Hosting a ‘giving circle’: Finding new donors and new dollars

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My $500 donation is important, but when it gets pooled with the $500 donations of several other people, the total impact of our giving grows. When we commit to making this level of donation over a few years, the impact is even greater. Now factor in that we want to know as much as we can about the project we’re investing in and track the difference our philanthropy makes to the cause. Well, the value of that $500 donation just grew exponentially.

This is the idea behind “giving circles”, a growing trend in philanthropy, where a group of donors pool their charitable dollars and make collective decisions about what causes to support. Giving circles can be an informal group of friends who meet in each other’s homes, or they can be quite formal with hundreds of members. For a variety of reasons, a growing number of organizations now host giving circles to:

  • Further engage existing donors
  • Bring new donors to the organization
  • Engage donors in a new and different way
  • Establish a new channel to provide more in-depth information to donors
  • Provide a vehicle for donors to learn more about the impact of philanthropy
  • Source: Giving Circles Knowledge Centre

Pooling resources gives more heft

Brescia University College Foundation, which supports Canada’s only all-women university, just launched a giving circle after a year and a half of research. The group is about to have its third formal meeting and is on the cusp of deciding which Brescia projects to support. There are a lot of options and that is one of the reasons, explains executive director Suzanne McDonald Aziz, that the foundation established the giving circle. “We saw a number of small projects around the college and, if we pooled resources, we could fund something with more heft.”

Each woman in the circle donated $1,000, and while McDonald Aziz says that the giving circle has netted them new donors, it's also about shifting current donors into a more personal relationship with the foundation and whatever project(s) the giving circle decides to support. Reflecting on the experience at Brescia, McDonald Aziz feels that “people will be genuinely surprised how easy it is to start a giving circle. It seems a natural build on the idea of a book club or investment circle. Women like that sense of communal work.” Indeed, many giving circles like the one at Brescia University College are made up of women.

About four years ago, The Winnipeg Foundation also established a giving circle for women: The Women's Fund Giving Circle. This giving circle is a pilot project to support the development of giving circles by providing matching dollars in the early years of development so the capital could grow and participants could get involved in grantmaking right from the start. Making a difference for the price of a cup of coffee

In this giving circle, donors decide their level of participation. To be a voting member (that is, to have a say in what projects receive funding), the financial commitment is $1,500, which can be paid over five years. In other words, it is really a financial commitment of $300 per year - “or less than a coffee a day.” There are about 20 paid members so far, and about another 25 that have made one-time gifts and are interested in hearing more, says LuAnn Lovlin, director of communications for the Winnipeg Foundation. To date, the giving circle has handed out three rounds of grants, with three recipients each time. Funded projects have included everything from summer camps for children with cancer, to literacy projects, to transition housing.

With so many worthwhile projects and a collective of committed philanthropists, isn't it difficult to decide what to support? Not so, says Lovlin. “So far, we have not had any issues. Although we did just have a discussion and planning session with a facilitator to address these kinds of questions and see if we collectively wanted to narrow our granting focus to a specific area to support each year. This type of discussion is underway and we will revisit some of the items at our next meeting in the spring.”

Giving Circles +

Social Venture Partners Calgary (SVP) chooses to support children and education projects. What is unique about SVP Calgary, though, is that the entire organization is built around the giving circles concept...taken once step further.

Each Partner Unit contributes an annual $5,000 for a minimum of two years. SVP defines a 'Partner Unit' as any two people: couples, friends, business partners, mother/daughter, grandfather/grandson. A committee of partners makes the decision about where to invest the pooled funds. When the decision is made, SVP invests in that project or organization for four to five years. In addition, SVP looks for a time commitment (the amount varies from person to person). “We’re not just about the funding,” remarks board chair Krystyna Williamson. “We’re also about connecting our members with that agency on a volunteer basis at a high level. Our partners are professionals who don’t want to just write a cheque.”

SVP, in collaboration with the funded organization, identifies areas of weakness that prevent the organization from getting to the next level of operation. The SVP partner volunteers are available to the organization to provide guidance on matters like board structure, financial management, event planning, marketing, etc. The funding and the high-level volunteer investment of time is a power-packed combination that leads to sustainable capacity building within the chosen organizations.

From the perspective of the donor, the leverage of SVP’s giving circle model is huge. Williamson describes the difference: “When I give $5,000 I get a thank-you letter. When I donate that same amount through SVP, it is pooled and becomes a larger donation plus volunteer time. I can attend, for example, the organization’s strategic planning session and help to craft their new mission statement. That just doesn’t happen with regular cheque-writing philanthropy.”

Indeed, giving circles are much more than regular 'chequebook philanthropy'. They provide the opportunity for donations of all sizes to have huge impact. But perhaps more importantly, they engage people on a personal level and teach passionate donors about strategic giving in a way they can carry forward on their own or as part of a giving circle. Thoughtful giving becomes sustainable giving.

Lessons learned in establishing the Brescia University College Foundation

  1. Don’t reinvent the wheel.
  2. Connect with others.
  3. Do your research - there’s a lot of great information out there.
  4. Line up exciting projects.
  5. Move along quickly so donors don’t disengage.
  6. Build your champions.
  7. Celebrate success!

Louise Chatterton Luchuk is a freelance writer and consultant who combines her love of writing with experience at the local, provincial and national levels of volunteer-involving organizations. For more information, visit

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