Recently, I watched The New York Times’ Op-Doc “Great Expectations for Female Lawyers” After reading the documentarian’s introduction, I was quite nervous as to what I would see and hear. I shouldn’t have been, as, unfortunately, I knew exactly what to expect: as professional women, we still have miles to go before we rest. Female attorneys still have to make choices about career, family, balance; they are still not climbing the ladder at a pace with men; they are still a minority at the top of the pyramid. This holds for the nonprofit sector as well as throughout the for-profit world.
As an aging feminist, I have had more than ample opportunity over the decades to look at a situation and ask: have we made progress? Was it worth it? What have we really achieved? There are times when, I confess, I feel very discouraged. There are other times when I still have hope. One area of promise—and inspiration—is women’s giving circles. In the same month that The Times shared the Op-Doc, it also ran an article on the rise of women’s giving circles, a powerful way that women from across all strata of life give back, strengthen communities and nurture themselves and one another.
The concept of giving circles is not new. Nor is the concept of women banding together to work for change: suffragists of the 1860s and 1900s, feminist cells of the ‘60s, “villages” which raise children, and the list goes on. But the growing number of women’s giving circles is impressive, even just based on those that get counted: one giving circle support organization, Women’s Collective Giving Grantmakers Network, touts 38 giving circle members in 18 states (up from 20 circles in 2011), with a total of approximately 7000 individual members giving more than $9 million to nonprofits. Impact100, a group of women who each gives $1000 per year, began in Cincinnati in 2001. Today, there are Impact100 groups in 15 different locations in the United States and one in Australia! Once there are 100 members, an Impact100 will give out at least one grant of $100,000, and maybe more.
The 2009 study of the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, “The Impact of Giving Together,” which looked at current and former members of giving circles (regardless of gender composition) and a control group of donors who were not members of a giving circle, found a number of positive outcomes of being part of a giving circle. Each of them is one that all of us in the nonprofit sector should welcome. Compared to donors who are not members of a giving circle, those who are generally:
- give more money, on average;
- give to a wider array of organizations;
- give more strategically;
- become more engaged in their communities the more they are engaged in the giving circle; and
- are more knowledgeable about their communities, philanthropy and the other half of philanthropy—nonprofits.
Some women’s circles do give only to organizations that work with women and girls; some, though groups of women, give to wherever in their communities they wish. Regardless of where and how these circles give, they accomplish far more than just increasing philanthropy, and even more than creating better informed and engaged women. They nurture, mentor, provide role models, and perhaps fill the void and create the smart, female community that many women professionals don’t find in their workplace.