It’s a soaring rendition of a ubiquitous song. The simple repetition of the word is comforting, mesmerizing and uplifting. And as the voices of the eight vocalists merge while they gather around the piano and their vocal coach, it is easy to forget for a minute that this is not a troupe of professionals.
The students are part of Rock to the Future, a nonprofit after-school music program for underprivileged children who receive individual music lessons, learn to read sheet music, compose their own songs, play a range of instruments like drums, guitar and keyboards — and form their own rock bands. “We focus on contemporary music and instruments to get students engaged and motivated,” said Jessica Craft, 28, the program’s founder and executive director.
It received start-up financing of $15,000 in 2010 from Women for Social Innovation, a nonprofit philanthropic “giving circle” with a membership of around 20 women, providing seed money to social innovators seeking to help women, girls and families in the Greater Philadelphia area.
Such giving circles are on the rise. Members pool their money to make grants to local nonprofit groups, realizing that one hefty contribution can have an immediate influence in a community.
Rock to the Future, for example, has expanded to 35 after-school students from 13. It expects to work with 300 students this year via additional weekends, summer workshops and a pilot mobile unit, with an operating budget of $204,980.
“It’s a way that women are becoming more strategic in their generosity and making the biggest impact on groups and causes they care about,” said Debra J. Mesch, a director of the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at the Indiana University School of Philanthropy.
The precise number of women’s community giving circles can be a little tricky to parse. Typically, prominent women’s philanthropy groups receive the recognition, like Women Moving Millions, whose members individually make gifts of at least $1 million for the advancement of women and girls. Another group is Women’s Funding Network, whose members invest $65 million annually by connecting more than 160 organizations that fund women’s causes across the globe.
But for a sense of the grass-roots efforts that go beyond financing primarily women’s initiatives, consider the growth of the Women’s Collective Giving Grantmakers Network. In 2011, it had 20 members, including the Idaho Women’s Charitable Foundation in Boise and the San Diego Women’s Foundation. Today, there are 38 collective giving groups, representing 7,000 women in 18 states, including the Gainesville Women’s Giving Circle in Florida and the Spirit of St. Louis Women’s Fund in Missouri.
In 2012, the network’s members gave more than $8.9 million to nonprofits throughout the country. Circles choose the level of participation that suits their membership. “But the essence is that it’s guilt-free,” said Ana L. Oliveira, president of the New York Women’s Foundation.
You can be as involved as you want to be with no pressure. Some women just want to come to the annual meeting and vote for which groups are awarded the money. Others want to visit sites and see the organization in action, and still others sign on to volunteer directly with the groups that receive the grants. “Women love that,” Ms. Oliveira said.
In 25 years, her group has invested $33 million in over 280 community-based organizations, affecting the lives of 5.4 million women and children in New York City. “Women open their networks, bring their friends, and there is a major ownership in the cause that is funded.”
The amount of giving per member varies. Each giving circle selects a financial donation that is right for its members. Some circles set a lower giving level that can range from $200 to $500 annually. Others opt to set it higher, say, $5,000 to $25,000 a year. Most ask that each member give the same amount. Women for Social Innovation, for example, opted for a minimum annual giving threshold of $250 for women under 35 and $1,000 for those 35 and older, so that younger women, who may not have as many resources to contribute, could participate.
At Impact100 Philadelphia, more than 200 women, ages 30 to 80 (although most are in their 40s and 50s), donate $1,000 each and pool their contributions to make at least one grant of $100,000 annually to nonprofits they collectively choose from each year’s contributions.
“Our members want to make an impact and to see on a local level where their funding goes in our community,” Susan Dubow, the group’s co-president, said. “They want to see, touch, feel. This process allows them to.”
Since the group began five years ago, it has given a total of $940,000 and expects to top $1 million this year. Every member gets a vote. This year, it awarded two $104,500 grants and three $25,000 grants, out of an applicant pool of 150 local nonprofits.
And with a retention rate of 80 percent, the number of members is on track to reach 300 by July 2014, according to Jacquie Stern, the other co-president. New members are added by word of mouth. Current members hold coffees or cocktail hours with their friends and their friends’ friends.
The process yields another perk — a network that includes a diversity of professional women and stay-at-home mothers. “We’re building relationships with one another,” Ms. Stern added.
But philanthropic collaborations can be thorny, and philosophical disparities can arise. Determining the amount each member of a giving circle should donate, for instance, let alone picking a cause to help, can be a challenge.
What are women’s motivations for giving? “I think it is a real socialization process and it starts very young that women are the caregivers in their communities,” Dr. Mesch said.
A giving circle’s gift often goes beyond pure financial support. Ms. Craft of Rock to the Future and other winners of the Women for Social Innovation’s annual $15,000 Turning Point Prize, for example, receive mentorship. The money was “life-changing,” Ms. Craft said. “We would not have been able to do it without them, but what continues to give to us, and me personally, is that I meet with a few of the women regularly for help with marketing, financial and budgeting questions.”
The icing: Last year, when Ms. Craft, a onetime analyst for the investment firm Janney Montgomery Scott, was applying for what turned out to be a $216,950 gift from Delaware Investment and its parent company’s foundation, she worked closely with members of the women’s giving group to develop her winning presentation.
And therein lies the heart of these giving circles for women. “You are one grain of rice. You come together with other grains, and it becomes a bowl of rice, and that is how we feed,” Ms. Oliveira said.
By Kerry Hannon