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Give Better. Give Together. Building Your Very Own Giving Circle

Originally posted on eJewishPhilanthropy.com

This article is Part 3 in a series about giving circles. (Don’t forget to check out Part 1  & Part 2 .) Giving circles, groups who pool donations and decide together which causes to support, are a powerful tool for providing anyone – at any age, in any place, at any giving level – with access to an exciting, intentional giving experience. Giving circle members learn anddo something about the issues that mean the most to them within their community of friends, family, fellow program alumni – anyone.

As part of our effort to expand and strengthen giving circles in the Jewish community, Amplifier: The Jewish Giving Circle Movement is proud to present this seven-part series to help you start and sustain a giving circle inspired by Jewish values. This series draws upon Amplifier’s Resource Library and the experiences of dozens of giving circles already in the Amplifier network.


Part 3 – Building Your Very Own Giving Circle

You’ve decided to start a giving circle – great! You and your group are about to embark on an exciting journey. You’ll do some real good in the world while learning a great deal, connecting with incredible people, and having a lot of fun.

The most successful circles are those that spend time at the beginning thinking through some of the questions, issues and opportunities that will come up throughout their time together.

Although some circles go through just one grant cycle together, others last for years. Investing some time at the outset in thinking through logistics, group values, and the grantmaking process will generate great benefits over the life of your circle.

First things first: as you’re getting your circle off the ground (or anytime throughout your circle’s experience), please reach out to the Amplifier team for help. We’re happy to give advice and to connect you with other people who can help you on your way. We’ll also help you set up a giving circle profile on the Amplifier site so you can use the tools we’ve developed to help you manage your circle and your grantmaking process. (Check out this video for an overview.)

Now, let’s get started. In Giving Circle Startup Questions, we lay out some of the initial questions you might want to consider even before you gather people together. Who makes the final decisions is up to you: in some circles, the founder(s) or organizational hosts figure out the answers to some or all of these questions before the circle launches; in others, the decision-making is done by the group once it gathers. Giving Circle Building Blocks walks you through how to make decisions about logistics, group values, and grant focus areas in group contexts.

Some initial questions to consider:

  • The Big Picture: What kind of circle are you creating? How formal or informal, how big or how small? (See the checklist on p. 16 of Giving Circle Essentials for help.) How Many Meetings will you have and what will you do at those meetings – grantmaking, or social and educational events as well?
  • Membership: Who will be part of this circle – friends, family, alumni of a program you were part of, members of a particular community? How many members do you want to start off with? (In our experience, 5-20 is good.) What will you ask them to contribute – how much money and time, and any other things like volunteer time and professional services? (Map Your Assets can help you think this through.) Do you want to hold a Giving Circle Express workshop to give everyone a taste for the experience before they commit to joining?
  • Logistics: Where will you meet and how often? Who’s in charge of scheduling, snacks, materials, facilitation? Where will you keep the circle’s money?
  • Grants: How often will you make grants, how large will they be, and what will your review process look like? Do you already have a focus area for the grants in mind, or will this be something the group decides? Will you give to Jewish or nonsectarian organizations? Will Amplifier’s common grant application and review system work for your group? In our materials, we talk about how to create a grantmaking process for your circle that reflects what you’re actually offering to potential grant recipients. Even $500, deployed intelligently, can make a real difference! But you also need to structure your grant process to reflect what you’re giving, so that applicants don’t invest more time applying than they can potentially receive in a grant.
  • Group Values: Amplifier believes that “Jewish” giving circles are those that are inspired by Jewish values – no matter what they give to. What Jewish and other values underlie your members’ approach to giving?

One rule of thumb to keep in mind as you consider these questions is that the most successful circles are those that best match the goals and the assets (financial, social, intellectual, or otherwise) of their members.

Truly great giving circles also respect the time and resources of grant applicants and recipients, and they work to balance members’ interests and needs with the needs of the organizations and communities the circle supports.

Giving circles are infinitely customizable: each will have a different combination of answers to the questions above. But there is some advice that we can offer to all circles, drawn from the experience of the many circles in the Amplifier network:

Recruit people who are fans of the leverage that comes from group decision-making.

  • Giving circles aren’t for everyone. Whether the group makes its decisions by voting or by consensus, members need to accept that not everything they like will get funded, and that not everything that gets funded will be their first choice. Members need to trust the group and its process and be happy (or at least willing) to engage in the give-and-take that comes with being part of a team.

Giving circles take time, and they’re worth it.

  • Time for planning, meeting, reviewing applications and voting. Time (maybe) for site visits, events, networking, and celebrating. Make sure everyone is aware of the time commitment from the beginning and agrees to do their best to show up consistently; and make sure at least one person is responsible for the all-important job of scheduling.

Think about your circle’s expenses.

  • Who will cover the cost for meetings – especially the snacks? (Always have snacks.) Will there be additional costs like educational events, fees for financial or administrative hosts, perhaps even site visits to grant applicants? Your circle may start off small, with members sharing or rotating responsibility for expenses – or you may want to incorporate some shared way of covering circle expenses from day one.

Most importantly: stay humble, respect everyone’s time, and celebrate!

  • Manage expectations about what your circle can accomplish, given the amount of money and time that members are contributing. Shape the requirements for members to meet their expectations and goals, and right-size your requirements of grant applicants to balance what you are potentially giving them. And don’t forget to celebrate – the end of a grant cycle, for example, is a great time to celebrate what your circle has been able to achieve so far.

There are now dozens of people in the Amplifier network who have started giving circles on their own, with their friends, with their families, in alumni networks, and at organizations like synagogues, JCCs, Federations, and community foundations. Reach out to us and we’ll be happy to connect you to the coaching, resources, and tools you need to launch a successful giving circle.

And stay tuned for the next installment in this series – Great Grantmaking for Giving Circles.

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