Gathering Year Round: the Power of Collaborative Giving

The holiday season is a time of the year that brings families together: around dinner tables, lighted candles—for Hanukkah and Kwanzaa—Christmas trees, and fireplaces. It’s a time of year that inspires people to send out cards and well-wishes, exchange gifts with loved ones and strangers alike, and to reconnect with the spirit behind their philanthropic endeavors. Much of the holiday spirit is derived from a renewed sense of community among people as we celebrate and reflect on the year that is rapidly coming to a close. As we gather with families and friends to share in the holiday cheer, we are reminded of the power of many voices, talents, and imaginations united for a single purpose. In this issue of Family Giving News we explore how collaboration, this spirit of common purpose, is helping nonprofits and philanthropic families to strengthen our communities and the philanthropic sector itself all year round.

Whether your family is just getting its feet wet, philanthropically speaking, or has long been a fixture of the philanthropic landscape in your community, collaborating with other donors and nonprofits can be a great way to expand the boundaries of your giving. For new donors and their families collaboration can provide a forum in which they can: network with grantmakers already established in their chosen area of giving; learn about existing nonprofits in their geographic area or areas of topical interest; and become acclimated to the philanthropic climate in which they will operate. Experienced giving families can also benefit from collaboration, particularly those delving into new funding arenas, interested in connecting with new grantees, or looking for insight into the most-pressing needs of their communities.

There are many methods and means for collaboration available to giving families today, and the trend is on the rise, as more donors become more personally engaged in their giving. For example, Giving Together: A National Scan of Giving Circles and Shared Giving, a study recently published by New Ventures in Philanthropy, catalogued 220 giving circles in 39 states, and of the 77 that responded to their survey, 80% were founded after 2000. Giving circles, however, are just one of the many ways in which donors can collaborate to amplify their potential to effect change in their communities.

Options for Collaboration

Giving Circles

Giving circles have been getting a lot of press these days, and for good reason. As the definition of a philanthropist expands beyond the traditional images of Andrew Carnegie, the Rockefellers, and other philanthropic giants of the Golden Age, the number of Americans involved in organized giving has been steadily growing. Timothy MacIntosh, a Durham, North Carolina barber and member of the Next Generation of African-American Philanthropists giving circle, explains his realization of the power to make a difference this way: “The popular notion is ‘if I have $1 million dollars, I can give,’ but if you have $2 dollars, you can give. It all makes a difference to someone.” (Average Americans Become Philanthropists Through Giving Circles).

Giving circles, the realm where social gatherings and serious philanthropy intermingle, are at the forefront of the growing trend in collaborative giving by Americans at all economic levels. These groups often start out as small informal groups of people drawn together by a desire to effect change in their communities. Some are brought together by interest in a common cause, others by race, common profession, or common experience. The donors in these groups gather together to assess community needs, research local nonprofits, and eventually make gifts to the causes they have chosen. According to the New Ventures study, these groups not only allow donors to leverage their own contributions by pooling funds with others, but also provide opportunities for learning and building a unified philanthropic community.

Giving circles can be a particularly great place for new donors to get their bearings and begin their tradition of giving. Although there is generally a minimum donation required to join a giving circle, the amount of giving required by members varies widely, from annual contributions of $250 to $20,000 and up. Some groups encourage members to engage in volunteer activities in addition to, or in lieu of, monetary contributions. Some even engage in fundraising activities, either to recruit new members or to augment their own contributions. Giving circles vary widely in their structure and practices, and in this adaptability lies much of their strength; to fill in funding gaps in a community and to grow and evolve over time.

Giving circles have had their greatest success among women and in minority communities, which have traditionally been under-represented in mainstream philanthropy. Families living in these communities often have rich, long-established traditions of giving through churches and civil service organizations, but may have little exposure to strategic giving mechanisms. Mala Thao, organizer of the Hmong Women’s Giving Circle at the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota, notes that as members of the Hmong immigrant community began to prosper, they began to see opportunities to launch organized philanthropic efforts: “Everyone else had a foundation or scholarship, but where are we here? It felt like it was a really good time.” The fund, which encountered some cultural resistance at first in the patriarchal Hmong community, gave its first grants this year.

