Want to help thousands of people but don’t have the Rockefeller bucks to do it? Join a giving circle. | Ronnie Polaneczky
Plenty of Philadelphians have found a new way to give back.
When she was in third grade, Quinn Donover painted a nutty-looking orange cat with yellow eyes and purple-splotched fur, set against a multicolored backdrop of swirls and streaks so frenetic they seem to jiggle on the canvas.
Reproductions of her painting, dubbed “Crazy Cat,” have since been used by nonprofit Fresh Artists to raise thousands of dollars for art programs in underfunded schools. Kids like Donover, who is now 24, share their masterpieces with Fresh Artists, which uses digital images of the work to create and sell posters, tote bags, and board games. The proceeds fund materials and programming at schools whose arts budgets have been decimated.
“I know what it’s like to open a box of dried-up, used markers and what it’s like to open a box of new juicy ones,” says Donover, who attended Philly’s A.S. Jenks and J.R. Masterman public schools. “I’m happy to be helping kids.”
Fresh Artists has created a beautiful circle of giving: Students create great stuff, then allow it to be used to help other students create great stuff.
The process allows a child, even a third grader, to be a philanthropist.
We usually use that word to describe only people whose last names — think Carnegie and Rockefeller — are synonymous with massive wealth and massive giving.
It’s time for the lesser-heeled to reclaim the word, which means “a lover of mankind.” It’s not as if only the stinking rich use their time, talent, and money for the betterment of others. Plenty of other Philadelphians do, too.
And these days you’ll find many of them in a number of the region’s interesting and diverse giving circles.
In giving circles, members annually contribute a prescribed amount of money to a fund, then vote on how to disperse it to recipients whose missions align with the circle’s. Unlike digital crowdfunding operations like GoFundMe, whose campaigns can be tough to vet and dispersed donors easy to exploit (thank you, Johnny Bobbitt), members of giving circles build strong relationships with potential recipients and one another.
“There is tremendous anxiety out there about social inequality and how stratified our society is. People want to do something about it,” says David Callahan, editor of the Inside Philanthropy news site.
“Giving circles create structure for people with shared values to learn about the causes they care about and support them while creating community.”
For members, the experience can be identity-changing.
Take Madge Rothenberg of Haverford, who is copresident of Impact100 Philadelphia, a 387-member women’s giving circle.
Last year alone, each of Impact100’s members donated either $1,150 (for older members) or $575 (for ages 21 to 35) to award five grants: three for $100,000 and two for $43,500.
The intentionality of the process — the vetting of proposals, visits to potential fundee’s sites, hours of thoughtful debate with passionate circle members in five separate committees — has changed Rothenberg’s self-perception.
“I used to think of myself as a donor,” says Rothenberg, who’d annually write checks to her college alma mater and give $50 gifts to this or that cause. “But I didn’t really know where the money went, or it felt like a drop in the bucket.
“Now I see myself as a philanthropist — I’m part of something bigger. I feel invested in the success of the nonprofits we support.”
Peter Van Do feels similarly. He’s chair of the local Asian Mosaic Fund Giving Circle, whose 50 members donate at least $50 a year to make annual grants of $5,000 each to nonprofits that support the Greater Philadelphia Asian community.
“Many of these organizations are ignored by mainstream foundations — they’re invisible,” says Van Do. “Less than 1 percent of the country’s charitable-giving dollars support Asian American causes, even though Asian Americans make up 6 percent of the population.”
Other groups are making smaller but still impactful donations, like the Philadelphia Public School Giving Circle. Its $250-to-$500 grants have paid for headphones for Chromebooks, robotics starter kits, school-garden supplies, and transportation costs to cultural events.
I don’t have enough space to name every giving circle I’ve discovered, whose members are eschewing big philanthropy’s white-tie galas for potluck parties. But suffice to say they’re not looking for a seat at mainstream philanthropy’s table — they’re building their own. And Sidney Hargro believes they represent the future of giving.
“Where there’s more identification between those who are giving and those who are the grantees in the community, there’s less process and bureaucracy" to slow things down, says Hargro, executive director of the Philanthropy Network, a local association of charitable entities and individuals. “There’s more of a focus on saying, ‘How do we join together to tackle these issues we care about?’ ”
The notion excites Kevin Dow, cofounder of the brand-new Philadelphia Black Giving Circle, which was founded after a 2016 report showed that black-led Philly nonprofits received fewer foundation resources than did their white-led counterparts.
“We’ll make our first grants in 2019,” he says excitedly. “This is only the beginning.”
Make room, Annenbergs and Rockefellers. The new philanthropists are here.
Interested in starting your own giving circle? Click here to learn more.