Bringing Knowledge Full Circle: Giving Circles Shape Accessible and Meaningful Philanthropy
Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen is a Lecturer in Business Strategy at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, Founder and President of the Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen Foundation, Founder and Board Chairman of Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society and Founder and Chairman Emeritus of the Silicon Valley Social Venture Fund. This post is part of the Glasspockets’ #OpenForGood series done in partnership with the Fund for Shared Insight. The series explores new tools, promising practices, and inspiring examples showing how some foundations are opening up the knowledge that they are learning for the benefit of the larger philanthropic sector. Contribute your comments on each post and share the series using #OpenForGood. View more posts in the series.
After initial conversations with her friends and neighbors, she discovered that they shared her desire to give locally and, like herself, lacked the financial ability to make the large contributions that they associated with high-impact philanthropy. After initial online research, Nathalie learned that a giving circle is a collaborative form of giving that allows individuals to pool their resources, knowledge and ideas to develop their philanthropic strategy and scale their impact. Nathalie then discovered the Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen Foundation’s (LAAF.org) Giving Circles Fund (GCF) initiative, an innovative online platform that provides an accessible and empowering experience for a diverse group of philanthropists to practice, grow and scale their philanthropy by giving collaboratively.
“Philanthropists have an imperative to share the research and rationale behind their philanthropic decisions for the greater good.”
With LAAF support, Nathalie was inspired to create the Cinco Ranch Giving Circle to pool her community members’ resources for the greater good. In its first year, this circle of over 30 families has come together to invest thousands of dollars in local nonprofits — all through donations as modest as $10 per month. Every member found that sharing time, values, wisdom and dollars not only deepened their relationships with one another but also that the measurable impact they could have together far exceeded that which they could achieve alone. This experience empowered Nathalie and her fellow giving circle participants to see themselves as philanthropists and develop their practice in a collaborative environment.
Nathalie’s story is just one of myriad ways that the giving circles model has made strategic philanthropy more accessible. Two years ago, I wrote a post on this same blog about how funders should have not only glass pockets but also “glass skulls,” underscoring that philanthropists have an imperative to share the research and rationale behind their philanthropic decisions for the greater good of all who are connected to the issue. Or put another way, giving circles can help donors of all sizes become #OpenForGood. GCF allows philanthropists, like Nathalie, to do just that — by empowering givers at any level to make their thinking and decisions about social impact more open and collaborative.
A lack of financial, intellectual and evaluation resources are barriers to entry for many people who want to give in a way that matters more. That’s why I’ve committed the past two decades to not only redefining philanthropy — I believe that anyone, regardless of age, background or experience, can be a strategic philanthropist — but also to providing highest quality, free educational resources (MOOCs, teaching materials, case studies, giving guides) to empower anyone to make the most of whatever it is they have to give. Although most GCF individual monthly contributions are in the double digits, the impact of our giving circles is increasingly significant — our circles have given over $550,000 in general operating support grants to nonprofits nationally. By design, giving circles amplify individual giving by providing built-in mechanisms for more strategic philanthropy, including increasing
- Transparency: Giving circles are effective because they are radically transparent about their operations, selection processes, meeting etiquette, voting rules, etc. We have found that giving circles grow and flourish when members understand exactly how the circle works and their role in its success. In addition, all of our circles publish their grants on their GCF pages, so that current and prospective members have insight into each circle’s history, portfolio and impact.
- Democracy: GCF giving circles have a flat structure, in which everyone has an equal vote — regardless of their respective donations’ size. With LAAF support and a comprehensive portfolio of resources, group leaders facilitate meetings — ranging from casual meetups to knowledge sharing and issue ecosystem mapping gatherings to nonprofit nomination and voting sessions. Even in multigenerational giving circles where members are able to give at different levels, all of their members’ voices, perspectives and opinions hold equal weight.
- Accessibility: Giving circles require a lower level of financial capital than other philanthropic models. A 2014 study has shown a higher rate of participation in giving circles for Millennials, women and communities of color — reflecting the spectacular pluralism that makes philanthropy beautiful.  On our GCF platform, we host multiple college and high school circles that have started teaching their members to carve out philanthropic dollars even on a minimal budget. Additionally, most of our circles are open to the public, and anyone can join and actively participate (yes, that includes you!).
- Risk-tolerance: With more diverse participants and lower amounts of capital, GCF giving circles are more likely to give to community-based or smaller organizations that typically struggle to secure capital from more established philanthropies, thus meeting a critical social capital market need.
The power of collectively-pooling ideas, experiences and resources, as well as sharing decision-making, inspired me to found Silicon Valley Social Venture Fund (SV2) in 1998. What began as a small, local giving circle has grown into the second largest venture philanthropy partnership in the world. More importantly, its experiential education model — grounded in the principles listed above — has influenced the philanthropic practice of hundreds of now highly strategic philanthropists who respectively have invested hundreds of millions of dollars globally. To this day, being a partner-member of the SV2 giving circle continues to inform how I give and evolve my own philanthropic impact. Now, powered by the GCF platform, technology gives all of us the ability to scale our own giving by partnering with like-minded givers locally, nationally and globally so we can all move toward an #OpenForGood ideal. The mobilization of givers of all levels harnesses the power of the collective and demonstrates that the sum of even the smallest contributions can lead to deeply meaningful social change.