other two types of giving cir-
cles; looking very much like a traditional membership organization structure
with a board or lead group, committees, and often, professional staff sup-
port. They are also larger, and the cost to participate tends to be high com-
pared to small groups and loose networks; the modal amount is $5,000 to
$5,500. The grant decision-making process typically involves committees or
investment teams making grant decisions directly or making recommenda-
tions for a full membership vote. The major activities of formal organizations
are education and engagement. All of the formal organizations for which
data are available have some kind of formal educational programming in
addition to grant making and other informal educational opportunities.
There is also a strong emphasis on direct engagement with nonprofit fun-
dees. At least one half of the formal organizations identified provide oppor-
tunities for members to volunteer with nonprofit organizations. In most
cases, members volunteer their expertise at the administrative level rather
than through direct service. Among the three types of giving circles, formal
organizations are the most systematic and comprehensive in efforts to edu-
cate and engage members with others in the community.
There are four subtypes of formal organizations: Social Venture Partners
(SVP), young leader funds, affiliated funds, and independent 501(c)(3) orga-
nizations. SVP has probably become the most well known of this type of
giving circle. SVP started in 1997 in Seattle and now has expanded to 25
SVP-type giving circles in the United States and Canada. SVP is struc-
tured to follow a venture philanthropy model—applying venture capitalist
principles to philanthropy. Its major foci are educating members about
philanthropy and community issues and creating long-term, engaged rela-
tionships with funding recipients. The cost to join SVP is usually around
$5,000. SVP also asks members to volunteer at the nonprofit agencies they
fund, providing consulting and capacity-building support. SVP affiliates
fund in various areas but often take an interest in issues related to youth
GIVING CIRCLES ARE CHANGING PHILANTHROPY
Data indicate that giving circles generally attract younger (younger than
age 40 years) and female participants, thereby bringing “new money” to the
(organized) philanthropic table. However, for those who have already been
philanthropically active, participation serves to increase members’ level of
giving and extend their giving to organizations with which they were not
previously familiar. In addition, through participation, members are more
thoughtful, focused, and strategic in their giving inside and outside of the
giving circle. Because they begin to see their giving in the context of issues
and needs in the community, in which they want to have some impact, their
donations are more targeted. For this reason, members say they have started
giving fewer, but larger gifts. This is especially the case for small group and
formal organization members.
There are also new relationships being formed between giving circle
members and nonprofit professionals in the community. This takes place
inside the giving circle as several nonprofit professionals are participating in
giving circles as members. Beyond this, however, are the new links being
made between giving circle members and nonprofit staff who head organi-
zations funded by the giving circle. The interactions take place when non-
profit professionals meet with giving circle members at a site visit, through
guest speaking or presentations at meetings, at receptions or events, through
informal meetings over lunch, or when a giving circle member volunteers
with a nonprofit organization. Some members also work directly with non-
profit professionals as they create proposals to submit to the giving circle for
funding. Through these encounters, giving circle members become net-
worked into the nonprofit and philanthropic sector to a degree perhaps only
open to major donors previously. This has served to expand the under-
standing giving circle members have regarding the needs of nonprofit orga-
nizations and the issues and problems they are trying to address.
It should be noted that though philanthropic professionals suggest people
from diverse walks of life participate in giving circles, it appears that most
of the giving circles for which data are available are overwhelmingly White
and predominately from professional and upper-middle-class backgrounds.
There were only six giving circles identified that are made up of African
Americans only, and one each of giving circles with Asian American, Latino,
and Hmong memberships. It may be the case that minority giving groups
have not yet been identified. Studies of African American, Latino, and Asian
American giving show that these groups tend to give more informally
within family and neighborhoods rather than to mainstream charities or
through organized philanthropy (Wagner, 2003, pp. 231-234). Giving circles
are also limited in diversity within the group: homogeneous in their race
and/or ethnicity and less so but still homogenous in their socioeconomic
level. For example, less than one fifth of giving circles for which data were
Giving Circles 523
available have a mixed membership where 15% or more include members of
color. This is not surprising as McPherson and Smith-Lovin (1987) found that
homogeneity tends to take place generally in voluntary associations.
