Women’s Giving Circles

By Diana Price

Women coming together to give back is nothing new. Examples of women following the impulse to gather and do good span our nation’s history and every geographic and socioeconomic sphere therein—think sock-knitting and bandage-rolling efforts on the home front during World War I, sewing circles and church bake sales, and school fundraising and neighborhood improvement campaigns, to name just a few familiar efforts. Whether raising funds, materials, or volunteer hours, women have always known that their many hands make light work.

 It was this same impulse to pool their efforts and their resources that brought a group of six women together to give back in Washington, DC, in 2001. At the time Amy Kossoff, MD, described to her friends the sometimes-very-basic needs of her homeless patients that were going unmet, and the women decided that they would host a potluck dinner and each invite other women to attend and contribute funds for Amy to distribute to her patients. This simple idea launched Washington Womenade, a giving circle with a mission to “enjoy our women friends in wonderful, warm and lively parties, while bringing money from those who have, to some who have not.”

Lisa Herrick, one of the co-founders of Washington Womenade, says she believes that the sustained desire to gather and give back over the past 11 years is the result of a couple of key elements that have remained consistent within the giving circle: “The contrast between the needs of these folks and the good fortune of our community of women friends strikes everyone as something that requires action and generosity,” Lisa says. “And we choose to follow through on our promise to contribute every penny to someone in need—we spend no money on overhead.” The knowledge that their efforts help meet basic but essential needs is of course also a major incentive. “This is a shoestring effort that makes a big difference in the lives of individuals,” Lisa says.

As the number of women’s giving circles has increased—ranging from the “shoestring” approach of Washington Womenade to groups created in the mold of more-traditional foundations—what has become clear is the significant philanthropic power that women are wielding by pooling their resources and putting their weight behind charitable organizations. Since the 1990s the growing popularity of these groups has provided women with the opportunity to make a significant impact as donors and community change-makers.


Women Take a Seat at the Table

When women come together to support a cause or an organization, they are engaging in philanthropy—a gesture or gift to support the greater good and fulfill the needs of others. The giving circle, wherein a group comes together to pool their resources and then votes to donate to a specific cause, provides an easy entry into philanthropy for many women because even small donations of money or time can have a big impact when combined with those of the larger group.

Andrea Pactor, director of the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, says that the easy access to impactful giving that these groups provide is a key reason for their popularity: “That’s really one of the greatest contributions that giving circles have offered the field of philanthropy: they have opened the door and made it manageable for thousands and thousands of women here and around the world to engage in this charitable activity.” And, Andrea says, the fact that every woman within the circle has an equal say in where the group’s money is distributed is also empowering. “They are very democratic, which is a value that really appeals to women,” she says. “It is generally one woman, one vote.”

In fact, the popularity of the giving-circle model is indicative of a larger trend in philanthropy, says Buffy Beaudoin-Schwartz, communications director of the Association of Baltimore Area Grantmakers, a founder of the Women’s Giving Circle of Howard County, and co-author of Women and Philanthropy: Boldly Shaping a Better World (Jossey-Bass, 2010). “Philanthropy is changing—the word has even become more commonplace,” Buffy says. “And giving circles help engage philanthropists across the board, which is a trend in the sector—opening giving opportunities to larger groups of individuals.”

Andrea notes that the ability of the giving-circle model to enable women, specifically, to transcend older, more traditional ideas about who can be involved in philanthropy is significant. “Giving circles are open,” she says. “Women perceive that they’re open, whereas at different levels of income and assets they may feel that the door to philanthropy is closed to them.” This is in part because “often in nonprofits the leadership is very male-oriented.” The idea of coming together as women to support causes that are important to the group of like-minded, female donors offers an appealing alternative to the perceived norm. “It may well be that, for many women, the idea of coming together as women is a new experience because in many cases the reality is that it has been a closed community.”


Community Calls

Another draw of women’s giving circles for many members is the opportunity to create community and social relationships with other women. When Marcia Liebich moved to the resort community of Sun Valley, Idaho, she was interested in connecting with other women who had a similar interest in philanthropy, as well as forming social connections. When she was given the opportunity to be a founding member of a giving circle shortly after her arrival, she jumped at the chance. “Certainly, philanthropy was a big draw,” Marcia says, “but so was meeting women with similar interests as mine. I think that’s what a lot of these circles are proving: they develop social capital, in a sense, as you begin to network with people who care about the same things you do.”

Since co-founding the Wood River Women’s Charitable Foundation in 2005, Marcia has found that, along with forging lasting social relationships and engaging in meaningful philanthropic work, she has appreciated the opportunity to become deeply engaged with and knowledgeable about the community in which she lives. “To be able to see the needs in the area and to experience the passion of the people working to meet those needs is inspiring,” she says.

Lisa Herrick, of Washington Womenade, agrees that the social element inherent in the giving-circle model is a big draw for women who participate. “Doing good by being with good friends, eating and schmoozing with wonderful women over more than a decade” has been one of the greatest benefits, she says, along with knowing that the gathering is inspired by “helping individuals in meaningful ways.”


Seeing the Impact

Though Andrea notes that the impact of women’s circles is hard to quantify outside specific geographic regions where different groups are active, the overall impact on philanthropy is significant in a couple of important ways. First, she says, there is the impact on the donor herself: “Donor education is a clear impact,” she says. “Women who are involved in giving circles gain a deeper understanding and awareness of their communities and may move outside the giving circle to participate in other nonprofit organizations or boards. They become better consumers and more knowledgeable about the issues at hand in their communities.” Second, there is the impact on philanthropy in general: “Giving circles involve more women in philanthropy, and, for the most part, donations given through giving circles are dollars that are new to philanthropy or are additional dollars to philanthropy,” Andrea says.

On a more intimate scale, the women who are involved in giving circles often describe the impact in very personal terms—citing a specific experience of being able to see the results of their efforts or a particular relationship they have built through their involvement. Lisa Herrick remembers one request for a donation from Washington Womenade from a homeless man who wrote to the group and said he wasn’t able to get a job because he had no teeth. “We found a dentist to supply low-cost care and discounted dentures, and we paid for the man’s appointments, care, and dentures,” Lisa says. “He later wrote us a letter to tell us that he had been hired as a bus driver and was moving into an apartment. That was a moment of joy for all of us.”

For Marcia Liebich the opportunity that the Wood River Women’s Charitable Foundation had to make a $40,000 grant to three local organizations working together to fund initiatives to support women trying to reenter the workforce was especially rewarding. “To see these organizations working together and coming together to realize that they had many similar types of clients and could really make a difference to ensure workforce readiness and job placement was wonderful,” she says.

The range of opportunities for impactful giving that exist within the giving-circle model is truly limitless, which is one of the greatest assets. Whether women come together at a potluck and each offer $25 or through a major grant-making institution and offer $1,000, there is benefit to the community and to the donors. Women are empowered through these groups, and communities are changed.

As more women participate in giving circles and recognize their power to effect change, this model will likely continue to provide opportunities for many more women from varied giving levels and interest groups to become players in the philanthropic landscape. “Philanthropy in its broadest definition is the contribution of time, talent, and treasure,” Andrea says. “At different points in our philanthropic journey, we’re able to do different things. Regardless of where you are on that journey, you should be able to find something at a level where you’re comfortable.”