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Expanding Philanthropy's Circumference

'Giving Circles' Pool Dollars and Decisions

By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 9, 2005; Page B01

An emerging form of grass-roots philanthropy -- the "giving circle" -- has blossomed from an embryonic trend a few years ago to a movement with hundreds of groups nationwide, as donors look for new ways to help local charities by using a more collective approach, according to a study of the groups released yesterday.

In the circles, which range in size from a half-dozen members who meet over potluck supper to 500 who get together in mass gatherings, members pool their charitable dollars. Then, often after copious research, they decide which organizations will receive the funds. Depending on the group, members kick in anywhere from a few dollars to thousands each year.

Kathy Woodward, left, Cathy Lange and Kelly Nakamoto participate in the Angels Network. Lange, its president, says she prefers the group's single-sex status. "I think the dynamics shift when we include men," she says. (Andrea Bruce Woodall -- The Washington Post)

Starting a Giving Circle

• Decide on the giving circle's mission and focus. Some founders decide these, while others recruit members and build consensus. Giving circles can address a single issue or multiple issues. Members also need to decide whether the focus should be local, regional or international.

• Define the form and structure. Giving circles average 20 to 30 members but range from fewer than a dozen to more than 400. Donors may come together with no consistent membership, attend every meeting and make decisions by consensus, or have a more formal structure.

• Determine the level of commitment. Circles tend to be more effective when members make minimum commitments for at least a year. Annual contributions range from $150 to $20,000 and up. Some groups require just a modest minimum, while others require set amounts.

For more information, go to www.givingforum.org/givingcircles.

SOURCE: New Ventures in Philanthropy

"To me, this is a more meaningful version of a book club," said Julie Stein, 43, a Loudoun County conservation biologist who just started a giving circle that will focus on environmental causes.

The study found 220 giving circles in 39 states -- most of them less than four years old -- and researchers say that is the tip of the iceberg.

"They seem to be everywhere," said researcher Jessica Bearman of New Ventures in Philanthropy, which worked on the study with the Association of Baltimore Area Grantmakers.

The Washington area has some of the largest giving circles in the country, according to the study.

Since the Angels Network was founded in 2000, for example, it has swelled to 500 members, mostly from Northern Virginia, and has raised $100,000 for charity.

The three-year-old Women's Giving Circle of Howard County has 385 members and has amassed almost $400,000 for an endowment it plans to draw on for charitable programs.

In addition, the giving circle plans to donate $17,000 this year to programs in the county, said Barbara Lawson, a circle member.

"We're thrilled with where we are," Lawson said.

The leaders of the giving circle movement are mostly women, researchers found. More than half of the circles surveyed were women-only. Just one was strictly for men.

Giving circle members say that's because the groups' cooperative approach tends to appeal more to women than to men.

"I think the dynamics shift when we include men," said Cathy Lange, 53, president of the Angels Network.

Lange said her group prefers its single-sex status.

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