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Reflections on the Giving Circle Field-Wide Co-Design Convening

Wednesday, April 10, 2019 1:18 PM | Nancy Clark (Administrator)

Seattle, April 1-4
By Paula Liang

After four days in Seattle, three at The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and one at the Seattle Foundation, I find that my primary feelings are wonderment and gratitude.  After being a part of this movement in a nearly full-time volunteer capacity since 2012, to have such influential philanthropists take notice, lift up the work, support it, and suggest to a room full of philanthropy tech platform folks  that lots more people should be both participating and supporting it is nothing short of amazing. And to the 82 people who came from around the country, to give us feedback on how we should structure that support, we are so grateful for your time, your stories and your generosity of spirit.

But to start at the beginning: On Monday and Tuesday, April 1 and 2, through the incredible generosity of the Gates and Seattle Foundations, we convened individuals from across the country and the movement, including many funders and other key opinion leaders to sketch out the Co-Design team’s (and 6 working groups’) thinking regarding the structure for an infrastructure organization (IO). The Team includes myself, Hali Lee, also a Catalist member and co-Director of Donors of Color Network, Liz Fisher and Felicia Herman of Amplifier, which supports Jewish Giving Circles, Marsha Morgan of Community Investment Network, a network of African American Giving Circles, and Masha Chernyak of Latino Community Foundation.

Catalist participants from L-R: Buffy Beaudoin-Schwartz of Women’s Giving Circle of Howard County, Laura Midgley of Washington Women’s Foundation (WaWF) & Catalist Board, Colleen Willoughby, Founder of WaWF & Catalist, Jenny Berg, Catalist Chair & Impact 100 Cincinnati, Paula Liang, Vice Chair & Women’s Giving Alliance, Jacksonville, FL, Virginia Mills, Catalist Board & Giving WoMN, MN, Susan Benford, The Philanthropy Connection, Boston, and Hali Lee, Asian Women’s Giving Circle, NYC, also a colleague on the Co-Design Team.

To an incredibly diverse group, across all ways of thinking about that—zip code, religion, race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, class—we started to roll out how we were thinking about what issues the IO would address, what its mission and vision would be, and how it would be structured.  And we got a LOT of feedback, all of it incredibly valuable--too much to have been distilled overnight. IO Version 2.0 is very much a work in progress, but a few key takeaways for me:

  • As powerful as it is to be “networked” in this work, some worried that we are too siloed, a problem we hope the IO will solve, or at least start to chip away at. Someone proposed a circle that combines Muslims and Jews. I feel like folks in that room will make it happen soon.
  • We thought part of our mission might be to “demystify” philanthropy. Turns out no one on the funding side is mystified by it—many are not made to feel welcome, perhaps, but they totally get it. As our own Susan Benford put it, she’s all about making philanthropy “less pale, male and stale.” There was a lot of social media from the gathering that included #IAmAPhilanthropist, which warmed Colleen’s heart for sure.
  • Democratizing and diversifying the field as part of the mission statement met with broad agreement
  • We have to make sure our values statement includes language around diversity, equity and inclusion to avoid inadvertently supporting a circle that funds hate. Who is not under the tent is as important as who is welcomed.

We didn’t solve everything, but we made a good deal of progress, heard some great stories and recorded some others on video. Laura Midgley told a powerful story about how her own approach to her personal philanthropy was changed by a grant process she participated in with WaWF.

As at any gathering of folks who practice collective giving, there was a good deal of hugging and crying; new alliances were formed, information was shared, I think Catalist may have picked up a few new affiliates. My favorite new friend from this gathering just might be Pastor Joseph Frierson of Greensboro, NC, who started the Young & Dangerous Giving Circle Fund at the Mount Zion Baptist Church’s Young Adult Ministry as a way to get his parishioners from ages 18-35 to become more civically engaged beyond the church walls.  He even had T-shirts that said “Young and Dangerous”.  I told him he should trademark it—he said he was working on it!  This is just one of many ideas we heard that could be radically and easily scaled—the group, not the T-shirts.

After saying goodbye to most of the group on Tuesday afternoon, about 15 of us, including the Co-Design team stayed on for Wednesday and Thursday to participate in the Gates Greater Giving Summit, which convened 170 people under their Giving by All Initiative.  Turns out, Giving Circles are one of their “Giving Channels of Focus”.   Seriously, who knew? 

These 36 hours were much more tech and data-driven, but we all met some interesting people and learned a lot.  The first guy I introduced myself to works for Paypal and lives in Portland, OR.  When I started to tell him about 99 Girlfriends, he stopped me and told me his wife is a member!  The conference was using a technology called Slido to let attendees react and ask questions, and we got #givingcircles trending as often as possible.  We spread ourselves out, talked to as many people as we could, soaked up whatever was offered, but we generally felt a lot less relevant in this environment. 

But at the end of the day on Thursday, a sort of miraculous thing happened.  In the closing panel, there were three people talking about their amazing philanthropic web platforms, including one in China, and a woman named Lucy Bernholz from the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society.  When it was Lucy’s turn to talk, she gave everybody a bit of a scolding about data privacy, which they pretty much expected, and then she exhorted them to stop talking about “the technology” and start talking about “the work”. When the moderator from the Gates Foundation asked if she could possibly end on a high note, she said “Sure, how about the Giving Circles and the fabulous work they are doing? We should all be focusing on that!” 

I introduced myself to her afterwards, and when I told her how many members are represented by Catalist affiliates, her jaw literally dropped.  We exchanged cards and promised to be in touch.  Something about a book she’s writing? More to follow. . .

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