Giving circles—especially small groups and formal organizations—seem
to give a larger percentage of their funding to children and youth and
women and girls than do foundations (Foundation Center, 2004). The larger
emphasis on funding these groups may be explained by the trend for giving
circle members to be younger than typical major donors (and thus with
children at home) and female. Although the data show that members are
exposed to new issues and organizations through their participation in a giv-
ing circle, funding seems to go largely to populations that are similar to the
giving circle membership. For example, women’s giving circles tend to give
to women and girls, minority groups give to their own minority groups, and
so on. There are, of course, exceptions within individual giving circles; how-
ever, overall the trend seems to exist and coincides with others’ findings that
individuals give to issues and populations with which they are familiar
GIVING CIRCLES ARE SOMETHING DIFFERENT
What makes giving circles unique? This question can be answered by
looking at their key characteristics and why people say they have joined a
giving circle. First, giving circles appear to share varying degrees of six
major characteristics. They tend to
1. Pool funds—This is often but not always in equal amounts from each
member, ranging from $25 in loose networks to $5,000 or more in
small and formal groups. Several giving circles also raise money from
outside their membership.
2. Give away resources—This includes giving money, in-kind gifts, and
in some cases members’ time and talents to mostly small, local non-
profit organizations or to individuals in need or doing good works.
Funding tends to go to fewer organizations for (relatively) larger
amounts, and there seems to be a split in funding either capacity
building and day-to-day operations or programs and projects. Several
of those interviewed noted the difficulty their giving circle had in
finding appropriate fundees to match funding objectives.
3. Educate members about philanthropy and issues in the community—
Education takes place informally through the running of the giving
circle and giving away of money—that is, learning about the grant-
making process, going on site visits, and so on—and formally through
educational sessions such as workshops, seminars, and presentations
by guest speakers.
4. Provide a social dimension—This social aspect varies in importance
depending on the type of giving circle. For some, it is a primary
focus—as in many women’s and young leader giving circles—
whereas for others it is very much peripheral to the task of giving and
volunteering. By default, when a group of people come together to do
anything, there is social interaction; however, some groups are very
intentional about providing networking and other social opportuni-
ties for members.
5. Engage members in volunteering—Nearly all giving circles are run by
volunteers, though some have staff or receive administrative support
from elsewhere. A few giving circles also encourage or require direct
volunteer engagement with nonprofit agencies. This volunteering
tends to be at a professional or administrative level.
6. Maintain their independence—Giving circles are typically not tied to any
one charity, though some (as donor-advised funds) do rely on commu-
nity foundations to be fiscal agents and provide administrative support.
However, it is the donors, rather than philanthropic professionals, who
decide to what charities or individuals funds should be distributed. This
is a new way of thinking about philanthropy that gets beyond particu-
laristic, institutional fund-raising (see Eikenberry, 2005b). There are
exceptions to this. A few giving circles, for example, are associated with
universities. The members within these giving circles remain indepen-
dent in that they still decide where the money is given but are limited to
giving within the university. It is not clear that these groups should
indeed count as giving circles except that they are largely donor led and
seem to share other aspects of giving circles discussed above.
If one were to look at each of these key characteristics independently, they
certainly do not seem like unique or new contributions to philanthropy (one
can see similarities in Women’s Clubs of the Progressive Era and Kiwanis or
Rotary, for example); however, the environment in which they have emerged
and in which they operate—a philanthropic sector that is increasingly mod-
ernized (Eikenberry, 2005a) and where voluntary associations are losing
numbers rapidly (Putnam, 2000; Skocpol, 2003)—and the combination of all
six aspects are new for today’s philanthropy. What is also unique is the
underlying, express purpose for creating giving circles: to give away money
for community betterment. Earlier institutions such as Women’s Clubs and
Rotaries often did not start or sustain such a focus; the philanthropic aspect
either emerged later (Stivers, 2000, p. 50) or was secondary to the main intent
of the group (Charles, 1993, p. 3).
One could argue that this is old wine in new bottles (or even new wine in
old bottles); however, for those participating in the giving circle, this is a new
and exciting way to be more engaged in their giving. Overall, compared
with other philanthropic mechanisms, those interviewed see giving circles
as “something different.” Compared to individual check writing or giving
individually through donor-advised funds, it is a more engaged, personal
process. As one member of an informal giving circle stated,
Giving Circles 525
You know when you write a check to something, you write a $1,000 or
whatever you write, you give it to them you have no clue where it is
going, what it is going for, maybe the people involved. This . . . per-
sonalizes some of these organizations. (Small Group #3, personal inter-
view, August 2, 2004)
Giving through the giving circle is also seen by some as a much more proac-
tive approach to philanthropy than has traditionally been the case. As a staff
member of a formal giving circle put it,
There is the quid pro quo kind of charitable giving, you know my
buddy wants me to do this golf outing because I asked him to do my
golf outing. There is the kind of required, I’m a board member kind of
charitable giving, or I’m going to give to my alma mater. But when it
comes to community philanthropy, going outside the box, giving to
something because it is important to give to it, because there is a need
and because you are going to know what actually happened, that is the
operation or the sphere in which we are in. (Formal Organization #3,
telephone interview, September 3, 2004)
A report on SVP-Seattle (Guthrie et al., 2003) describes this type of phil-
anthropy as indicative of the “experience economy.” In the experience econ-
omy, consumers want more than a service or product; they want an
experience. For example, today’s parents do not want to just buy a cake for
their child’s birthday. Rather, they want to create a memorable event (via
Chuck E. Cheese or Discovery Zone) for the kids while the birthday cake
becomes an after-thought (Pine & Gilmore, 1998). The giving circle as repre-
sentation of this phenomenon was supported by a philanthropic profes-
sional who said, This is not the “sideline” philanthropy of community
foundations or United Ways; rather in the SVP model, “we are kind of buck-
ing that trend where you want to pamper your donors, so we are saying
we want your money and your time, and it’s not easy time either”
(Philanthropic Professional #5, telephone interview, July 12, 2004). SVP
represents the extreme of this “experience philanthropy” notion, whereas
loose networks are in many ways the opposite in enabling donors to pamper
themselves or be “social while doing good” (though perhaps still in a more
engaged fashion than other types of giving).
