The Power of Giving Circles

In 2011, when Asian American Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy (AAPIP) launched a national W.K. Kellogg Foundation-supported campaign to grow its giving circles from just a handful to 50 by the end of 2015, some within the philanthropic community were skeptical. “It was a vehicle that a lot of people in philanthropy weren’t so sure of at the time,” says Noelle Ito, AAPIP’s VP of programs. Now, five years later, the sector’s perspectives on the value of giving circles have shifted dramatically—in part, says Ito, because “people are seeing that it’s a great way to involve communities of color.”

Admittedly, giving circles can take significant work to get off the ground, especially when the communities in which they are being launched are not as familiar with more institutional models of philanthropy. “A lot of the recruitment has been one-on-one talking to folks about what a giving circle is and what it means,” says Carlos Martinez, managing director of the Latino Community Foundation of Colorado (LCFC), which launched its inaugural giving circle through its Catalyzing Community Giving grant.

We need this kind of giving. If we can create a giving circle in everybody’s backyard across the nation, in every community, it would be incredible.
— Noelle Ito

But giving circles can be a highly effective way to tap into the existing generosity within communities of color and engage many more would-be givers in formal philanthropy—in part because the model itself enables each group to set the pace, tone, and focus of their giving. Indeed, every giving circle is unique. For example, LCFC’s premier giving circle—Young Latino Philanthropists—is composed entirely of Latino millennials who thus far have focused their giving on youth-focused organizations in their community. Says Martinez: “We’ve really empowered them to make it their own.”  

Rather than host traditional giving circles, ACCESS’s Center for Arab American Philanthropy has found great success with annual event-based giving circles, in which attendees come together for a single night, pooling their resources to make one large grant to a local cause. Participants pitch ideas to the bigger group, which are then voted on. Interestingly, all of the grantees at these events have been non-Arab organizations. “A lot of our attendees care about showing that Arab Americans aren’t just this segregated community that give only to Arab American causes,” says CAAP donor services and program officer Katherine Hayek Hanway.  

“Donors could go anywhere [with their giving],” adds Hanway. “But what gets them excited about these giving circle events is that we’re helping tell a story of Arab American philanthropy. We’re shaping perceptions by showcasing our philanthropy as a community—and that’s what really hooks people.”

Another hook, says Noelle Ito, is the decision-making role that giving circles enable their members to play in their communities. “They can be at the table, they can get involved in some of the issues that are impacting their community, and they know who’s going to best serve their community because they’re the ones closest to it,” she says. And the impact of their giving can be tremendous. Through its giving circles—49 to date, with the milestone 50th set to launch soon—AAPIP has engaged 2,000 individuals, who collectively have given $2.2 million to 450 organizations across the nation.

“We need this kind of giving,” Ito says. “If we can create a giving circle in everybody’s backyard across the nation, in every community, it would be pretty incredible.”