Photo: Andrii Yalanskyi/shutterstock
Photo: Andrii Yalanskyi/shutterstock

Philanthropy Together launched in April 2020—arguably not the best time to get started as a nonprofit organization, let alone one focused on the less-than-sexy work of building infrastructure for smaller organizations. But thanks to three years of planning that came before its launch, Philanthropy Together seems poised to realize founding Executive Director Sara Lomelin’s primary goal: to radically increase the good that giving circles can do in the world.

In service of that goal, the organization has published an online directory that will make it easy for would-be giving circle members and small community nonprofits to search for existing giving circles that are aligned with their missions.

As its recently released yearly report demonstrates, Philanthropy Together has had an extremely productive first year. And with the new online directory up and running and next month’s We Give Summit in the works, this relatively small organization seems well on its way to achieving another one of its goals: assisting in the creation of 3,000 new, active giving circles, with 350,000 members, by 2025.

Philanthropy Together by the numbers

According to its annual report, Philanthropy Together prioritizes four strategies: “showcase,” “scale,” “strengthen” and “sustain.” Each of those strategies has tallied some impressive numbers despite the multiple crises of the past year.

Since its founding on April 1, 2020, Philanthropy Together has generated 5.3 million media impressions, including mentions in outside media and podcast interviews. It has also launched a website, WhatIsAGivingCircle.com, to showcase giving circles. “We want [giving circles] to be sort of a household name,” Lomelin told me.

The organization also scaled the movement by helping launch “hundreds” of new circles through its series of Launchpad trainings, as well as “pop-up” giving circles and consulting. Launchpad programs attracted more than 208 participants in 12 countries and 29 states, and pop-up circles served 368 individuals during 12 “experiences” that raised more than $75,000. Philanthropy Together strengthened existing circles with resources like racial equity training and a community for peer sharing. And it’s contributing to the sustainability of giving circles through six separate programs, including the upcoming four-week online Giving Summit.

These numbers are all the more impressive because of two much smaller numbers: At its inception in March 2020, Philanthropy Together had just two employees, including Lomelin. The rest of Lomelin’s team of eight came on board in September and October of last year. The organization, which reports support from funders including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Google.org and Fidelity Charitable, has a projected budget for 2021 of $1.4 million.

The first directory of its kind

Small grassroots groups in almost any field could potentially benefit from Philanthropy Together’s new giving circle directory, which the organization says is the first directory of its kind. The directory, which includes 2,000 circles and counting, was developed in partnership with Grapevine, a management platform for giving circles that was also launched last year. Lomelin said the directory includes research into U.S.-based circles conducted by the Collective Giving Research Group in 2016, and the more than 400 international giving circles that Dr. Jason Franklin has found in his own research.

The original 2016 data, Lomelin said, had spent the past six years living in a Google spreadsheet. “It was not accessible or pretty to access…not accessible, period,” she said.

By contrast, the new directory offers giving circle coordinators a way to create and update their individual listings, “add[ing] as much information as they want to it,” including all of the nonprofits they support and whether or not they’re seeking new members.

“This has the potential to also be an amazing database of small grassroots nonprofits and initiatives all over the country and all over the world,” Lomelin said.

The brainchild of over 100 people

The conversation that eventually led to the birth of Philanthropy Together took place in 2017 and was organized by Amplifier, a network of giving circles inspired by Jewish values.

“We always say that we are the brainchild of more than 100 people,” Lomelin said. At the time, the team “embarked on a co-design project” that ultimately became Philanthropy Together thanks to a seed grant from the Gates Foundation.

Despite the organization’s accomplishments, “fundraising has been tough,” Lomelin said. “Everybody loves infrastructure organizations, but nobody wants to fund it, it’s not sexy.” Philanthropy Together’s current budget comes from a combination of funder support and paid consulting gigs with other foundations, as well as corporations interested in giving employees an opportunity to create giving circles of their own.

“The giving circle model is great for employee engagement,” Lomelin said.

Giving circles rise to the COVID challenge

As Inside Philanthropy reported last year, many giving circles were able to adapt fairly quickly to the challenges imposed by the pandemic.

A year later, Lomelin points to a few good things that have come from the past year. The giving circles, she said, “didn’t skip a beat. Everybody was getting Zoom accounts. People who have never been on Zoom before were figuring out how to get on Zoom [and] how to keep meeting.”

The move to virtual meetings also allowed newcomers to join circles that weren’t in their geographic area. “My cousin that loves my giving circle but she lives in another city—now, she can join because we are on Zoom,” Lomelin said.

Perhaps the best thing that came from the pandemic, Lomelin said, was that giving circles that had been using more formal processes for making grants dropped those “hurdles” and started moving money very quickly.

“Everybody took their phone, called their nonprofit partners, and said ‘What do you need? How can we help you? Remember that request for proposal? Don’t worry about it. We’re giving general operating funds, don’t worry about it.’”

“If we all get together we can move the needle”

Philanthropy Together’s goals aren’t limited to increasing the overall number of giving circles. Rather, “our mission is to diversify and democratize philanthropy,” Lomelin said.

To that end, Philanthropy Together has started the Social Justice Giving Circle Project, a survey to learn how many existing circles are either currently involved with social justice and advocacy, or are interested in incorporating them into their work. The goal is to help circles that are—or want to be—involved in social justice and advocacy to get together, “share best practices, and get…closer to the activists themselves, and to the social justice movers and shakers in the country,” Lomelin said.

Philanthropy Together also partnered with PhT, Community Investment Network and CommunityBuild Ventures on a series of six sessions to teach giving circle members “how to embed racial equity into their culture, their grantmaking and their work with community,” according to the organization’s annual report. At the end of the six weeks, PhT provided 25 gifts of $1,000 to help participating giving circles continue to pursue racial equity.

Giving circles “may not have all the money in the world,” Lomelin said, “but if we all get together, we can move the needle” and ensure that small, BIPOC-led grassroots organizations are getting funded.

Lomelin would also like giving circles to inspire more democratization in philanthropy at large, particularly when it comes to giving by the rich.

“How can we align high-net-worth individuals and ultra-high-net-worth individuals with giving circles? How can they come together with giving circles with seed funding or matching funds?” Rather than parking their money in donor-advised funds—“Don’t get me started on the donor-advised funds,” she said—or giving to typical recipients like their alma maters, Lomelin would like to find a way to align wealthy people with giving circles to provide seed funding and matching funds.

“Why cannot a very wealthy individual come and say, ‘Hey, giving circle X, I appreciate and I respect the work that you’re doing [and] I am going to match your donation?’” Lomelin said. “That’s my dream.”

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