A successful giving circle requires openness to meaningful learning opportunities, a willingness to share experiences and new ideas and the ability to collaborate with a diverse group of people, usually women.
There is no set formula for starting and operating a giving circle. Some people may want to adopt a casual and low key approach with the view to just getting going. Others may prefer to be more structured, with detailed research and planning. However, no matter which path you choose, there are a number of critical factors that are useful to think about as you set the circle up.
The following ‘helpful hints’ have been developed to assist circle founders and members on their journey.
Don’t be hindered by the challenge of finding members. Whether it is a book group, regular lunch group, social or professional network, wine club or mothers’ group, it just requires the initiative from one passionate person to bring a group together and/or sow the seed. Some people decide to target a specific group of people they know who are interested in common issues. Others might propose the concept at the end of an interesting dinner party. In the US, there are even groups who bring single people together, such as The Spinsters of San Francisco www.sfspinsters.com
Purpose and Structure
The first step in your journey is to bring together a group of interested members. These may be friends, family, work colleagues or respected people in your network who share similar interests and values. It is important at this stage to begin the process of agreeing on the aspirations of the group and how it might structure itself to achieve these. This includes resolution on the number of members in the circle, the size or range of financial contributions, potential areas of focus, time commitment and the decision-making process. Remember, the larger the group the greater the administrative needs.
Remaining true to the circle’s original purpose and structure is critical to its success and the ongoing engagement of members.
Goals and Commitment
Once the group starts to meet regularly it needs to establish what it will do – a mission, along with more specific goals and outcomes for what it wants to achieve. This is also the time to set meeting guidelines, agree on meeting venues, determine roles and responsibilities and discuss further learning opportunities that may be of interest.
All members of the circle should be given the opportunity to experience a range of roles and tasks. Rotating the chair or lead facilitator, performing minute taking, setting up sub groups to undertake further investigation, volunteering or mentoring on the group’s behalf help sustain passion and commitment to the common purpose.
At this stage it is beneficial to come up with a name for your giving circle. Be creative! In the US there are giving circles called Smart Women with Spare Change, Dining for Women, The Spinsters of San Francisco and Wine Ladies of Oshkosh, to name a few.
Managing Pooled Funds
All members of the giving circle are required to make an equal financial commitment on an annual basis. It is useful to agree on the amount at the start of each year to ensure there is clarity about the total funds available to invest.
There is a range of options for how this money is managed and there are benefits to each depending on the circle’s needs, experience and structure. Some of the most common include:
- Members allocate funds direct to the chosen non-profit organisation(s). For a small group, this is the easiest way to minimise administration issues, accommodate members with Private Ancillary Funds (PAFs) and ensure receipt of income tax deductions.
- Members allocate funds via workplace giving schemes.
- Open a joint bank account. It is worth seeking advice on the additional costs associated with a back account and the taxation implications.
- Invest pooled funds. This could be through a charitable gift fund entity, or a donor advised fund with a community foundation.
Investment Focus Areas
This step can take time. It is critical that all circle members have the chance to explore and discuss the community issues that connect to their head and heart. In order to progress, a process must be developed by the group to establish the common areas of interest. This may require listing all the possibilities and voting. Sometimes it is helpful to narrow the options by deciding upfront on a geographical area or social issue, such as Indigenous or refugee women and girls. Allow for robust conversations and compromise!
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Ongoing Learning Program
Without fail, one of the key benefits of being part of a giving circle is the shared learning opportunities. Once the focus area(s) of the circle is established, it is useful to agree how the group wants to educate itself to build greater awareness and understanding. This knowledge provides an important context for identifying and selecting the non-profit organisations that are achieving successful social change in the focus area(s). It also enables the giving circle members to be active change-makers in their community.
Explore and encourage input from within the group that may be of interest collectively. Identify guest speakers, relevant texts and articles, policy developments or site visits throughout the year.
Sometimes, giving circles can align informally with an instructional host organisation that has expertise in particular areas of interest. For more specific opportunities to learn about the issues faced by women and girls, take a look at:
Investment Selection Criteria
Ultimately, the giving circle needs criteria for determining which non-profit organisations receive their funding. Criteria can include whether the group is interested in start-up ventures or established organisations, evidence of social impact, the perceived value created by the investment amount, potential for additional support and engagement from the giving circle, the benefit to women and girls, and so on. Other considerations for selection criteria might include expectations for reporting and communication from fund recipients over the year.
Researching Non-Profit Organisations
How does your group go about finding non-profit organisations to support? The research process can be as simple as someone recommending an organisation and everyone agreeing to support it, to a more intensive information-gathering process by circle members. This might involve data collection via site visits, seeing organisations in action, meetings, requests for Annual Reports and business plans, follow-up with other similar groups in the sector and using the circle’s own networks to find out about innovative social programs or even asking non-profits to make formal funding pitches to the group.
It is useful to understand where your pooled philanthropic dollars can be invested to achieve maximum value and impact. In addition, some groups are keen to explore opportunities to provide non-financial support to the organisations they fund, such as volunteering, pro bono advice in marketing, finance, fundraising, connection to business networks etc.
At the end of this process, shortlist the organisations you feel best meet your group’s objectives, focus and selection criteria.
Be respectful of the time and effort you require from the non-profit organisations to help make your funding decision. If you have only $250 to invest, you should not expect the venture to spend a lot of time with you. Clarify with them the mission of your giving circle and the investment process you undertake. Provide feedback to those organisations that are not successful recipients of your funds. This helps future relationships you seek to have with the community sector.
The research process assists group engagement and helps to build strong connections between its members and with its potential non-profit partners. It is a great way to broaden your understanding of the community sector.
Selecting Organisations and Investing Funds
There are many different ways to select the organisations that the giving circle funds. Once you have a shortlist, the group should meet to discuss the merits of each organisation and agree the one that best meets the selection criteria. This may be a discussion, a voting process or just a best guess of what feels right! Immediately following the group’s decision, contact the funding recipient and let them know of your intentions and when they can expect the money. This is also the time to clarify expectations between your group and the non-profit on other areas of non-financial support and/or the type of relationship you would like to have.
Evaluating Impact of the Giving Circle
Take the time to assess the short and long-term goals of the giving circle on an annual or more regular basis. This will help develop satisfaction within the group of the work the circle is doing and demonstrate the value it is adding through its financial and other contributions to the non-profits funded. Be open to hearing about ways in which the group can improve, as well as using these times to celebrate your philanthropic achievements together.