Ellen Barclay, President, Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers

Ellen Barclay, President, Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers

This past May, the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers released research from its New Ventures in Philanthropy initiative on how giving circles are becoming a philanthropic force. The report, More Giving Together, described a democratization of giving in the United States, with the number of giving circles doubling from 2004-06. Today, there are at least 400 giving circles and 12,000 giving circle members in the U.S donating time, expertise, and sums ranging from a few dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. Ellen Barclay is the forum's president.

Philanthropy News Digest: New Ventures' first phase was characterized by making grants to regional associations of grantmakers and coalitions of nonprofits to promote philanthropy in communities where philanthropic resources were limited. Is the forum still making grants?

Ellen Barclay: Although we are not re-granting now, our first phase included the sharing of knowledge through conferences and publications that led us to our current work. In its first five-year phase, New Ventures invested $14 million — and leveraged an additional $7 million in local funds — in forty-one community-based coalitions. Recently, we learned through an evaluation that an impressive 90 percent of grantee organizations continue to grow and promote philanthropy in their communities.

During the first five years, we learned a tremendous amount about growing philanthropy in communities. Our goal now is to share knowledge, tools, and materials with regional associations, community foundations, and others. To that end, we've developed extensive resources in three online "knowledge centers": one on Racial, Ethnic & Tribal Philanthropy, a Giving Circle Knowledge Center, and another on growing Rural Philanthropy. Our priority is to get resources into the hands of regional associations, community foundations, identity-based funds, giving circles, and financial advisors. Our most recent research, More Giving Together (40 pages, PDF), examines the growth of giving circles around the country. We wanted to know more about them. Who is starting them? Where does the money go? What effect do they have on the philanthropic landscape?

Regional associations, community foundations, and other nonprofit organizations are leading the effort to host giving circles. At the beginning of 2008 we will release a report that examines the host-giving circle relationship. An accompanying toolkit will provide guidelines and tools for host organizations. A subsequent report will examine the impact of giving circles on donors themselves and how participation has affected them as individuals and donors.

PND: Has the audience for your work changed since New Ventures was launched?

EB: From the beginning, New Ventures' objective has been to put knowledge and resources about growing philanthropy into the hands of the people who need it. Our audience has always included regional associations, community foundations, identity-based funds, giving circles, community and organizational leaders, wealth advisors, and other philanthropic networks.

Our audience reflects our focus areas: engaging racial, ethnic, and tribal communities in philanthropy; growing giving circles; developing assets in rural communities; and engaging professional advisors. The resources and information we provide strengthen regional associations and community foundations as philanthropic leaders in their communities.

PND: Where have you had your biggest successes? And how did you measure them?

EB: We think it was remarkable that our funders' initial investment of $14 million helped to generate at least $570 million in endowed funds. And as I mentioned, 90 percent of coalition members are still actively promoting philanthropy after their grants ended, which speaks to the power of our collective efforts to grow philanthropy. Regional associations and the others led the way in creating more resources and showing the field what could be accomplished. We are very proud of those efforts.

One of our other big successes has been our effort to research and promote giving circles. We know that many giving circles are started after someone hears a story, or reads an article, or talks with someone who belongs to a circle. The forum has actively sought to promote awareness of giving circles through different media, with stories appearing in major publications, on television, and on radio. Between 2004 and 2006, the number of giving circles we know about doubled to over four hundred. We also determined that giving circles have raised at least $100 million since their inception, and that's only counting the one hundred and sixty circles that took part in the survey. Of course, we do not take credit for all these new circles, but we believe we have helped in promoting their growth. And we hope to see them continue as a major philanthropic trend and will continue to research their impact on giving.

PND: What are the best ways to reach younger philanthropists?

EB: Regardless of whether potential philanthropists are young, old, or somewhere in between, the challenge is to make philanthropy relevant to their lives. We have found that giving circles involve young donors in significant ways. Young people find the social and networking opportunities of giving circles particularly appealing and rewarding. Giving circles also offer their members a way to learn more about their community. Young members may feel like they do not have a lot of financial resources, but giving circles allow them to pool their resources, make a larger donation than they could individually, and have a bigger impact.

PND: Do you think the emergence of new philanthropic vehicles will change the way nonprofits fundraise?

EB: As new giving vehicles develop, fundraisers will need to understand how to work with them, just as they did a decade ago when online giving emerged. We see giving circles, rural funds, and identity-based funds as welcome additions to the philanthropic world. At the same time, none of these vehicles take anything away from current practices. In fact, we know they are generating resources in places and for communities that could greatly benefit from new donors and additional philanthropic resources. So nonprofits should embrace them.

Emily Robbins