Giving circles also seem to be different from private foundations in several
ways. First, the amount of money it takes to create a foundation is much
greater than what it takes for an individual to participate in a giving circle.
Even $5,000 to participate in some giving circles is small compared to the
amount needed to start a foundation (at least $250,000 to $500,000).
Interviewees and other sources also talked about the application process
being much more engaged through the giving circle. Rather than just sending
out a request for proposals and waiting for a response, giving circle members
often take a much more hands-on approach to seeking out and working with
potential fundees. Finally, educating giving circle members about the grant-
making process and community issues are ongoing projects of most giving
circles—directly and indirectly. For example, in many foundations, there are
program officers who already understand the grant-making process and
know the issues; there is no need to treat people doing the grant making as
“fresh learners” every year as one staff member stated (Formal Organization
#8, telephone interview, July 14, 2004). Some giving circles, such as SVP, are
also looking for ways to contribute nonfinancial value to the grantee, which
is unusual for most foundations, though in line with newer venture philan-
thropy foundations (Community Wealth Ventures, 2002).
The reasons people say they join or participate in giving circles also sheds
some light on how giving circles may be different from other modes of phil-
anthropy. People seem to join and continue to participate in giving circles for
a variety of reasons. One of the most often cited is the chance to become
more engaged in the giving process—to be doing more than just writing a
check and also interacting directly with nonprofit organizations. This reason
was cited especially by those in formal organizations, such as SVP, where
volunteering with agencies is an important part of the venture philanthropy
relationship. Yet even for other types of giving circles, the hands-on process
of reviewing proposals and going on site visits creates the more engaged
philanthropy that they desire. On the other hand, others participate because
of the minimal time commitment involved. These are the individuals, over-
whelmingly women, who participate in giving circles where giving money
is seen as an alternative to volunteering. As one woman put it, “It’s an effec-
tive environment for women raising families to make a difference without
removing them weekly or daily from their work and home obligations”
(Lynch, 2003, p. 17). Furthermore, folks in groups such as Bread for the
Journey appreciate the simple, nonbureaucratic nature of the giving circle, or
what they call “neighborhood philanthropy.”
Along with this, another frequently cited reason for participating was the
fun or social aspect of the giving circle. For women especially, the giving cir-
cle is a chance to be social “while doing good.” Others see the giving circle
as a tool for networking and connecting to their peers and others in their
industry or line of work. In the case of SVP, this is the high-tech industry.
Simultaneously, women especially brought up the attraction that giving cir-
cles hold as a tool for individual empowerment. The giving circle is seen as
a way for a group of people to control how things go. For example, “I could
do that” or “we could do this” was a thought that many individuals had
when they heard about Womenade and then started their own chapter.
The opportunity to be part of a group and leverage the amount of money
a participant is able to give is another important reason to participate in a
giving circle. It makes people feel like they are part of a bigger movement
fairly quickly while magnifying their individual contribution. Thus, in the
case of a giving circle such as Silicon Valley Social Venture Fund, a member
Giving Circles 527
can contribute $5,000 but influence $700,000 in grants. Another often-cited
reason was the chance to give back and make more of an impact in the com-
munity through the giving circle. Individuals participate as well because
they want to learn more about nonprofit organizations, issues in the com-
munity, or about becoming better philanthropists. For many, they are also
attracted to the safety and anonymity the giving circle provides. The giving
circle provides a safe place to ask questions and learn the ins and outs of
grant making and about nonprofit organizations.
