Charitable Giving Comes Full Circle

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This article is featured in the November edition of The Slice, a monthly digest created in partnership with Tablet Magazine that offers news, stories, ideas and opportunitieswith a Jewish twist.

A phrase I didn’t know last week: reactive giving. That’s when your alma mater calls you on the phone and makes you feel guilty that you haven’t gotten the scratch together to make a donation in five years. Or when an earthquake befalls a poor foreign country and your twin senses of helplessness and grief compel you to send a token amount of emergency relief.

Here’s another phrase I’ve only just learned: giving circle. That’s when a group of friends or family or peers gets together and makes a collective donation. As in a poker game, there’s a minimum buy-in, or ante, to be part of the circle—say, $100 a head. But the group doesn’t collect and disburse the money right away, and they don’t do it in reaction to a crisis. Instead, they take time over a period of weeks or months to get together, talk through their collective values and interests and determine the recipient organizations or causes that align with the group’s values.

Giving circles are hardly new in the philanthropic world, according to Joelle Berman, Program Director of Amplifier—a Natan-powered, Schusterman Foundation-sponsored initiative to support and strengthen Jewish giving circles. They go back about 100 years, she said, and were initially a tool used mostly by women and women’s foundations.  

What is new, she said, is their use by people who are not particularly wealthy but are eager to be part of a process that determines exactly where and how their money is spent. They’re not content to blindly or blithely dump cash into a communal fund.

“In a giving circle, you’re starting with the giver,” Berman said. “You’re saying, ‘What do you care about? What change do you want to make in the world? And what about the people around the table? Can you enrich one another’s experience?’”

That’s the hope: that the process of coming together to decide as a group where to give will empower and enrich the giving circle members and will forge lasting bonds among them.

Andi Lewittes, Director of the Leadership Network for the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, says giving circles appeal to a new kind of donor. “The new generation of philanthropists—and that’s not necessarily 20 year olds—are thinking about philanthropy differently. They want to have control over where their money goes and they want to feel their passions,” she said. Those passions may be anything from Israel to social services to the environment and beyond.

Consider it a serendipitous collision between today’s D-I-Y spirit and the Jewish values of tzedakah and community.

Lewittes was among 38 people from a range of Jewish organizations around North America who gathered in New York in October for a two-day giving circle kick-off hosted by Amplifier as part of their Incubator program. The goal was to learn how to form and run effective giving circles, and to meet likeminded professionals in the Jewish community.

The Incubator itself lasts eight months, during which participants receive regular ongoing mentoring from coaches, participate in webinars and remote check-ins, and have access to online and offline resources to help them establish and maintain the circle from its inception to fund disbursement, expected to take place by May 2016.

Tracy Newman, an engagement officer at the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, was there on behalf of PJ Library, a project that sends free Jewish children’s books to families around the country. When I spoke with her, Newman explained that her organization wants to try to build communities among PJ Library subscribers, to find “innovative ways to engage the parents who may not have any connection to Jewish life in their local communities.”

“It’s an opportunity for people to come together,” Newman said. “You go through a whole process to figure out what are the values of the group, what’s their shared interest.”

Attending the Incubator energized Newman and made her consider why she gives to certain organizations and not others. “People will go through a personal journey and think of things that they weren’t thinking about. I didn’t think about why I gave to places until I was asked, ‘What is your preference in terms of smaller organizations or larger ones?’ I want to give to programmatic costs and not overhead, for example.”

“I would challenge myself and my husband,” she said, “to say, what are our values and does where we give money align with our values?”

In effect, giving circles have two kinds of impact: to the recipient organization who benefits from the donation and to the circle members. In regular get-togethers, they can share a glass of wine or brunch and forge connections through the exploration and articulation of shared values and goals. That social aspect makes giving enjoyable.

Until Amplifier’s Berman started a giving circle with friends she has known for 15 years, they had “never had these kinds of conversations,” she said. “It’s so rare that you have a meaningful conversation with your friends about how you want to make a change in the world. A lot of people have book clubs because they want to have more deep and meaningful conversations. This is a way for you and your closest friends to have meaningful conversations about how you want to change the world and actually do something about it.”

Ari Lucas, the associate rabbi at Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles, attended the Incubator and returned to California with three cohorts in mind among whom he might try to jump start giving circles: b’nai mitzvah, those who show up for daily services and newly-married couples.

“It’s important for new families to set up a family practice of giving, and I would love if they would do that with other families—to figure out their personal and collective values and to learn how to be more intentional about their giving,” he said. If—over the course of her participation in a giving circle—a member finds that her values depart from that of the group and her passion lies elsewhere, that too is good information for her to have and to act upon.

“A Jew should regularly and proactively think about how they pursue their values through giving and I don’t know that many of our members, myself included, often take the time,” he said. “Everyone could benefit from being a little more thoughtful and intentional about the giving—because that’s where your values play out, in the places that you give….Our job as Jewish professionals is to tap into the new ways that people are giving to continue to pursue the values that have been eternal.” 

For more information about giving circles, check out Amplifier's website.