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Average Americans Become Philanthropists Through Giving Circles


There is strength in numbers. More and more Americans are discovering the truth of that adage as they look to 'give back' to their communities. They are forming what are known as "giving circles," and these circles are changing the face of philanthropy in America.

Timothy McIntosh is a barber in Durham, North Carolina. In his early 30s, he makes a decent living cutting people's hair, but he is by no means "wealthy." Nevertheless, he has come to think of himself as a philanthropist. "For me, it's been a journey of really valuing what I have to give," says Mr. McIntosh, who belongs to a giving circle called the Next Generation of African-American Philanthropists. "The popular notion is 'if I have $ 1 million, then I can give,' but if you have $ 2, you can give, and it all makes a difference to someone."

NGAAP was founded a little more than a year ago. Each member makes a minimum contribution of $150 a year to join, and many give much more than that. They get together twice a month to investigate various charities in the area and determine which ones they want to make collective donations to. So far, the 16 NGAAP members have handed out grants totaling more than $11,000 to organizations that provide housing for women with HIV and computer literacy classes for families who cannot afford computers.

Founding member Athan Lindsay says the experience of collective giving is a powerful one. "Often times, philanthropy -- when you hear that term, you don't think of African-American folks," he says. "Traditionally, if you look at the history of it, it's been associated with (Andrew) Carnegie, what have you. It has to do with the amount. We're just starting to whittle away at this notion of 'are black people able to give'? And often times, the people who are considered able to give are the people who are given the privilege of determining what our society looks like, and shape it."

Giving circles have become the latest philanthropic trend. According to a study conducted by the New Ventures in Philanthropy Project, there are now more than 300 giving circles in the United States, most of them founded in the last 4 years. Project deputy-director Jessica Bearman says these circles have donated more than $44 million … almost all to local charities. "People are increasingly excited about being engaged in their communities in hands-on ways," she says. "Sitting at home and writing a check yourself doesn't inspire the same level of excitement and passion as does getting together with 20 people, where you can really leverage your money."

The idea of collective giving is not new. For generations, neighbors have been coming together to help each other out in times of crisis. What makes giving circles different is that they are not just responding to a crisis. As Athan Lindsay points out, they are trying to reshape their communities, and they are doing so by drawing upon a personal understanding of the needs in those communities - something Mr. Lindsay says big, bureaucratic charitable foundations cannot always do.

"Most foundations might not typically make a grant, say, for someone who has to appear before a court," he says. "We're working with families, and they might need a bus pass, or something to get to that job. I think that's something that we all can understand in our shared experience."

But does that mean a giving circle has to remain small, in order to maintain its personal impact on the community? Most giving circles are made up of fewer than 50 people, and NGAAP member Beverley Francis says the 16 people in her group do not have an answer to the "size" question yet. "But I think it's something that we have started to ask as a group," she says. "We were looking at, you know, whether or not to expand, what our recruitment efforts would look like this year, how many more members we wanted to add. But I think on the other hand, we also don't want to exclude anyone that wants to be at the table and to be a part of this experience."

It is that "democratic" approach to charity that experts say is responsible for the rising popularity of giving circles. They also say these circles strengthen communities through more than just their financial donations. According to Jessica Bearman of the New Ventures in Philanthropy Project, the shared experience of researching a community's needs and developing a plan of charitable action builds friendships that are the foundation of any thriving community.

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