Dietitian Dania Green has long donated time and money to a variety of organizations. But her latest charitable focus is unlike anything she has done before.

Earlier this year, the 46-year-old Wallingford mother of three joined Project W in Delaware County for $550 — more than her typical give to any one organization. Green was willing because she knew her donation would be combined with other memberships, allowing the group to award $35,000 in inaugural grants at its meeting this week and amplifying the impact of her dollars manyfold.

Project W is one of the newest women’s giving circles in the region. The increasingly popular concept not only pools membership fees, but also allots each member a vote in collectively deciding how to grant the funds.

“If you donate money to any other organization,” Green says, “you’re writing a check. You don’t really see where the money is going. Here, we have a voice.”

Giving circles in general have quadrupled in number to about 1,600 in 2016 from 400 a decade earlier, according to a database maintained by the Women’s Philanthropy Institute, housed at Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. Collective giving is growing in popularity among younger people, minorities and especially women, who comprise the biggest chunk of all affinity circles at about half and dominate many others, says a 2017 landscape survey the institute funded. Over time, 150,000 donors have given as much as $1.3 billion, the researchers estimated.

“We’re really seeing dramatic growth in giving circles in recent years,” says Jacqueline Ackerman, the institute’s associate director of research. “It’s really a way for the average person who may not have that many dollars or that much capital to make a difference in their communities.”

Why now? The reasons are varied. A spate of circles started in response to the 2016 presidential election. Others see it as a way to support local charities or niche causes as federal funding has faced threats. “The collective giving movement has grown slowly but steadily over 25 years,” says Paula Liang, chair of Catalist, a national network of 75 women’s giving circles that represent 20,000 donors, “and now has reached what lots of us believe is a tipping point.”

Different faiths and ethnicities, of course, have long come together to help their communities, with women often driving the charge. In the mid-'90s, formal giving circles began gaining traction.

Women of Vision, celebrating 25 years, is a collective giving fund of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. Members donate at least $3,600 (or $1,800 for women younger than 45) for a lifetime membership that goes toward a $3 million endowment fund. Yearly grants of about $120,000 support the Jewish community both in Philadelphia and in Israel, explains manager Iris Leon.

“Jewish women’s funds align with the Jewish concept of tikkun olam — to repair the world,” she says. They offer “a platform for women to engage … with their Jewish identities … and work together in support of their own community.”

Pooling resources also encourages the average Jane to contribute strategically, which in turn democratizes and diversifies philanthropy, says Liang. The nonprofit Catalist is exploring ways to boost this type of giving. “The goal is to allow a whole lot of people who felt they don’t have access to being a philanthropist in the door.”

Research supports that women, more than men, gravitate toward the social nature of circles — and pick grantees where they have connections, either as volunteers or recipients of help, Ackerman says. “It’s a way to build community that’s not just ladies who lunch, but actually gathering around a cause."

Impact100 Philadelphia awarded its first grants in 2009. Since then, its memberships has nearly quadrupled, from 111 women to 398 this year — as well as its grant pool, says Mary Broach, 54, of Lower Merion, an organizational development consultant who cofounded the circle. Last year, it added a Young Philanthropists level at $575, half its regular membership. It also has Founders Fellows, whose fees are sponsored, she says, to reduce barriers to philanthropy — a common goal of giving circles.

“When I used to hear the word philanthropist, it wasn't something I associated myself with,” says 2018 Founders Fellow Nia Daye, 28, of Philadelphia, an assistant director of philanthropy at Mercy Neighborhood Ministries. “But now I understand that it has more to do with the action behind the person, not the amount of money.”

At Impact100’s annual meeting in June, five finalists, selected through an “informed giving” process of site visits, financial checks, and more, competed for three $100,000 grants and two smaller ones. “It’s an American Idol situation,” allows Margaret O’Sullivan, executive director of the Nationalities Service Center in Philadelphia and a 2018 Impact100 grantee. “Our program team rehearsed three weeks straight.”

Lauren Sustersic, right, discusses the merits of some of the organizations at Project W's meeting at Margot Patterson’s Newtown Square home.
CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
Lauren Sustersic, right, discusses the merits of some of the organizations at Project W's meeting at Margot Patterson’s Newtown Square home.

On a September evening, nine of the 14 members of Project W’s health committee gathered around the dining table of chairperson Margot Patterson’s Newtown Square home to consider five grant applications and select a finalist. (Two other committees — education and family — would consider 14 other proposals.)

Lauren Sustersic, 52, of Broomall, a health committee member, conceived Project W last year after facing empty nesthood and seeing a Facebook post about another giving circle. “The response we got was pretty overwhelming,” says the special projects lead for The Community’s Foundation (TCF), the Springfield nonprofit sponsoring Project W. Within months, the circle had 57 memberships. “The idea of women helping women really resonated.”

Adds Project W chair Kim D’Ambrosio, 53, of Wayne, also a recent empty nester: “There’s a lot of pent-up ‘mom energy.’ … We’ve pooled not only our financial resources, but our talent, coming together to create Project W.”

Out of each membership, $500 goes to grants that benefit Delaware County women and families, while the rest covers TCF’s administrative costs. Women also can form groups, sharing the fee and earning a single vote. “It’s all very democratic,” Sustersic says. “No one person dominates the conversation.”

Over the next two hours, fortified by candy, fruit, water, and the occasional glass of wine, the middle-aged women from varied walks of life (therapist, CPA, school staffer, stay-at-home mom) debated services to seniors versus children, pored over proposal specs and advocated for favorites. They had undergone training on how to assess grant requests and used a rubric to rank proposals prior to the meeting.

“My gut reaction is to help everybody,” Green bemoaned. “I want to save the world.”

Margot Patterson, 54, a stay-at-home mom, noted that no one organization stood out in the rubric ranking. “I think that shows we all saw different things,” she said, “which I think is great. I think our discussion is going to be really important here.”
CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
Margot Patterson, 54, a stay-at-home mom, noted that no one organization stood out in the rubric ranking. “I think that shows we all saw different things,” she said, “which I think is great. I think our discussion is going to be really important here.”

Patterson, 54, a stay-at-home mother, noted that no one organization stood out in the rubric ranking. “I think that shows we all saw different things,” she said, “which I think is great. I think our discussion is going to be really important here.”

Finally, the committee agreed to advance the Women’s Resource Center in Wayne, which helps women navigate transitions such as divorce by providing a helpline and counseling services. It also offers adolescent girls leadership skills through its Girls Lead program in schools. On Wednesday, it will compete for the top grant of $21,000 against the Breathing Room Foundation in Jenkintown, which supports families affected by cancer, and PathWays PA in Folsom, which provides housing and services to women struggling to break out of poverty, homelessness and abuse. Two $7,000 awards also will be given.

“So many nonprofit organizations are just getting by rather than getting strong,” says Cheryl Brubaker, the resource center’s executive director, who would use the big prize to hire an additional counselor, whittling a six-month waiting list for help. “A grant like this is the difference between getting by and getting strong.”

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