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Giving Goes Social: How Giving Circles Work

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Tragedies like Hurricane Sandy and the Newtown, Connecticut school shooting tend to pull at our heart strings and loosen our purse strings, prompting donations to the victims and local nonprofits. Of course, many organizations also perform vital work throughout the year (tragedy or not), so a growing number of people are joining forces with like-minded donors to support causes they care about on an ongoing basis through giving circles.

Giving circles put a charitable twist on the concept of investment clubs or book clubs. Members commit to give a certain amount of money each month or year and meet regularly to discuss what charities they’d like to support. In some cases, they might also enlist the help of local businesses.

Kimberly Button is the Orlando chapter leader of Dining for Women, a national giving circle with chapters around the country. In most chapters of Dining for Women, members gather at each other’s houses for a monthly potluck dinner, then donate the money they would have spent on dining out to organizations around the world that empower women. “We decided to meet at a restaurant instead,” says Button, who has organized monthly dinners for about three years. “We’re able to partner with a very philanthropic restaurant that donates a portion of proceeds to the program we’re supporting each month.”

In the case of Dining for Women, all chapters support the same cause each month, but other giving circles might choose the beneficiary as a group. Members of a giving circle might gather information individually and discuss it jointly to ensure that they’re supporting an organization that will use funds responsibly. “See what’s being said about the organization,” says Vera Alexander, a nonprofit specialist/coach based in Los Angeles. “They should have a list of organizations that are already contributing to the nonprofit somewhere on their website.”

Also check out the organization’s 990, which is the form nonprofits submit to the IRS and is available through GuideStar.org. “You can look at how they function over the year, how much money they were able to pull in,” explains Alexander. “It’s a snapshot of what their financial history is all about.”

Some people are drawn to giving circles for the sense of community and camaraderie, which can make them feel even better about their donation (sipping wine while discussing which charity to support certainly doesn’t hurt either). Button says that members of her giving circle have forged friendships with people they never would have met through other avenues and helped each other network for jobs.

But the biggest benefit, according to Button, has been cultivating a greater appreciation for what they already have. “You get this realization that even though the poorest of the poor in our country are really hurting, we have so many blessings that we take for granted that other people [in other parts of the world] don’t have,” she adds. “That’s why my group keeps coming back. It really is an uplifting experience even though you’re dealing with topics that might not be joyous.”

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