Maryland is part of a growing philanthropic trend fueled by committed females willing to pool funds for favorite causes.
The groups are called giving circles, and they’ve taken the concept of women’s sewing circles in a whole new direction.
“Women don’t know enough about philanthropy and how to go about it,” said Betty Baer, a retired nurse and member of an Easton-based giving circle. “That’s a really big hole in today’s world.”
Giving circles are groups of donors who combine their money and then award grants to organizations associated with the group’s particular interests. There are fewer than 100 giving circles nationwide, philanthropy researchers say, and Maryland has 14, all established since 2000.
The circles are becoming a popular way for women to learn more about philanthropy and to make substantial contributions to organizations in their communities.
“I’ve always wanted to start my own foundation,” said Alice Bower, a self-styled “professional volunteer” and founding member of the Women and Girls Fund of the Mid-Shore, the Easton circle. “I guess I realized at one point I can’t do this by myself.”
When Bower learned about giving circles, she thought about the number of women active in other fund-raising organizations and clubs in her community and decided a giving circle could work there.
“We started by having small luncheons and telling our story,” to potential donors, Bower said. Their goal is to attract 100 donors who give $1,000 to the endowment fund, though any amount is accepted for a tax-deductible donation.
Since it began in March of 2002, the Easton circle has distributed more than $15,000 in grants, including one to help a homeless girl attend a math and science camp, and another to support teen pregnancy programs at the Family Support Center in Easton.
Some grant requests came in through the Mid-Shore Community Foundation, where the fund is housed, but others come from brainstorming, research and a lot of word-of-mouth publicity. The circle’s grants committee and board oversee the distribution of funds – researching programs and making visits to organizations.
“This has been a great vehicle to address the needs of the community,” said Bower. “It’s really rewarding.”
The circle also aims to educate the community about those needs and women about charitable giving – though donors to the fund are both men and women.
Typically, women have given their time to philanthropic efforts instead of money, according to Sondra Shaw-Hardy, of the Women’s Philanthropy Institute.
“Historically women have given, it’s just that we really couldn’t own money or property even into 20th century,” Shaw-Hardy said.
As women have become more involved in the financial aspect of philanthropy, she said, giving circles were a natural extension of other women’s social groups, like quilting circles and church circles.
“As a professional and volunteer fund-raiser, I’ve never done anything so easy as to set up a giving circle,” Shaw-Hardy said. “It’s just something that appeals to women.”
The circles are also pushing philanthropy out of the realm of the most wealthy.
“Pooling money has become more popular for people to become involved in philanthropy for the first time,” said Buffy Beaudoin-Schwartz, director of the Baltimore Giving Project, an organization dedicated to encouraging philanthropy. “You can really not only have a great impact with your money, but there’s a great way to learn more about the programs and issues.”
Combining resources means circles can make more substantial contributions to organizations than most individuals are able to do.
“Many of our donors could write a check, but I don’t think very many could write a check for $5,000,” said Bower.
The larger donations will allow grant-winning organizations to spend less time fund raising, according to Jeanne Singer, a member of the Women’s Giving Circle of Washington County.
“Hopefully our grants will fund projects and relieve stress . . . give nonprofits a little more flexibility,” she said.