Black-led Giving Circles have inspired a movement and define what it means to democratize philanthropy
By Akira Barclay
The New York Times’ 1619 Project places the contributions of Black Americans at the center of the story we tell ourselves about the United States. Journalist and MacArthur genius Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote, “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true.” The same could be understood about the story we tell ourselves about philanthropy — spanning the personal practice to the institutional sector. For quite some time, the idea of democratizing philanthropy has been discussed as a want and a need in a field that struggles to be defined as anything other than a bastion of the Gilded Age. Democratizing philanthropy means embracing the idea that giving time, talent and treasure is not limited to the wealthiest and most powerful of society, but open to everyone. Every giver. I can think of no better example of the democratization of philanthropy than Black-led giving circles.
These giving circles, each a unique group of individuals who have chosen to pool their resources to make donations around a common cause, show up demonstrating diversity and modeling a shift of power in philanthropy that embraces the value of a community’s expertise and agency in discovering solutions to their own problems. For Black Philanthropy Month 2019, I am providing a snapshot of five Black-led giving circles to illustrate the importance of these groups and how they are democratizing philanthropy. These giving circles that vary greatly in size, structure, member demographics and focus area are our champions. They are the everyday givers who prove their love of what it means to be human in word and deed. Through their work, I hope you gain inspiration to expand and reorient your thinking about philanthropy:
Women In Power Empowering, Fort Worth, TX — Founded in 2016, Women in Power Empowering provides financial assistance to female headed households to overcome financial crisis. The giving circle also lends support to communities through mentoring and hosts networking and social events to encourage other women to join in their philanthropic efforts.
The Heritage Quilters Giving Circle, Warrenton, NC — Founded in 2001, Heritage Quilters focuses primarily on youth and education. Circle members welcome and introduce new teachers and school staff to active and knowledgeable community members steeped in Warren County history and culture. They also work annually with the schools and local 4-H youth, using quilts and quilting to teach math skills, team work, and American History. Through grants, the circle provides a scholarship to a college-going high school senior and provides two grants to local community organizations to support youth field trips. Uniquely, Heritage Quilters maintains a historic African American home in Warrenton as a space for the giving circle and other groups working on youth and education issues and concerns to convene. The circle participates in local festivals to heighten awareness of Warren County’s cultural assets, traditions and community history. Since 2008, Heritage Quilters has encouraged philanthropic giving at the grassroots level in partnership with the Community Investment Network, a national organization of giving circles of color.
The Sankofa Fund for Civic Engagement, Chattanooga, TN — Founded in 2015, The Sankofa Fund for Civic Engagement supports African American-led and focused projects in the areas of Strengthening Families, Community & Economic Development, Entrepreneurism, Art & Culture, Education and Youth Development. The Sankofa Fund has funded myriad programs and projects, from purchasing new band instruments for students at a local high school, to funding plumbing repairs at a local grassroots community center, to supporting the creation of a local lynching memorial. Members also contribute to special programs throughout the year, such as Black-focused get out the vote efforts and events designed to raise awareness of Black Philanthropy Month. To date members have given $125,000 in funding throughout the city of Chattanooga.
The African American Empowerment Fund of Delaware, Wilmington, DE — Founded in 1999, the African American Empowerment Fund of Delaware (AAEFD) believes that collective giving immeasurably strengthens and empowers African American communities across Delaware. Funding critical projects to meet needs such as the removal of barriers to quality education for the youngest Delawarean African Americans is indeed a reachable goal. The giving circle meets its community’s needs through grants, volunteerism and civic engagement with advocacy groups that wish to make sustainable changes through programming and legislative support. The last AAEFD funding cycle supported African American communities in the state via “TeenSharp” which helps curious, coachable and kind students succeed via summer enrichment programs, “Tennis Rocks” which targets vocational-technical high school students and helps them meet their GED requirements and “One Village Alliance” which researched suicide rates among teenagers, the systemic causes and plans to support elimination of such actions. The AAEFD grantmaking focus for 2019 is higher education access and retention.
I Be Black Girl Gives, Omaha, NE — Founded in 2018, I Be Black Girl Gives was established to empower Black women and girls to invest in the community in meaningful ways that create impact. Any social projects (does not have to be a 501c3) can apply for funding up to $7,500 as long as 75% of the recipients are Black women and girls and the program is Black women/girl-led. The giving circle’s inaugural grant cycle generated nearly $50,000 and funded six programs.
Placing Black-led giving circles at the center of how we understand the democratization of philanthropy can also provide greater clarity about why giving circles have grown to become such a significant philanthropic trend among donors of all backgrounds. Much of the narrative about the record growth in number of giving circles in the United States has been attributed to millennials and women; that giving circles are currently experiencing a surge in popularity among younger women in response to the threats to their freedoms posed by the current presidential administration. This narrative only tells part of the story. Certainly, since the 2016 elections some women feeling marginalized (many for the first time) looked for remedy in resistance, and formed giving circles. However for more than a decade prior, giving circles were forming and becoming more well-known in Black communities all over the United States because of their responsiveness, influence, impact on pressing issues, and hands-on role in working with grantees, lending technical assistance and building capacity. These characteristics, visibly missing from mainstream philanthropy institutions gave rise to giving circles, specifically Black-led circles as a defining vehicle to democratize giving. In fact, international community philanthropy leaders study Black-led giving circles in the U.S. as a model to effectively mobilize donors outside of the dominant power structure in their home countries to advance self sufficiency and liberation.
Historically, Black American’s contributions to philanthropy have been overlooked or examined only to be minimized or discredited as “not strategic” enough. As Black Philanthropy Month 2019 comes to a close, I implore you to reimagine the current giving circle movement through the context of Black-led giving circles defining what it truly means to democratize philanthropy. Black giving circles by design, being led by individuals of and for the communities they serve, put power over resources squarely in the hands of those who will listen, identify and respond to needs in their communities while acknowledging subtleties in the way issues impact African-Americans. The success of Black-led giving circles stands out as an effective way for other marginalized groups to make a difference, evidenced by the current surge in millennial, feminist and other identity-based giving circles and networks. Reimagining philanthropy as Black-led giving circles do is what leads to social change. This may be the truest test of democratized philanthropy.
Akira Barclay is author of The Value of Giving Circles in the Evolution of Community Philanthropy and Founder of Fresh Philanthropy.