A Circle With a Deep Center

Tracey McNeill of the African American charity. Giving circles have become a powerful force in philanthropy.
Tracey McNeill of the African American charity. Giving circles have become a powerful force in philanthropy. (By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
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By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 31, 2008

About two dozen women, in bright summer dresses and bare feet, formed a circle around Claudia Thorne's dining table and held hands. They were there to enjoy fellowship and to feast on Thorne's signature salmon, curried shrimp salad and mango ginger ale.

The women of varied ages and backgrounds make up a sisterhood of philanthropy working to change the lives of the District's women and girls by confronting the city's social ills. On a recent Sunday, they gathered to give back.

As members of the African American Women's Giving Circle, they pool their charitable dollars, debate their passions and award grants. Like a book club, they meet monthly -- at their homes, in offices and even during yoga classes held in parks.

"We just tap into the souls of each and every woman present as sisters," said Thorne, 54, who runs a nonprofit social services agency and co-chairs the giving circle. "To have 25 African American women -- strong, professional, independent, opinionated -- come together and move as one has been a wonderful process."

Some members are lawyers, consultants and business owners. One recently lost her job as a real estate loan counselor, yet she still gives. Most contribute $2,500 a year; some give as much as $10,000, and others as little as $1,000. Together, they share a voice in championing their causes.

"I'm not a wealthy woman, but all of us together are wealthy," Nadia Mitchem, 31, a development professional in the District, told her circle sisters. "You go into a museum and you see a plaque on the wall and you see a '$100,000 Club.' You know what? We can do that."

The women chanted back, "Yes, we can."

The circle, founded in 2006 and administered by the Washington Area Women's Foundation, represents a grass-roots phenomenon in philanthropy. Across the country, from Idaho to Manhattan, hundreds of giving circles have formed in recent years.

The informal groups -- some of which are composed entirely of blacks, Asian Americans or Latinos -- are a powerful force in charitable giving. Collectively, giving circles award tens of millions of dollars a year to community-based causes, according to the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers.

This month, the members of the African American Women's Giving Circle squeezed into the living room of Thorne's Cheverly home. They shared stories and laughed. They also described what the circle means to them.

"Through the grace of God, I have been prosperous, and I can give a helping hand," Thorne said. "I've never thought of myself as a philanthropist. But now, I know there's Bill Gates, there's Oprah -- and there's Claudia.

"I am a philanthropist."

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