Grassroots giving goes mainstream: Popular giving circles are sweeping across the country

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There’s a new form of grassroots giving that is taking Canada’s charitable sector by storm.

Here’s how it works: Gather 100 people four times a year, with every person committing $100 per meeting. Each meeting lasts no longer than one hour, during which time members listen to pitches from three local charities, then vote on which charity will get the pot of pooled money. Charities issue tax receipts to donors and report back at the next meeting.

This crowd-funded movement began in 2006 when Michigan real estate agent Karen Dunigan heard about new mothers who couldn’t afford cribs. Providing cribs, mattresses and blankets would cost $10,000 so Dunigan brainstormed how to quickly meet this basic need, eventually calling 100 women to a short meeting. There, the story of babies and moms in need was told and the women wrote cheques, resulting in a donation of $12,800 through the local health centre.

Recognizing the resonance of this simple approach to philanthropy, Dunigan founded a group she called 100 Women Who Care. The idea quickly became viral, spreading to other communities largely through word of mouth but also through media who recognized the power and excitement of the movement.

Today, there are more than 350 independent groups around the globe, with eighty 100 Women Who Care groups in Canada, as well as twenty-seven 100 men’s groups, two 100 People Who Care groups and fourteen groups for kids/teens/girls. An overarching alliance has only recently emerged, but doesn’t function as an overseeing body.

We talked with organizers of various 100 Women/Men/Girls groups across Canada, as well as charities that have participated in the pitch competitions to grasp the significance of this movement for the sector.

What’s the value?

Eleven year old Lily Coté, who is the cofounder of 100 Girls Victoria (where membership is limited to girls between 8 and 13 who each bring $1-10 of their own money, and where parents aren’t allowed to even attend meetings, let alone run them) perhaps explains the value of this movement best: “Each person can give a little bit but if we are individual little philanthropists, it doesn’t have as much impact as if we come together. If we unite, we can do big things.”

Fundraising consultant Anne Melanson, who is herself a member of 100 Women Who Care Halifax, agrees. “We support smaller grassroots organizations for whom ten or twenty thousand dollars is a transformative amount of money.”

Jackie Stephen, director of Jocelyn House Hospice, which received $4,000 from the fledgling 100 Women Who Care Winnipeg, says her organization must fundraise 40% of their operating budget and that raising this money can be difficult because foundations and corporations don’t often support operational needs. “When I made our presentation, I explained that the funding we need is related to our day-to-day expenses — that their donation could cover our food and household supplies for four months. It’s something everyone can relate to, but having an unrestricted donation like this makes a big difference to us.”

The Edmonton-based 100 Men Who Give A Damn, which began in fall 2014 and currently has 175 members, explains the impact of one of their donations: last winter, the youth support organization iHuman had thousands of dollars of bus passes and grocery cards stolen, a loss not covered by insurance. In its five-minute pitch to 100 Men, iHuman explained that if teens don’t have bus tickets, they may jump a turnstile and get a $250 ticket they can’t afford, and eventually a $1500 fine and a court appearance — a price that could be avoided with a three-dollar bus ticket. The Edmonton group provided iHuman with $15,000 in January 2015. Founder Dwight Lester says, “We were in the right place at the right time. Our members heard the story and it was the right fit for them.”

Melanson notes that the entire process is democratic: from the way potential charities are chosen (it varies between groups whether the charities are pitched by a group member or are nominated by a member and pitched by the charity itself, and whether the charities presenting are drawn from a hat at the meeting or in advance) to the fact that members commit to supporting the charity voted on, even if the selected cause is not an individual’s favourite among the three.

Quick and easy

A huge part of the attraction of this approach to fundraising is summed up by non-profit consultant and facilitator, Gord Sheppard who is a proud, lapel-pin-wearing member of 100 Men Edmonton: “It’s relatively ‘no fuss, no muss.’ You show up, hang out, give money and go. It’s low commitment and high impact.”

Lester agrees. “Everyone is busy with their own businesses, work, families and other charitable endeavours. This is a quick way to be part of something that has momentum.”

Buy local

Many members are attracted to these giving circles because the money stays in the local area. Sheppard tells of a young man he met at a 100 Men meeting, “He had always been suspicious of donating money and wasn’t always sure where it would go. He loved knowing exactly where his $100 went, and that it supported causes in our community.”

Shannon Wallis, founder of 100 Women Who care Kamloops, also believes that local can be slightly broadened with great impact: while her group is based in Kamloops, they have included charities from smaller communities in their region. “Some of these places only have a few thousand people so they don’t have access to significant local funding, but they have needs too.”

Education is key

A key benefit to this philanthropic method is the awareness it provides for group members. As Melanson says, “You can absorb a lot in listening to a five-minute story — often more than you can in listening for an hour.”

Stephen says, “Rather than simply stumbling across an organization when you’ve had troubles in your life and then becoming aware of organizations that address those needs, 100 Women is a good way to learn more about the community.” She says of another recipient, “I had heard the name of that organization many times but I didn’t know what they did. 100 Women is a great way to get educated.”

