Jo Schaalman “fell out of touch” with her Jewish identity when she left her hometown of Milwaukee for Boulder, Colo.
“My grandfather was a Reform rabbi, so I always had strong family connections. But I never found a synagogue where I fit in,” she said.
But when Schaalman, a business professional and nutrition expert who is now 35, became a member of Roots and Branches, a Jewish giving circle, in 2007, that all changed.
“I was given another chance at a Jewish community,” she said, noting that she later met her fiancé through friends she’d met in the giving circle.
Through the circle, run by the Rose Community Foundation, 18 participants — selected through an application process — receive a yearlong intensive training in Jewish giving, and collectively decide how to allocate $60,000 of RCF's money. On top of the $60,000, the foundation also matches any donations participants opt to make.
Jewish giving circles — intimate, interactive forums for philanthropic giving — vary widely in size and scope. Some, like Roots and Branches, rotate membership and do not require participants to use their own money; others, like the Natan Fund, known as Wall Street’s Jewish giving circle, pool contributions of the participants.
A recent study on the impact of giving circles nationwide conducted by the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers indicated that giving circles have boomed in the last decade, becoming a philanthropic force all their own. Jewish giving circles have been part of this trend.
“Both my husband and I felt very strongly about giving Jewishly. If we don’t support our community, who will?” said Amy Zises, grant-committee member at the Natan Fund, which gives away approximately $1 million annually. “Natan has provided me and my family (her children attend family-focused events hosted by Natan) with an innovative way to connect to our Judaism.”
While it’s “not a synagogue,” the experience nonetheless leaves Zises and her family feeling “connected and inspired.” Natan’s 60-80 membership units (married couples count as one membership) each donate between $3,600 and $18,000 annually.
Community is not merely an unanticipated perk of the giving-circle experience. “Many members join in search of the Jewish community experience they’ve felt lacking from their adult lives,” said Sarah Indyk, program director of Roots and Branches. “The strong connection created by exchanging values and giving as a group is unique. People are looking for that.”
Will Schneider, director of the Slingshot Fund, said that giving circles “exist to engage the next generation of funders in Jewish life.” The New York-based Slingshot, best known for the guide it publishes each year highlighting innovative Jewish organizations, was founded in 2003 by young Jews preparing to become involved in their family foundations.
“It’s about creating a peer community,” Schneider added. “At the end of the day, a giving circle is as [valuable] to its members as to its grantees.” With 20 to 30 members annually, Slingshot requires an annual minimum of $7,500 from members.
Giving circles build community. But how much money do they raise?
“No giving circle approaches the scale of a federation or United Way,” said Richard Marker, co-principal of Wise Philanthropy, a consultant to philanthropists. “The large umbrella charities play an important role of sustaining institutions and correcting for periodic fads.”
But, while not “replacing other sorts of giving,” giving circles are the “new reality,” said Marker. For the past 20 years, the trend in philanthropy has shifted away from giving via intermediaries and towards smaller, direct forms of giving. The new popularity of giving circles reflects on a “broader sociological trend” said Marker. People today are attracted to giving circles because they want to make choices directly for themselves. “This trend is reflecting in all giving, not just within the Jewish world,” said Marker.
The allure of giving circles is disrupting the world of philanthropy, Marker said, but more intimate philanthropy makes for smarter givers in the long run.
“Giving circles demonstrate what I like to call the ‘boutique-store’ model,” said Felicia Herman, executive director of Natan. “As opposed to the ‘department store’ model characteristic of federations, giving circles customize the philanthropic experience.”
The personal element of giving circles makes recruitment informal. “You pick up the phone, call a friend, say, ‘Hey, want to join something awesome?’” explained Julie Sissman, the board chair of Hekdesh, the giving circle of Dorot Fellowship alumni. The group, currently made up of 67 alumni from around the world, “isn’t meeting in the living room anymore,” said Sissman. To accommodate the diffuse membership, almost all board and chair meetings are held online.
The “personal” element of giving circles also allows the philanthropists to be more selective about their projects. “We have a very specific niche, and we’re focused on filling it,” said Sara Rose Gorfinkel, 32, director of Tikkun Olam Women’s Foundation of Greater Washington (TOWF). “We’re Jewish women fighting for women.”
The women’s foundation, funded both by an endowment and BY member contributions, focuses on local Jewish women’s organizations, women’s organizations in Israel and low-income immigrant communities in the D.C. area. Over the past seven years it has granted over $500,000 to 37 discrete projects. Twenty women joined in the last year, and more than half of them were under 35.
A study conducted by the Rose Youth Foundation showed that 88 percent of teen alumni served in nonprofit leadership roles following their participation in RYF philanthropic programming, with 41 percent participating in a Jewish charity or nonprofit. 87 percent of alumni said participation in RYF’s giving circle strengthened their connections to Jewish values, and 90 percent of alumni said participation strengthened their connection to Jewish giving.
Said Schaalman, of Roots and Branches: “It’s the way I met my fiancé, and the way I re-met my Jewish identity. Trust me, my kids are going to hear about it.”