Houston, October 2019
by Stephanie Ellis-Smith and Laura Midgley
A few weeks ago my friend Stephanie Ellis-Smith, founder of Phila Engaged Giving, and I went to Houston for the Community Investment Network (CIN) conference, which celebrated its 15th anniversary by reflecting on its legacy of building up communities through investing their time, talent, treasure, and testimony (using our collective voice for change). CIN is national network of giving circles impacting communities of color. It connects and strengthens African-Americans and other donors of color by leveraging their collective resources to create the change THEY wish to see. The majority of their members are African-American from the Southeast.
Stephanie had some familiarity with giving circles in general, but was generally new to this organization. I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know CIN as a board member of Catalist.
I went to Houston with the specific mission to further Catalist's relationship with CIN. Five networks in collective giving -- The Latino Community Foundation, Amplifier (giving circles based on Jewish values), the Asian Women’s Giving Circle, Catalist, and CIN – have collaborated on a co-design project aimed at accelerating the size and impact of the giving circle sector on community transformation. (Read about the co-design work funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.) The missions of these five networks of collective giving groups are closely aligned, so rather than compete, we collaborate. We all use conferences to inspire affiliates to dig deeper into this work and to prepare the leaders to go home to their communities feeling elevated. Sometimes this work can be wonky but we came home from Houston reminded it must always be joyful!
Stephanie went to Houston strictly to listen, learn, and observe. Though we both are members of the Washington Women’s Foundation in Seattle, WA, Stephanie didn’t have much first-hand experience with giving circles, but has always been impressed with their personal engagement in their communities and the members’ commitment to learning and each other. Her work as a philanthropic advisor has been limited to high-net-worth individuals and families who are looking to become more strategic and dedicated in their charitable giving. Stephanie says “working with family groups is in some ways similar to a giving circle, but there is something uniquely special about a group of unrelated people voluntarily pooling their money to make investments in their local community.”
We anticipated meeting new colleagues and reconnecting with fellow philanthropists who give through collective giving grantmaking, pooling funds for community impact. But a genuinely worthwhile conference should do more than provide a few new tools and a pile of business cards. Our goals for traveling to Houston varied, but we both were delighted that our trip to Houston yielded an unexpected joyfulness that rejuvenated us.
What struck us the most was the level of joy and camaraderie we observed, not just within each giving circle, but among them as well. Participants gathered to share stories and best practices and to learn. Their dedication to the work and communing with a cohort of like-minded people produced a powerful aura of goodwill that was hard to ignore.
For me, the joy came from stepping back from the work and taking stock of why and how we show up for the communities to which we belong and care about in the first place. In the opening session, Linetta Gilbert, formerly of the Ford Foundation and a founding visionary of CIN, spoke meaningfully about how to blend institutional philanthropy with individual philanthropy. And of course, this is exactly what collective giving groups do – inform the individual through group experience and then elevate the impact through collective giving. Ms. Gilbert spoke about the value of a listening tour and the power of starting any foray into philanthropy by asking “Who is absent?” How can we as philanthropists elevate community by seeking out the voices of those left out of the traditional philanthropic power dynamic?
Ms. Gilbert and her co-presenter Darryll Lester, CIN’s founder, said of the partnership between funders and grantees: "Spend time with each other to get to know one another before doing business". Too often institutions begin the relationship with a transaction – the grant or the donation. Starting that way sets the tone for it to become forever framed and dominated by that transaction. At The Ford Foundation and now in her recent work, Ms. Gilbert invests in relationships first. Doing so allows us to understand the landscape behind the issue and to better allocate our resources and energy. It became clear to us that it is only from this level of engagement that we can begin to envision how all American communities can grow and thrive equitably.
For Stephanie, she found a deep sense of joy simply from the conference’s theme: “We are Philanthropists”. “It was empowering for me to be among African-Americans who proudly claim the mantle. While many debate whether the sector is hopelessly corrupt and ineffective, CIN’s giving circles harness all that is right with philanthropy and brings it into the Black community on their own terms.” Circles represented at the conference gave to individuals (from Black men and boys mentorship groups to struggling entrepreneurs or artists) and to traditional organizations. They also came to learn about innovative programs going on nationally that they could bring back to their circles to learn from or adapt for their own community.
The learning components tapped neatly into the spirit of the conference: community-based and Black-centered. Speakers who brought their expertise to CIN included land trust advocates from the South speaking about building land sovereignty for displaced black and indigenous people, representatives from Black community foundations talking about how and where to invest a circle’s funds, and community-owned grocery store investors on how to eliminate food deserts. We left inspired not just by the work, but by the communion of the network.
Collective giving embodies the best tenets of philanthropy. People pooling resources, sharing knowledge, and offering a hand up to those who need it brings out the best in all of us. Stephanie and I wish this blog could share the warmth of the hugs we received or the sounds of laughter we heard during those two days. Such a jolt of energy renewed my spirit and my commitment to helping people find joy in their giving through deep engagement and understanding.
Feel free to contact Stephanie or me about our work. We will explore more of these themes at the Catalist conference PowerUP! The Spark That Ignites Change in Seattle in February 23-25, 2020. As conference co-chair I am delighted we have so many talented speakers lined up, including Stephanie, who will be presenting on women of color philanthropists.