A Democratic Model for Philanthropy

By Mohit Mookim

Mohit is a rising senior at Stanford studying philosophy, public policy, and mathematics. Passionate about philanthropy, politics, and social change, he is currently a Summer Analyst at the Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen Foundation and works on Giving Circles Fund.

The Giving Circles Fund Logo

As people across the country have searched for ways to channel their political energy, many have targeted their philanthropic efforts to meet their political goals. In this capacity, the world of the political and the world of the philanthropic converge, especially as new ways to give become increasingly popular and accessible.

In the public imagination, philanthropy is perceived as largely inaccessible and purely as the exchange of financial capital. Part of the reason I work on Giving Circles Fund (GCF) is that GCF strives to undermine this notion. With a $10 monthly minimum donation to the circle you join, Giving Circles Fund aims to open up the gates of philanthropy to many more people, and to offer them a collaborative experience.

There’s a big difference between joining a giving circle and donating to nonprofits individually, on your own timeline. First, the structure of a giving circle establishes a personal commitment to donate every month, holding you accountable to give as much as you can feasibly contribute. Second, there are notable advantages that come with social and collaborative giving: donating more strategically, learning more about philanthropy and scaling your individual contribution. Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen has talked about this (and other features of collaborative giving) for years.

By helping individuals organize into more powerful philanthropic entities, there’s a lot we accomplish together. I argue that the GCF platform has the potential to fundamentally improve our democracy.

Today, individual donors practicing more traditional styles of philanthropy is part of the status quo — their efforts are behind countless social initiatives in the modern era. Of course, the individual generosity of such people plays a critical role in society. GCF believes that more people should be brought into that philanthropic loop, and be able to pursue the social change they envision. This model brings a great deal to the table — most obviously, it addresses the concerns with traditional philanthropy advanced by modern philosophers like Stanford’s Rob Reich. Critically, the collaborative and grassroots nature of the giving circles model aspires at its core to be democratic: Not only is the goal to inspire everybody to see themselves as philanthropists, but also that decisions aren’t made by individuals acting unilaterally. On our platform, members of giving circles collectively nominate and vote on where to donate their money, while being encouraged to be thoughtful and transparent about how they’re thinking about their philanthropy. The model of democratic philanthropy is built into the DNA of the platform.

Making philanthropy more democratic isn’t only better in the abstract. The act of lifting up voices of those traditionally underrepresented in philanthropy can have substantial effects on outcomes. For example, if minorities, women and millennials are traditionally left out of philanthropy, then the issues affecting these groups may very well go unmet by traditional philanthropists. Moreover, the way that underrepresented groups think about these issues will differ from the way traditional philanthropists think about them, creating a more informed philanthropic sector. Further, giving circles can bring philanthropy to a deeply personal and local level; formative research by Angela Eikenberry suggests that giving circles often prioritize small and local nonprofits. The giving circles model helps to fill in the gaps of traditional philanthropy and bring attention to small nonprofits — all while building the practice of a new generation of philanthropists.

In the past few months since the election, we’ve seen the number of people using the platform more than double. Mostly, the circles they’ve started and joined reflect frustration at today’s political reality. Two new, robust circles with social agendas powered by current events are Woolf PAC and November 9th Project. Circles like these demonstrate the power individuals can have when they come together for a shared purpose. This model celebrates the sort of pluralism noted famously by Alexis de Tocqueville — a confluence of (perhaps opposing) voices organizing and expressing themselves is an essential component to democracy in America. I am excited that individuals are leveraging our platform to both improve our democracy and make their philanthropic work meaningful to them and the communities they seek to serve.