If you’re interested in joining a giving circle or perhaps gathering one of your own, here are some stories and resources to get you inspired and moving in the right direction:

  • Average Americans Become Philanthropists Through Giving Circles
  • Giving Circles Knowledge Center from the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers
  • Giving Together: A National Scan of Giving Circles and Shared Giving
  • Home Depot of Philanthropy: Giving Circles

Donor Collaboratives

Donor collaboratives, much like giving circles, are groups of donors united by a common interest and a desire to leverage their dollars to encourage societal change. Many regional associations of grantmakers and community foundations host or facilitate donor collaboratives around particular issues, areas of interest, or geographic focuses. By joining a collaborative small family foundations or individual donors, who may lack sufficient resources to tackle the problem they’ve got in their sights, are able better able to directly engage in a large-scale effort.

Los Angeles Urban Funders, a donor collaborative launched in 1996 in response to the civil unrest of 1992′s riots, was formed with the express purpose of gathering funders, legislators, corporate, and community leaders to rebuild and revitalize urban neighborhoods. Elwood Hopkins, executive director of LAUF, says that the destruction of the L.A. Riots was a galvanizing moment for the group: “They saw it as a call to action. Not a call to a specific action at first, but a reason to look at the root causes of urban poverty.”

The group spent its first few years deciding what sort of executive director it wanted at the helm of their new venture, and hiring consultants to help them forge a plan for comprehensive community building. This planning phase helped collaborators to be very deliberate and strategic about how their collaborative would be structured and who would be involved. At its inception, LAUF had eight or nine members, including large private foundations, corporate foundations, and a number of smaller family foundations. Over the years their numbers swelled to 21, before settling in at the current membership of 18. Says Hopkins of the group’s change in membership: “Our group meets frequently: once a month, which can be a big commitment for some funders, and has sometimes driven a few away. But this frequency is one of the greatest factors in our success. It creates a level of camaraderie, honesty, and frankness. At first everyone was extremely polite in their dealings with one another, but as they got to know each other, it changed.” He adds, chuckling: “It went from politeness to catharsis.”

Other factors in LAUF’s success include a balance of continuity and flexibility which has allowed the group to involve diverse partners in their collaboration. According to Hopkins, flexibility has made room for donors with different styles and strengths in their work, and to ensure that these strengths are put to the best possible use: “Although our structure is consistent, an amount of flexibility allows us to make sure that all the people at the table share a commitment to contributing to our work in real and meaningful ways.”

While everyone involved in the collaborative has benefited from their involvement, Hopkins feels that the smaller family foundations that have participated have really “taken the idea and run with it.” The LAUF is run on a bimodal funding model, which means that as a requirement of membership, collaborators contribute to a general pooled fund as well as to program-specific funds. The pooled fund covers the general operating costs of the collaborative, including administrative costs and hiring of experts and consultants. This allows a group of small family foundations who might not otherwise set aside or want to set aside funds for this purpose to take advantage of these services. “Certainly this is helpful for all of our collaborators, but for the small family foundations collaborating has brought outside consulting and strategic planning into the realm of the possible.”

Donor collaboratives can also be a useful tool for families with large and varied philanthropies. In the case of the Rockefeller Family, for example, a donor collaborative helped unify geographically dispersed family members with a common interest, who were already funding or interested in funding in the same areas. In 1991, under the guidance of the fourth generation of the Rockefeller family or “The Cousins” as they are known, The Philanthropic Collaborative (TPC) was created to encourage and guide collaboration between family members. TPC is a staffed public charity through which family members can create collaborative giving efforts and raise money among branches of the family without direct appeals or overt solicitation.

Under its current structure both family members and TPC staff can suggest funding areas around which family members might choose to collaborate, which helps a large and diverse family to find ways to pool their resources and energy. In Collaborative Grantmaking: Lessons Learned from the Rockefeller Family’s Experiences, collaborative sponsor Richard Rockefeller discusses how the TPC has changed the way the family gives. For years, many family members were doing funding through the Philanthropy Department, but we didn’t always know who else was funding in our area. . .TPC staff can say ‘we see some overlap’ and alert family members to others funding the same issue and suggest ways of working together.”

For more information on donor collaboratives, see:

  • Altogether Now: When Does a Donor Collaborative Make Sense
    Collaborating Multiplies Energy and Dollars
  • Collaborative Philanthropies: What Groups of Foundations Can Do That Individual Funders Cannot
  • Local Donor Collaboration: Lessons Learned From Baltimore and Beyond

Good Neighbor Committees and Staff Funds

A Good Neighbor Committee (GNC), a project launched by the Ford Foundation to encourage its employees to explore philanthropy outside the confines of their job descriptions, is an innovative way for large foundations to give back to their communities. The GNC was founded in 1996 and is composed of 12-16 Ford Foundation employees whose positions do not generally involve them in grantmaking. The Foundation sets aside funds for the committee’s use to support community improvement and social change in mid-town Manhattan. Members spend an average of two years on the committee, managing budgets, reviewing grantee applications, and giving grants to nonprofits operating in the immediate vicinity of the Foundation’s New York offices.