Wallis agrees. Although Wallis works for the city and is well connected with the charitable sector, 100 Women “opened my eyes to what is needed in our community.”

Sunrise Therapeutic Riding and Learning Centre was the recipient of $20,000 from 100 Women Who Care Waterloo Region in May. Their CEO, Rob Vandebelt, says, “One of the unique things about this movement is that it’s not just about the money that’s raised but the opportunity to describe what we are doing to a group of people who are passionate about investing in our community. They do good work not just in money raised but in the momentum created by raising awareness. That is the hidden and more important side — the long-term impact.”

Adding to the donor base

But are such charitable circles are bringing new money to charities or simply offering a fresh way for existing donors to give differently?

Members of various groups suggest the answer is both, but that the commitment aspect of the 100 Women/Men clubs does translate into an increase in donated dollars. Lester says, “I was one who donated once a month to a group and then would do various things around Christmas.” Melanson observes, “Unless you are giving money by payroll deduction or debit, the majority of people may wait until the end of the year to make charitable contributions — but then not have money to give. Much like the value of annual giving — where inevitably donors will give more if they are in a regular giving program — so 100 Women/Men encourages people to stretch beyond what they might normally give because they are making a commitment to give quarterly.”

Paula Huntley, organizer of 100 Women Who Care Annapolis Valley, agrees, saying, “100 Women adds to the charitable donation base. You will always have people who have given before but we also have people who are finally for the first time able to give money.”

Lester’s group encourages members who might be mentoring younger colleagues to use 100 Men to introduce them to the concept of charitable giving. He also notes that word about the organization and the charities that present to it spreads organically. “Someone might tell their colleague at the water cooler something they heard at a 100 Men meeting — and that helps the charity get their message out.”

Wallis observes, “There have traditionally been a large number of galas that cost a lot of time and money, and are aimed at middle- to elite-income donors. This approach [100 Men/Women] attracts a far more diverse group – from twenty-year-olds to eighty-year olds, from waitresses to professors.” Melanson also sees the value in this sort of fundraising approach for charities. “This organic community support means that individual charities don’t have to till the ground to the same extent.”

It’s “super fun”!

The donor experience is a big factor in retaining members of a giving circle, suggests Melanson. Sheppard says, “I’ve met all kinds of people who feed ideas into my business and I enjoy talking with like-minded people who spark ideas off one another.” Wallis says the Kamloops group is highly diverse in their demographics and motivations: “For some it’s a social night out while for others it’s an opportunity to make professional contacts.” Some members of the Annapolis Valley group are newcomers who want to meet other women and learn what is happening in their new region.

Even Coté appreciates meeting like-minded peers, noting that some members of the 100 Girls Victoria group are girls already known for philanthropy. She says to anyone considering such a venture, “It’s super fun to be part of an existing group or start your own chapter. Even adults will learn so much from it. You can’t go to school for the stuff I’m learning.”

Ripple effects

While participants commit only to making a donation and attending meetings, there are a number of positive ripple effects that add further value to the charitable sector and the participant experience.

Very often, reports Melanson, people are drawn to one of the presenting charities and write an additional cheque to that organization or are inspired to begin volunteering. After Stephen made her presentation, several people visited the hospice, interested in learning more and looking for volunteer opportunities. One woman dropped off a gift basket of teas for residents and staff. Wallis reports, “Because we learn more about organizations and what they need, members often approach the spokesperson for the organization to ask how they can help meet other needs.”

The 100 Men Edmonton group has expanded their influence as members have seen opportunities: they invited Big Brothers/Big Sisters to talk to their group about their summer mentoring campaign; they also provided time during a meeting for Men Edmonton to discuss the screening of the movie The Mask You Live In, a film about how men treat children; a member invited fellow members to donate extra coats or sweaters and brought more than 100 coats and sweaters to an Out of the Cold program; they also offer a unique gift to the “non-recipient” charities —cash and in-kind services (such as printing, postage and IT services) from members and external sponsors.

Is there a downside?

“The downside is very small,” says Melanson. She observes that while charities issue tax receipts to 100 Women/Men donors, they can’t automatically put such donors into a mailing list. “It’s a great mechanism for providing special support to charitable organizations, but for any single charity, it isn’t a sustainable source of funding.”

Another risk is organizer burnout. While the commitment is minimal for participants, organizers invest significant time in logistics, communications, collecting pledges, and other administrative tasks, something Sheppard sees as a potential vulnerability of this movement. Lester also acknowledges that “as soon as you say something is exclusive for one demographic, you get some nay-sayers.” He notes his group welcomes the women who have joined their group, and encourages people to join or start whichever whichever group they would like and where they would feel most comfortable.

Affordability also doesn't have to be a barrier. While participants do have to commit to donating money, it is the commitment more than the amount that is key: some groups, for instance, allow four participants to band together to donate $100 quarterly.

This approach to fundraising is growing, too: members are recruiting other members, something Melanson sees as a “bellwether of longevity” for the movement. Also, while most giving circles are connected with this 100 Women/Men movement, the idea shows signs of spreading, with universities hosting similar events and other ad hoc groups forming in communities across the country.

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organizations tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for almost two decades and loves a good story.

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