On The Plus Side

Earlier this month, Axios had a very interesting article about the shifting landscape of American philanthropy and the growth of what it called “collective giving.”

The fastest-growing form of philanthropy in America is collective giving — where individuals, usually women, pool their funds and their decision-making, Felix writes.

Why it matters: This kind of structured giving provides a glimpse of what a democratic, egalitarian philanthropy looks like.

The big picture: A detailed new report from Philanthropy Together, based on extensive interviews, focus groups, and surveys, finds that the philanthropy practiced by giving circles is very different from the top-down practices of foundations funded by billionaires.

  • The leaders and members of the groups are overwhelmingly women, and often women of color. 60% of groups are entirely women.
  • The charities they support tend to be small community organizations. The giving is overwhelmingly local.
  • Rather than concentrate on metrics like “bang for the buck,” the groups tend to be more concerned with racial equity and inclusion.
  • Donations are broadly unrestricted. In the jargon, it’s “trust-based philanthropy” that isn’t tied to outcomes or specific projects.

The article noted that these commitments tended to focus on change rather than charity–grants were dispensed in ways intended to foster the growth and strength of institutions perceived as likely to create stronger communities.

The growth of this particular type of philanthropic giving has been notable; as the article reported:

By the numbers: The number of giving circles, and the number of people who are part of one, tripled between 2007 and 2016 — and then tripled again between 2016 and 2023.

  • Today, there are roughly 4,000 such groups, with 370,000 members; between them, they gave away more than $3 billion over five years ending in 2023.
  • “The movement is now on a trajectory to double again in the next five years,” finds the 2024 report.
  • Most members donate less than $1,000 per year.

As the article also reported, participants reported improvements in their physical, mental, and spiritual health as a result of joining–a consequence attributed to the creation of community at a time when America society has been described as “atomizing.” People who became involved in these philanthropic endeavors also became more likely to extend that involvement to other local civic institutions.

We might take a number of lessons from this report.

Certainly, if we focus only on the differences between what we might call “rich donor” philanthropy and these more modest and localized efforts, the distinction between charity and change seems significant. Large foundations often stress that their grants are intended to build capacity rather than simply “prop up” a given program, but the extent to which that actually works is contested. It’s likely that the emphasis on local giving allows these giving circles to make more considered evaluations of the day-to-day impacts of the organizations they support–most of which are likely to be much smaller than organizations able to employ grant writers and apply for foundation support.

What really struck me, however, was the effect membership in these giving circles had on those who participated. As the article noted, participation built community–and the experience of community in today’s America has increasingly diminished. There are a number of reasons for that, ranging from the nation’s increasing urbanization (it can be harder to establish a circle of friends in a big city, especially if you’ve recently located there) and greatly diminished church-going (the most positive outcome of regular attendance at church, synagogue or mosque has always been the social support, rather than the spiritual experience).

America’s political polarization hasn’t helped.

It is also true that classical liberalism–the philosophy that undergirds our Constitution and Bill of Rights–requires a difficult balancing act between immersion in a community and individualism. The communitarian critique of liberal democracy asserts that America’s focus on individual rights and civil liberties has eroded the comfort people derive from being “embedded” in particular communities. In my view, communitarians fail to recognize the significant downsides of the degree of “embeddedness” they extol, but there is no denying that the nation’s emphasis on and championing of rugged individualism has eroded the comfort and support provided by membership in a community of like-minded folks. (The Greeks were onto something when they advocated for a “golden mean” between extremes.)

The growth of these giving circles may be one sign that the pendulum is swinging back from isolated individualism to participation in communal activities, and from a focus on national issues to the sorts of local problems that are more amenable to local efforts geared to change and improvement.

It’s one more reminder that all the news isn’t bad…and that change, while it can be destabilizing, is often positive.


  1. I had never heard of giving circles but realize I have participated in a very informal type of this a few times to address the needs of a specific person. I am intrigued by the idea of establishing an ongoing group. Thanks for the information.

  2. Ah, change! It can be managed, and is itself subject to change. Perhaps, as Sheila suggests, the pendulum is swinging, finally, from me to us, thus giving credence to an observation by a thinker I read many moons ago that “All is philosophy.” If he is right, the rest is noise.

  3. Trump’s secret is to keep constantly in the news. That’s the same thing that all political donations are for, to keep in the news. I don’t know how a President doing the job can afford that much time.

  4. Neoliberalism since the Reagan years certainly has yet to help communal giving. The subsequent bashing of unions was drastic, and the shift to rugged individualism was immediate. It continued whether there was an R or D administration.

    Neoliberalism also forced a considerable gap between the haves and have-nots. Discretionary incomes of the working class plummeted as a result.

    With wealth concentrated in the hands of a few due to the upward distribution of income and wealth, the billionaire philanthropy surged while communal groups struggled.

    Einstein told us in the 40s that we evolved into resenting our communal selves. Individuality was a societal pressure. It’s good to know “collective giving” is making a comeback in the US.

  5. Collective giving was probably the original motive for tithing in Christian congregations and still is in some. Of course the money was often diverted into wealth for the church itself and, when given, had the string of proselytizing attached. As religious affiliation has declined, so has the ability of churches to meet community needs. But the charitable impulse has never gone away. Generosity is one of the foundations of joy.

  6. Sounds like “money postering” – Rather than concentrate on metrics like “bang for the buck,” the groups tend to be more concerned with racial equity and inclusion.

    Also, little interest on real measurable impacts on the problem, only on what donations mean to me – MEism at its finest.

    Sad news to me…

    A good philanthropy model, when executed well, are community foundations.

  7. We are running a $2-3 trillion deficit in the national debt this year and the giving that the government is doing this week is giving $6.4 billion to Samsung, “a chip maker” that did $194 billion in sales last fiscsl year.
    Think of all the programs this could go to. All the homeless vets. This President is about big business…. He is worse tgan Nixon

  8. I have never had an opportunity to participate in a small group. I have participated in a local group, focused on liberty and justice, in Lee County. We tackled issues like the lack of affordable housing and childcare. We invited local government officials to come to answer questions and did what we could to encourage them to pledge support for whatever issues we voted would be the focus of our campaign that year. Each participant was asked to contribute $500. each year.

    It was an honor to participate and it was educational. I was able to connect with people from every area of the county, every age group, every religion, and every ethnic group.

  9. This country’s Meism, and “Ruggerd individualism” have co0me to bite it in the behind.
    “I am because we are” is a much better perspective, imho.

  10. I think a great deal of the tension between community and freedom is because most of the people who run communities have expectations of those who join beyond sharing time, talent, and treasurer, that include classism, anti diversity ideas and racism. We in the Danville Unitarian Universalist Church don’t feel that our church restrains our freedom in the least!

  11. I don’t know what the legal requirements are for “giving circles” but they might be less complicated legally than trying to form a traditional nonprofit. That might add to its popularity? A Nonprofit is more difficult than starting a business in my opinion so I can see why people might be looking for loopholes to do “generous and kind things” without all the red tape.

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