Individuals also support and participate in giving circles because they
want to promote an ethic of philanthropic behavior in others, whether it be
other women, their children, or their peers. For some, the opportunity to
participate in a giving circle came at a time when they were looking for
something new after a life transition such as a new baby, career change,
move, or sudden increase in wealth. Finally, some expressed the importance
of the spiritual aspect of participating in the giving circle. As one giving
circle member stated,
I’ve been trying for some years to figure out how to be or what it would
feel like to be a more generous person and challenging myself in dif-
ferent ways. Of course that’s not just with money, but, you know, all
kinds of ways, and this seemed like a good opportunity to put that
spiritual discipline into practice for me. (Shared Giving #8, personal
interview, May 20, 2004)
CONCLUSIONS AND IMPLICATIONS
What are the implications of these findings for philanthropic and non-
profit professionals? First, philanthropic professionals promoting the cre-
ation of giving circles should understand the different types of giving circles
and plan accordingly. If their goal is to get people to participate in philan-
thropy generally, a loose network may be an appropriate tool. If they want
meaningful, democratic participation, small groups might be the best
approach. If they are most interested in educating donors and raising more
substantial resources for addressing community problems or issue areas, a
formal organization might be the best choice. For those focused specifically
on bringing women to the philanthropic table, understanding the impor-
tance of socialization and being able to participate without a big time com-
mitment is needed. If the focus is on attracting minority groups, a concerted
effort may be needed for recruitment.
This all assumes, of course, that philanthropic professionals have a good
deal of control over the creation of giving circles. However, there is a grass-
roots element to giving circles that organized philanthropy may not be able to
force or structure as it would like. For example, the Women’s Fund of Greater
Omaha has been trying to promote the formation of giving circles by offering
free training to women interested in starting a giving circle (Philanthropic
Professional #1, personal interview, April 22, 2004; “Start a Giving Circle,”
2003). They have been able to train several women; however, few have actu-
ally started giving circles, suggesting that the leadership initiative must come
from the bottom up. In addition, one of the main aspects of giving circles is
their independence. Although this varies for different types of giving circles,
this independence may run counter to notions of organized philanthropy. The
success of giving circle formation and ongoing operations seems to depend a
great deal on volunteer, grassroots leadership.
More broadly, philanthropic and nonprofit professionals should be heart-
ened by the potential for giving circles to increase individual members’ giv-
ing and by attracting new and younger people to organized philanthropy.
Conversely, these professionals might be concerned about the implications
of giving circle members giving in a more thoughtful and focused fashion.
This could drastically change the structure of the fund-raising field. In the
short term, it could have negative impacts on traditional institutional fund-
raising through such means as direct mail, as well as on workplace and fed-
erated giving programs. In the longer term, however, this could mean
increasing the overall philanthropic pie because as the literature shows,
people who are more engaged give more (Independent Sector, 1996; Putnam,
2000; Schervish & Havens, 1997).
Nonprofit professionals, especially in small organizations, must also be
aware of several other issues related to giving circles. Most important, they
need to be ready when a giving circle member seeks them out. Thus, they need
to know something about giving circles’ existence in their community and
how they operate, and they need to have the structure or capacity in place to
respond to (sometimes last-minute) requests for funding needs. It was sur-
prising how many times giving circle members described the difficulty they
had in giving money away because nonprofit organizations they approached
did not understand their intentions or did not have the capacity to respond.
This leads to a larger issue overall in the nonprofit sector—many nonprofit
leaders are still mired in the old fund-raising paradigm of donor pyramids
and direct mail and not aware of the broader changes taking place in philan-
thropy (see Eikenberry, 2005b). Giving circles are a prime example of this par-
adigm shift to a more engaged, donor-driven philanthropy. The task for
nonprofit organizations, in this context, is no longer hunting down donors but
in enabling donors to find them (Grace & Wendroff, 2001, chap. 7). The larger
question, which cannot be adequately addressed here, is what the implications
of this new philanthropy might be for nonprofit organizations. Some ques-
tions to address in this area might be, What has been the experience of non-
profit organizations that have worked with or received funding from giving
circles? How does this method of philanthropy compare to other modes of
philanthropy from the perspective of the nonprofit manager and what are the
effects of this on the ability of their organizations to contribute to society? Does
more engagement mean a greater burden or boon for nonprofits? Future
Giving Circles 529
research is needed on these issues and on other philanthropic phenomena that
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Angela M. Eikenberry is an assistant professor in the Center for Public Administration and Policy and
affiliated with the Institute for Governance and Accountabilities at Virginia Tech. Her main research
interests include philanthropy, nonprofit organizations, civil society, and democracy.