Reaching Across the Aisle: How Giving Circles Can Bridge People

Situation: You have $50 to donate. As usual, you can give this money towards any cause that you deem most pressing, to any organization that you trust to address a societal issue in a way that mirrors your values, politics, and philosophy.

Now, imagine you are part of a team, and instead of $50, you have $5,000 to give away. The caveat? You are not the only person making decisions; the members of this so-called group must come to an agreement on where to distribute the shared financial gift.

This is the model of a modern-day giving circle. Giving circles represent an approach to philanthropy that has historic roots in mutual aid societies (e.g. Freemasons or Habitat for Humanity), but in recent years has grown in accessibility, popularity, and impact.

In Angela M. Eikenberry and Jessica Bearman’s meta-analysis of this movement, the authors found data to indicate that when people participate in giving circles, they give at higher amounts, they are more intentional about their giving, and they engage more deeply with their communities.

Essentially, in a giving circle, a group of individuals come together and contribute an amount of money to a pooled fund, leveraging small payments into a larger, more impactful gift. Over the course of one or multiple meetings, the circle engages in dialogue to identify shared morals, to debate the merits of varying approaches to societal issues, and to select — cooperatively — a recipient of the group’s larger donation.

Joelle Berman of Amplifier, a giving circle network and resource provider, succinctly states the ultimate goal of this concept: “We all come with a unique set of values and passions that drive us to give and make change; a giving circle presents us with the opportunity to find the overlap — what unites us, and what will fortify us, as we give and act together.”

Even when groups are fairly homogenous or reared in comparable settings, finding the overlap can be challenging. Each individual is driven by complex, often haphazard, internal principles with a distinct perspective on society, problem-solving, and how philanthropy fits into this equation.

What happens when a giving circle is comprised of people stemming from different ethnicities, races, religions, sexual orientations, socioeconomic statuses, and political allegiances? Could they as a group effectively select a single recipient?

We are living in a time when there is very little room for civil disagreement — among family members, on university campuses, and in Congress. Rare is the conversation in which conflicting opinions are shared with an open mind and heart, a willingness to listen and empathically understand a diametrically opposed viewpoint. How can giving circles create a safe and productive forum for a diverse group of people to work together and align their donation goals? Here is simple advice for anyone looking to try.

1. Focus on Shared Values

A cornerstone of any giving circle is the shift in conversation from “you should be giving to X organization” to “WHY do you give?” This concentration point unfailingly prompts giving circle members to share their personal and cherished stories and to identify the values that motivate their desire to give. Despite differences in tenets, this exercise illuminates the humanity and vulnerability of others and can expedite the ability to connect.

As an example, The Giving Project is an initiative, in association with Headwaters Foundation for Justice and Resource Generation, that recruits diverse cohorts from a range of races and economic backgrounds to engage in grant giving. Madeline Shaw, a cohort member, remarked on the profound nature of this experience: “I had never had a chance to dialogue so explicitly about money and giving in a cross-class space — it was a huge gift.”

2. Emphasize a Neutral Third Party

As stated, the goal of a giving circle is to ultimately select a recipient based on a majority or unanimous vote among the group. The power lies in challenging the members to be accountable for bending their comfort zone, conversing respectfully, and uncovering what seems initially to be an impossible-to-reach consensus. The ability to rise above conflicting attitudes and instincts and to find enough common ground to choose an organization to support can be incredibly life-affirming.

Community lay leader Shari L. Edelstein started the Colorado-based Olive Branch Giving Circle to bring together an interfaith giving circle focused on the Israel/Palestine conflict. Her intention was to see if individuals with contradictory perspectives could meet in the middle, and she was right. The giving circle members “discovered that it is possible to move forward with positive, concrete action to support pro-solution strategies and organizations even if there [a]re areas of disagreement.”

3. Ask for Help

At the heart of a successful diverse giving circle is adept facilitation. Fortunately, we are in a golden era of giving circles and are surrounded by an abundance of organizations dedicated to providing accessible tools to manage conflict resolution and foster effective dialogue and decision-making.

Giving circle connectors, such as Amplifier and the Latino Giving Circle Network, convene groups and consolidate lessons learned to create best practices and “plug and play” exercises customizable for a range of giving circle structures.

Organizations such as Essential Partners offer training for giving circle facilitators to gain key skills in helping groups navigate challenging conversations, such as setting clear ground rules and cultivating a sense of cohesion early on.

Excitingly, emerging digital infrastructures such as Growfund’s new platform are serving to support giving circles in designing fresh approaches to the giving circle concept by easing the fiscal logistics in the form of a donor-advised fund and enabling collaboration among individuals and groups that may not have otherwise seen an opportunity to connect.

This blog post was originally published at Growfund.