The benefits of the program are many. Obviously, the program benefits nonprofits in the neighborhood and the constituencies they serve, and fosters better understanding of the Ford Foundation’s work in the local community. For a large organization that serves nonprofits and communities worldwide, the GNC is a great opportunity to cultivate the good will and support of the Foundation’s neighbors, who might tend to see them as a large institution more concerned with global issues than with what is going on in their own back yard. Additionally, the Committee creates a sense of community and shared purpose among employees who might not often work together, and inspires a renewed commitment The Ford Foundation’s philanthropic mission. One committee member said of the experience: “For me personally, it was a great feeling of developing, of growing. It’s given me a sense of ownership of the foundation’s mission. I have a greater appreciation of what we do, and I feel like a bigger part of it.” (Building Community Inside and Out with a Good Neighbor Committee.)

Since 2001, members of the Staff Grantmaking Fund at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund have been reaping similar rewards by giving away $100,000 annually to worthy causes in the New York tri-state area. Like the GNC, the Staff Fund is usually made up of six to eight non-grantmaking staff to become personally involved in the philanthropic work of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. According to Jacky Basile, who oversaw its operations before two fund committee members began to manage it themselves this year: “The fund is truly a staff-run fund. They meet several times a year, research, make site visits, and write reports. It follows a similar format to our discretionary grant process. The Staff Fund Committee is invited to present at our year-end board meeting.”

The Staff Fund not only generates excitement and dedication among its committee members, but has also been popular with the Rockefeller Brothers Fund board. Basile attributes the program’s popularity and success to both the opportunities it presents for the staff and board to interact in new ways and to the “avenue it provides for us to build the work environment that we want.”

According to the New York Good Neighbor Committee page at the Ford Foundation web site, several other institutions or organizations have also begun good neighbor committees, including: Vassar College, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Alliance for Downtown New York. Obviously a good neighbor committee of this scale will not be feasible for most families who have few or no staff, but it is an interesting program to consider and perhaps adapt for those with family businesses with an interest in incorporating philanthropy into their work.

Board Composition, Adjunct Boards, and Advisory Committees

Remember that collaboration needn’t only involve pooling resources and working with other donors, funds, or foundations, but can also include inviting input directly from local community leaders and nonprofits. There are several options for incorporating community voices into your philanthropy. Some families—particularly those with large giving vehicles and long histories of giving in their communities—invite local leaders to serve on their board of directors because they can bring insight regarding the needs of the community into boardroom funding and policy debates. Other philanthropies, in which the board of directors is still primarily composed of family members and who may be hesitant to open include non-family representatives, may form adjunct boards or advisory committees to provide this sort of information for the family funding decision-makers.

Other Types of Collaboration

These are not the only options for collaboration in philanthropy. Collaboration among philanthropies is as varied as the philanthropists behind them—federations, cross-sector collaboration, and collaboration grants among others. For more information, see also:

  • Collaborative Governance: A Guide for Grantmakers
  • Getting Better Together: A Foundation Report on Collaboration Grants
  • Philanthropy’s Role in Fostering Partnerships: Collaborating with Unions, School Districts, and Communities
  • Philanthropies Working Together: Myths and Realities
  • The Case for Foundation Investments In Alternative Workplace Federations
  • Working Better Together: How Government, Business, and Nonprofit Organizations Can Achieve Public Purposes
  • Through Cross-Sector Collaboration, Alliances, and Partnerships

Before You Begin

While collaborating with other donors and nonprofits can be a boon for many donors and philanthropic families looking to establish or expand a giving agenda, be sure to consider what you hope to gain through your joint effort and whether those goals align with the aims of the larger group. If they’re not, you may find collaboration to be a frustrating and limiting experience, rather than inspiring and innovative. Go into the experience with your eyes wide open, realizing that with many contributors also come many opinions and ideas, and understand that the decision-making process may be substantially different from what you and your family are used to.


Special thanks to Elwood Hopkins, executive director of Los Angeles Urban Funders, and Ben Shute and Jacky Basile of the Rockefeller Brothers’ Fund for sharing their time, knowledge, and experiences.

Thanks also to Kevin Laskowski, research associate at the National Center, for his research support and valuable input.