Expanding the Boundaries of Philanthropy through Giving Circles

How can we achieve a bigger impact deeper within a community? Are there ways we might better leverage the knowledge and skills of donors who are intimately involved with our issue areas? How can segments of the population who may be underrepresented in foundations or among philanthropists get more engaged in our mission?

These are questions I thought about when I worked in a foundation. Now, I believe the answers to these questions might be found in giving circles.

What’s a giving circle, anyway? Simply put, it’s a group of people who come together to do their philanthropy in a coordinated fashion. Giving circles have probably been around longer than recorded history and certainly much has been written about them. But, now they appear to be growing so rapidly that any giving-circle statistics are outdated before they are published.

Much has been written about differences in giving patterns across the spectrum of generations. Giving circles can appeal across those differences.

Giving circles appear in many different variations. They can be formed around a one-time event (Super Storm Sandy), a specific geographic area, or a racial/ethnic community. Some are comprised of a closed circle of friends; others are formed as an expanding group across generations. There are even circles of young donors like high-school friends. Some give a limited number of larger grants while others a larger number of smaller grants.

I am personally involved in the Asian Women Giving Circle (AWGC) with Steering Committee members who range in age from early 20s to over 70. AWGC was formed in 2006 and has given almost $550,000 in grants to 65 organizations. We support Asian-women-led projects that use the arts to promote social justice. AWGC has a formal application and review process. Anyone can contribute to the Giving Circle and anyone who contributes in any amount can vote on the semi-finalists.

Beyond the grant, AWGC members may support grantees and applicants in other ways: personal donations, volunteer work, feedback on their application. AWGC also provides feedback and coaching to organizations.

So what’s the connection to foundations? I believe foundations, as well as individual philanthropists, could use giving circles to expand their knowledge and get closer to what’s happening on the ground.

  • Find a giving circle which has a mission that complements your funding goals
  • Get to know the giving circle leadership to see if your philosophy and approach are compatible
  • Expand your ability to give smaller grants or grants to smaller organizations by making a grant to the giving circle
  • Engage the next generation of donors by providing matching or challenge grants to the giving circle
  • Become a member of the giving circle to learn about new groups/areas to fund
  • Sponsor or start your own giving circle

How can you go about finding an existing giving circle to tap into? Many circles use community or other foundations as their fiscal sponsor. There may be intermediary organizations like the Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy that support giving circles in their communities.

Giving circles are able to satisfy the different needs of all generations of givers and can serve as a source of new knowledge and an important complement to a foundation or philanthropist’s portfolio.


Patricia J. Kozu, Managing Director, National Employment Law Project, is a Steering Committee member of the Asian Women Giving Circle. She also serves on the Board of the Nonprofit Coordinating Committee of NY and is a member of the U.S.-Japan Council. Pat served on the Board of the Center for Effective Philanthropy from 2006 to 2011.

foundation strategy, giving strategy
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