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Giving Circles: Philanthropy as Peoplehood

This article was originally published on eJewish Philanthropy.  It is an essay from volume 17 of The Peoplehood Papers titled, "Engaging Millennials with Jewish Peoplehood: What Does It Take?" published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.

To be honest, in our work at The Natan Fund, a giving circle made up of New York-based professionals in their 20s-50s, we seldom if ever think in terms of “Millennials” or other generational monikers. Rather than read studies and craft programs reflecting their conclusions, we simply listen to people and build programs around their goals, needs and aspirations.

The most important contemporary trend that our Millennial and other members ascribe to is the ability to be as empowered in their giving as they are in so many other aspects of their lives. In today’s DIY culture, where people are accustomed to being “producers” rather than “consumers” of their life experiences, many people also want a hands-on role in their giving. Rather than send a check to a faceless institution, or sit at a friend’s table at another gala dinner, they want a more transparent giving experience that they customize and control. Witness the success of DonorsChoose, Kiva, GiveDirectly, where the giver has 100% control over the allocation of his or her contributions.

Giving circles–groups of people who pool their charitable resources and decide together how to give those resources away–provide this experience of empowered giving to their members, with the added bonus of collaborative learning and action. Giving circles inspired by Jewish values, like Natan and the dozens that are part of Amplifier: The Jewish Giving Circle Movement, are living and breathing manifestations of Jewish Peoplehood. Importantly, as the Amplifier network demonstrates, Natan is just one flavor of giving circle. The model itself is infinitely customizable, and thus the opportunities to utilize giving circles as a tool for building Jewish Peoplehood through philanthropy are endless.

Let us briefly focus on just two of the core ways that giving circles build a sense of Jewish Peoplehood.

First, a Jewish giving circle is a community inspired by Jewish values. Members build relationships, networks, and a sense of collective belonging between themselves, their grant applicants and recipients, the people their grants ultimately reach, and even other funding bodies. Natan members, for example, come together to review applications, interview applicants, and make grants – as well as for regular events with other philanthropists, Jewish and Israeli leaders, and grant recipients; for occasional holiday celebrations; and for an annual Israel trip, which now includes a visit to another global Jewish community as well. The infinite customizability of the giving circle model enables any type of community to emerge: one created top-down through an institution or bottom-up through members; around any age demographic and even multi-generational; in any geographic location or even virtual; and as broadly inclusive as the group wants it to be (members don’t even have to be Jewish!).

Second, a giving circle can decide to support any element of Jewish civilization with its grants. For example, Natan’s grants support nonprofit organizations that create new access points to Jewish life and that support economic development and urban renewal in Israel. One grant committee focuses on North America, another globally; another on initiatives for Russian-Speaking Jews; another partners with the ROI Community to support its Jewish innovators around the world – and so forth. Reviewing grant applications from hundreds of organizations working to address issues facing Jews around the world is an unparalleled experiential education in Jewish Peoplehood. From independent spiritual communities to new media initiatives to outdoor education to social businesses supporting Israel’s weakest populations, Natan supports inclusive, inspiring, effective organizations that embody Jewish pluralism and deepen the richness of Jewish civilization.

One overwhelming theme emerges from our conversations with Natan members., Whatever their official generational designation, giving circle members want the same things that previous generations have wanted: a connection to something larger than themselves, meaning, community, opportunities for great conversations, and a role in shaping the present and the future. They want to collaborate in networks to achieve these goals. And in an open marketplace where they have access to just about anything, they expect Jewish experiences and programs to be as high-quality, smart, and professional as any other activity. We don’t pretend to have exhaustive answers about the desires of Millennials, nor do we claim that the type of person who affiliates with Natan is broadly representative of their peers. Instead, we want to suggest that the giving circle model offers an ideal formula for engaging Millennials and any generation in compelling conversations, meaningful experiences, and the ability to make change in the world through empowered, intentional philanthropy.

About the author: Felicia Herman is the Executive Director of Natan, a Jewish giving circle based in New York. Jackie Fishman is the Assistant Director of Natan, and has been with Natan since 2009.


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