Members of the more than 1,600 giving circles in the United States typically know each other personally, and in-person gatherings are a cornerstone of their work. Now, most of the collective giving movement is going entirely virtual to respond quickly to COVID-19.

“The magic of giving circles is human connection, meaning the personal, the social aspect,” Sara Lomelin says. She’s the new executive director of Philanthropy Together, a national initiative to scale and strengthen the giving circle movement. While moving online has been challenging, she says, “[Everybody] is responding to the challenge and creating this human connection, even if it’s across a screen.”

We spoke to giving circle members across the country about their evolving COVID-19 responses.

Are Giving Circles Well-Positioned for Crisis Response? 

Giving circle members, like most of us, are not able to carry on with business as usual these days, but are doing their best to adapt. “We are working from home on too many Zoom calls, home schooling our kids and self-isolating, like the rest of the country,” says Hali Lee, Asian Women Giving Circle (AWGC) founder.

Though this is a difficult time, the circles we connected with thought their groups were well-poised to respond to crises in their communities because of their deep local roots. Lee points out that the AWGC and its grantee community are one and the same. “We will be here for the long haul. That [is an] inherent strength because, crisis or not, we aren’t going anywhere.”

We hear a similar message from Masha Chernyak, vice president of programs and policy at the Latino Community Foundation (LCF) in California, home to the largest Latino giving circle network in the country. “Our members are part of the community; their parents are farm workers, their spouses are nurses, and their children have friends without internet… proximity to the pain sharpens your focus and moves you to action.”

Giving Circles During a Pandemic: Challenges and Strategies

Leaders at many giving circles say moving to online meetings was a challenge but a necessity. While some groups canceled spring meetings, it seems a majority pivoted to video, phone and email activities. The Chicago Foundation for Women (CFW) has six giving circles and councils, and they have each transitioned to online models, including virtual and phone site visits, according to CFW Philanthropic Education Officer Eli Marsh. CFW’s circles and councils created a Rapid Response Fund for COVID-19, with plans to move more than $10,000. Marsh says the grantmaking of many groups is directed to smaller organizations and those led by women of color—“some of the groups that have less access to traditional funding sources.”

Lee of AWGC says, “[The] loss of spring fundraiser income will most likely affect the size of our grantmaking pot this year. We are redoubling our efforts to raise money the old-fashioned way: with calls, [letters and more].” All AWGC members live in the pandemic epicenter, New York City, and it’s prioritizing grants for COVID-responding projects in the city’s Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities.

Mindy Freedman, founder of the SAM Initiative, a circle in Los Angeles, says she is concerned about member turnout online and the organization’s survival, among other things. “As a community, how do we maintain that energy and sense of connectedness in the virtual space?” she asks. Despite these worries, Freedman says, “Our funding group is nimble, and we will support new and emerging solutions that are responsive to the needs of the future.” SAM has expedited funding, extended deadlines and made grants more flexible.

The Third Wave Fund runs a Sex Worker Giving Circle (SWGC) and fellowship. SWGC Funding Officer Maryse Mitchell-Brody says Third Wave felt its circle’s in-person, six-week fellowship covered “too much ground” to successfully go online, so instead, it gave small stipends to all new applicants and invited past fellows to return to help move money to grantees in need. Mitchell-Brody says sex workers are hard hit by the pandemic, and that many of the circle’s grantees required more rapid-response funding and increased capacity-building support. “We were deeply saddened by the passing of Lorena Borjas, executive director of Colectivo Intercultural TRANSgrediendo, an SWGC grantee, from COVID-19,” they say. The SWGC will be announcing new virtual events in June.

Native American communities are also greatly impacted by COVID-19, and some are now benefiting from a virtual giving circle on the Grapevine platform. Edgar Villanueva runs the Liberated Capital circle through the Decolonizing Wealth Project, and he created a rapid-response fund to provide Native Americans emergency support. He says initial funding focused on the 78% of Native Americans who reside off reservations, “in urban centers, where the pandemic was having higher rates of infection.” As the pandemic has come to hit tribal communities harder, “particularly in Navajo and the Pueblos, we are expanding our focus to these hotspots,” he says. The fund has raised more than $560,000.

Another big challenge for giving circle members and other donors at this time is their personal economic uncertainty. So in some cases, circles have directed a portion of their efforts toward their own members’ needs. The Community Investment Network (CIN) is a national network of circles focusing on communities of color, which are among the hardest hit by the pandemic. Many of its members are entrepreneurs who have been impacted by COVID, and CIN is running a campaign to provide financial resources for small businesses.

Money Matters, But so Does Love

Giving circles are known to catalyze members into greater civic engagement, and many circle participants are now giving back in non-financial ways. For example, CIN is backing member-led community service initiatives, including providing transportation for essential workers and distributing hygiene products.

Along with grantmaking among its four chapters, Inspired Women Paying it Forward in Pennsylvania teamed up with the Batch Foundation to address local hunger with food donations. “[In] less than one week… we were able to donate two-week-supply boxes of food for 29 families in need. Our plan is to do this every two weeks for the next couple months,” founder Debra Dion Krischke says.

Chernyak of LCF says 10 of LCF’s 23 circles moved funds to the foundation’s Love Not Fear Fund, which has raised more than $900,000, and others are supporting local partners. Circle members, she says, “know that money matters, but so does love.” They are delivering food to vulnerable elders, organizing caravans in the Central Coast to honor farm workers, running Zoom dance party fundraisers, and “calling grantees to show love and respect.”

Paula Liang, board chair of Philanos, formerly the Women’s Collective Giving Grantmakers Network, also highlights non-monetary circle strategies like connecting grantees with new funders, and helping nonprofits get volunteers or material donations as needed. “Do they need a board member? Our affiliates and Philanos can push those messages out to thousands of smart, connected women.” Liang also says the co-presidents of Impact 100 Sonoma are now on their mayor’s COVID-response taskforce.

Several circle members told us virtual connections, as well as being practical for philanthropic purposes, were also personally helpful and uplifting during this stressful period. “[At] a time when people are feeling isolated, there is no better way to get together virtually, to give together and do good,” says Adina Poupko, associate director of Natan, a New York circle that focuses on Jewish philanthropy. Natan is now expediting grants, giving general operating support, offering new learning opportunities for grantees, and more.

Online gatherings can allow giving circle members to check in on each other and connect in creative ways. CFW’s giving council and circle members are using web-based “living room sessions” to support one another, address physical and mental health needs, and sustain community. Marsh says activities have included virtual yoga and a discussion about Madam C.J. Walker, along with grant writing and project-management sessions.

Philanthropy Together, which launched and hired Lomelin as ED just as the pandemic began to worsen, has similarly risen to this challenge in a variety of ways. These efforts include offering support for people who want to start new circles, writing about individual circles’ responses, and hosting online gatherings for circle leaders. It created its #GivingTuesdayNow toolkit to help anyone start a pop-up giving circle, and also teamed up with Grapevine to help existing circles create showcase fund pages on the platform. And through June 1, anyone who wants to learn how to start an ongoing giving circle can sign up for Launchpad, Philanthropy Together’s new virtual, interactive leadership training. It will also offer training geared to institutions in a few months.

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