Sondra Shaw-Hardy

(WOMENSENEWS)–Women’s giving circles are quickly spreading across the charitable landscape as more and more women discover a new way for women to exert their growing financial autonomy and sophistication.

Giving circles, like investment clubs, pool money from members and choose where the money will be invested. The members of a giving circle, however, expect returns in community-building, not personal financial gain.

As year-end enhances the spirit of charitable giving and financial planning, giving circles offer fresh ideas for a nonhierarchical but methodical way to target women’s wealth.

An expert in women’s philanthropy, Sondra Shaw-Hardy of Traverse City, Mich., is a leading advocate for giving circles. She said she was inspired to promote giving circles by the success of a circle in Seattle. That group, she said, has 300 members who each pledge $2,000 a year.

”Once I got onto the idea, I became an absolute minister for it because it makes so much sense,” Shaw-Hardy said in an interview.

Shaw-Hardy plans to begin documenting specific information about circles and how much they are donating. The anecdotal evidence currently indicates the movement is rapidly growing as the circles diversify their structures and priorities.

Circles Appeal to Rural and Urban Women Alike

For instance, women’s circles at the University of California at Long Beach and at Oklahoma State University leverage member contributions into scholarships.

The Three Generations Circle of Women in Shaw-Hardy’s hometown is a year old and has about 20 members. Each gives $1,000 annually and the circle divides the funds among the city’s Women’s Resource Center and other causes.

Another expert, Jane B. Ransom, executive director of the Minnesota Women’s Foundation in Minneapolis, considers giving circles an emerging vehicle for women’s philanthropy. Giving circles in her region, she said, are often small groups of rural women with very personal aims.

”To me, what was interesting was that members were using giving circles almost as a consciousness-raising tool,” Ransom said.

Members who do other charitable giving, she said, are learning in regular get-togethers about how to address needs collectively. Some circles respond by pooling cash on the spot to help someone in immediate crisis, such as having no shelter. And just as women’s investment clubs were a vehicle for women to teach one another about the stock market and other investments, the giving circles become centers for learning about the nature of philanthropy and their communities’ needs.

The benefits of giving circles are not lost on urban women. Sixteen members formed the WellMet Group in New York last year, pledging $5,000 each year for three years. The circle’s gifts are administered through the New York Community Trust.

Another robust giving circle is the 50 Over 50 circle in South Florida. Deborah Hoffman and Nita Prieto-Maercks founded it in 1996, the Women’s Philanthropy Institute reports in its November newsletter. The South Florida circle has grown from the 50 original members donating $1,000 a year to at least 180 members. The circle, which supports the arts, has awarded more than $500,000 in grants.

Circles for Children Are Springing Up Too

In Milwaukee, little is a big trend in giving circles. The Women’s Fund of the Milwaukee Foundation serves as godmother for Little Women’s Fund, a giving circle there that now comprises 21 members, ages 1 to 13. Twenty are girls; one is a boy.

Money is placed with the Little Women’s Fund by a parent or other adult on behalf of the children, who learn philanthropy through a program created to teach them about giving, volunteering and how to fund community needs. The Milwaukee program is creating a curriculum to teach children these skills and providing related materials. At least four other children’s and girls’ giving circles have developed from the model–in Everett, Wash., Hartford, Conn., Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., and Tucson, Ariz.

Tracy Wayson, director of the Women’s Fund in Milwaukee, said the adults learn, too. By bringing the children to the table to talk about priorities, such as sports, other forms of personal enrichment, health for girls and good learning environments, the Little Women’s Fund gets feedback for its grant-making aimed at children.

Building the Little Women’s Fund, Wayson said, helped expand ”how we think about giving circles. There are as many sizes and flavors of giving circles as there are people who participate.”

Shaw-Hardy agreed. ”’Each circle,” she noted, “is different because each community is different. But there are some things that are the same about each group.”

She identified some of the commonalities in a how-to book, “Creating a Women’s Giving Circle,” published by the Women’s Philanthropy Institute of Madison, Wis.

Characteristics of giving circles are:

  • Membership is broad and inclusive;
  • Contributions are about equal for members, given at least once a year and pooled;
  • Members determine how the money will be distributed;
  • Funds address specific community or institutional needs;
  • Learning more about philanthropy and finance is part of the process;
  • Members participate in decision-making;
  • Recognition for giving is minimal;
  • Volunteers provide most of the circle’s support.

Shaw-Hardy said that the chance to make change is central to the appeal of giving circles.

”Women like to create something … Women want to change things, they don’t want to maintain the status quo. Women see that by pooling their money what a difference they can make.”

Glenda Crank Holste is a Twin Cities journalist.