Guest Post: Money Made You Mean
a question, if you have to ask
just means what it means—
the question that says everything.”
How much, indeed? I spent a good portion of my last year of grad school (Go Heels!) exploring alternative forms of philanthropy—in particular, giving circles. I thought perhaps I could solve the “how much” question for nonprofits that struggled to find sufficient funding through traditional streams. I first sought giving circles as a release from more restricted forms of funding, but discovered—at least in my narrow (let’s say “targeted) research—that giving circles can’t really give a nonprofit a flush bank account. However, they can help circle members form a softer answer to the “how much do we really need?” question.Practices providing donors with more control over charitable gifts are gaining popularity in the philanthropic sector. Giving circles are a unique part of this movement: members pool resources, benefit from social opportunities, share and volunteer resources other than money, and maintain decision-making authority (Eikenberry 2006). According to the Giving Forum, a part of New Ventures in Philanthropy, a giving circle is a group of individuals that pool resources and make allocation decisions together. Generally, the pooled financial resources are donated to local nonprofit organizations. Circles can be as simple as a group of friends gathering for dinner and writing individual checks to the same nonprofit. Or they can be formally structured, with 100 members contributing to funds managed by a community foundation and making allocation decisions based on grant applications. A 2004 New Ventures study identified 25 giving circles in North Carolina, with 10 in the Research Triangle—an area comprising Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill. This is where I focused my research.
Proponents of the giving circle herald it as another form of civic engagement—not just fundraising. This is just what I found in a series of interviews with individuals representing eight Triangle-area giving circles. I was relieved to find an alternative to the ubiquitous argument (Thanks, Robert Putnam!) that our society is falling apart and for proof, just look at the Elk’s club attendance! Gary Fine and Brooke Harrington* posit a small-group model of civic engagement—the perfect thing to describe what I saw in giving circles. Fine and Harrington’s four indicators of small-group behavior include:
-distributing and maintaining collective goods
-extending group learning to a broader public.
The “tiny publics” formed by the small groups that exhibit these behaviors are actually an integral (and healthy) part of civil society. (Take that, dwindling bowling league!)
Forming networks. Giving circles rely on existing networks and create new networks for participants. In every case there was a catalyst that drew on friends, church membership, or professional associations to get circles off the ground. Once formed, members’ networks commingled. The groups used this new network to make connections to recipient organizations. Professional associations, prior volunteer experiences, and personal networks often played a role in which organizations were presented as funding options. Sometimes all it took was a conversation over coffee; sometimes, there was months of courting required to establish the core membership
Creating Identity. Many interviewees valued giving circle participation as a social activity. They relished forming new friendships with like-minded people or strengthening existing bonds. But being like-minded didn’t spare them from questions of values clarification. These conversations were integral to forming the trust necessary for making financial decisions together. And as always, there is the danger of succumbing to exclusivity. This is perhaps the burden and boon of the concept: strong ties are more likely to form within a small group of individuals, but size limitations require definite boundaries. A number of the groups have wrestled with how to have a diverse membership—whether racially, socio-economically, or geographically. Facing such questions meant many opportunities for individuals to discuss (read: debate and argue) group norms and values.
Distributing and Maintaining Collective Goods. Perhaps because of the potential for such discussions, my friends Fine and Harrington credit small groups (including giving circles) with providing a place where the public sphere can be explored and enacted. This enactment is most apparent in the way circles go about distributing resources—both intellectual and financial. This happens as circles promote both the causes they support and the concept. Many individuals I spoke with were hopeful that their participation would inspire the creation of new circles. Additionally, in the criteria that they choose for making funding decisions, circles put the values they debate during identity formation into practice. (In other words, they put their collective money where their collective mouth is.) But they don’t distribute only dollars: within these circles there was also non-financial support: pro-bono professional services, volunteer days, board service, and in-kind donations.
Extending Group Learning to a Broader Public. Thankfully for the disintegrating polis, what is learned in the group context can be harnessed for public participation. Members of giving circles I spoke with took values practiced within the circle and transfered them to a broader public. Every member I interviewed spoke of the educational component of circle participation: not only are individuals mentored in philanthropy, they also learn about the nonprofit sector, community needs, and community organizations that are addressing those needs. This learning sometimes leads to changes in personal giving practices. Conversations about giving practices focused on how they made decisions and where they allocated their personal giving outside of the circle. A number indicated that they were less likely to respond to mail and phone solicitations; they were more strategic in their charitable giving. Circle participation taught them how to research organizations and encouraged them to plan their yearly giving more deliberately—and in many cases, to give more money locally.
The individual giving circle members I spoke with had extended and reinforced their networks—both personal and within the broader community. They were more aware of community needs and organizations. Their participation had, in some cases, encouraged them to be involved with recipient organizations outside of the circle interactions—whether through volunteering or additional financial support. It seems, then, that they most important point of influence of the giving circle is the individual. Circles don’t generate large grants for nonprofits, but they do provide an opportunity for a personal experience with giving. And those personal experiences can shape one’s answer to the “how much” question—and even those of us without expansive wealth, when united, can use the money we do have to make the world a little less mean.
* Fine, Gary A. and Brooke Harrington. “Tiny Publics: Small Groups and Civil Society.” Sociological Theory. 22.3 (2004): 341-356.