Why a prospect researcher should care about women’s giving circles

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Pooling individual donations. Learning about different causes. Networking with others who also care about the community. Deciding together where and how funds are granted. Reveling in collective philanthropic pursuit. It describes the heart of a typical giving circle.

Giving circles (GCs) are changing the face of community philanthropy, according to a research study called The State of Giving Circles Today, generated by the Collective Giving Research Group, last fall.

(Read it here.)

GCs are dominated by women, who are particularly attracted to collaborative decision (grant)making, and they’re growing across the USA at a rapid speed. GCs have tripled in number since 2007 to more than 1,000, according to the study. About $1.3 billion has been granted through these GCs, making them a credible force in modern philanthropy.

The resourceful prospect researcher in me can’t ignore this trend. In fact, I see incredible opportunity here when it comes to better understanding who these GC members are, from a demographic perspective, and how I can help connect them to my cause. (Prioritizing women donor prospects is a professional and personal mission.)

The skeptical prospect researcher in you may conclude, “This isn’t my organization’s giving vehicle, so, these aren’t our people.” It could be especially so if you work in an institutional major giving environment, like faculty-based fundraising at a university or in grateful patient-based fundraising at a hospital foundation. How could a WGC member possibly contribute to your charitable efforts? Well, here are four reasons why even you should care about her:

The donor pool is shrinking

In Canada, charities are relying on an ever-smaller proportion of the population for donations, according to a recent report called Thirty Years of Giving in Canada. Total donations have continued to rise only because those who give are giving more. And those are who are giving more? This shrinking segment is aging.

(The executive summary here is worth reading for all North Americans.)

As a philanthropy professional focused on the long-term future, it’s clear we need to discover and speak to a wider range of Canadians, including more women, young people and recent immigrants, to sustain fundraising efforts. Building their trust in our organizations, through professional fundraising and communication, takes time.

Enter GC members. As mentioned, the number of GCs around the world is growing, particularly in the USA. About half of all GCs that are active today started in 2010 or later. The Collective Giving Research Group counted at least one in each American state. But not only are they growing in numbers, GCs tend to engage a diverse range of donors. More than half of the membership are women, of 70 per cent of all GCs reported. A rise in LGBTQ GCs, as well as those focused on different cultural and ethnic groups, mean GCs better represent the diversity of the broader population.

It’s time to start including GC members in a prospect researcher’s pipeline of new donor leads. We need to reach out to new communities of donors or we may find ourselves in a crisis of few giving prospects, twenty (or even ten) years from now. I don’t know about you, but I’ll still be part of the non-profit workforce then and still pursuing new donor leads.

GC members are already close to you, but you probably don’t know them (yet)

They already grant in your community. In fact, 84 per cent of GCs made grants in their local geographic area, according to the study.

They may not look like your usual suspects of high net worth businessmen who reside in major urban areas. You likely won’t read about GC members in the business section of your city’s newspaper.

Still, they’re in your ‘hood. They’re contactable and engageable, which I consider a strong factor in pursuing new leads that my fundraising peers can successfully “touch.” GC members just need to be discovered by you and me.

GC members are deeply philanthropic

Another strong factor in identifying a high-quality prospect is her level of philanthropic interest and intent. For me, her caring about philanthropy supersedes her financial capacity. Moving beyond the capacity equation is a positive trend I’ve noticed among many prospect researchers at past Apra conferences and on social networks. This is also reflected in recent revisions to Apra’s Body of Knowledge prospect research domain, where we consciously prioritized learning about philanthropic interests and networks ahead of financial capacity evaluation.

(Find the revised BOK here by logging in if you’re an Apra member.)

So what if she has money? Is she motivated to give back? To your charity?

It turns out that GC members are indeed more motivated than most to give back, even beyond their respective circles. They are more generous than non-GC members (in income brackets up to $100,000 annually) and a significant 88 percent are also active volunteers as well as donors. (Are you perennially searching for advisory or board prospects?) Most GC members also tend to use other giving vehicles like online giving and donor advised funds.

In my capacity as a prospect researcher, I’m looking for her giving interest and intent first; and determining her financial capacity second. The fact she may already belong to a local GC increases her overall giving and governance potential. And stressing her attachment to philanthropy is increasingly key given that many Canadian donors are more critical of charities and non-profits.

An affordable method for doing your own effective philanthropy

Most of my colleagues give back. I’m guessing you already do as well, especially your time and talent to worthy charities of choice, but I wonder whether GCs have crossed your path? Prospect researchers already hold highly-developed knowledge of the philanthropic sector, so perhaps we can find our way toward each other and practice good giving in a more circular way?

The GC concept feels like a good gateway for bringing together like-minded individuals to talk about and educate one another about causes they care about, high net worth or otherwise. You don’t need a lot of money to contribute. Pooling gifts will inevitably increase collective impact especially over time.

Live philanthropy daily! Give back what you can of your time, talent and treasure no matter how small or large. Finding a giving circle of your peers where you reside may be a good place to start or elevate your own philanthropic journey.

Full disclosure: I’ve recently joined an advisory committee that is advocating for growing giving circles beyond the USA, called Women’s Giving Circles International. As the sole prospect development professional, I’m trying to apply knowledge gained here to my own philanthropic plan. If you’re already involved in one or interested in starting a giving circle of some kind, please contact me.




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