About a dozen Jewish millennials gathered after work for a few hours one recent early evening in a rented office space in downtown Philadelphia.They were there to discuss philanthropy, specifically their own emerging philanthropic efforts.
Over take-out Chinese food, they talked about the worthy causes to which they chose to make donations, and how they made their individual choices — about their collective giving.
The young men and women are members of the Giving Circle of Tribe 12 (tribe12.org), a branch of the 7-year-old social and cultural organization that reaches out to Philadelphia Jews in their 20s and 30s. Tribe 12, founded by 44-year-old Ross Berkowitz, a Philly native who studied Jewish history at New York University and later worked as a camp director and Hillel campus director, coordinates a wide range of activities, including compilation of a city-wide events calendar, the sponsoring of several local volunteer activities and lectures on Jewish-themed topics, and starting Tribe 12’s giving circle.
A giving circle is a pooled philanthropic fund, an entry portal to organized philanthropic giving. Individual members often lack large sums to donate, and want a closer giver-recipient relationship than is often present in traditional “legacy” charitable organizations.
Members of a giving circle put their money in a common account, research and advocate for their favored recipients, decide as a group on their charitable priorities and maintain a close relationship with the group’s beneficiaries, recipients whom the giving circle members choose.
The participants of his giving circle, Berkowitz said, “want their gifts to go to something that is meaningful to them.”
A giving circle is a form of what is known as “participatory philanthropy,” drawing on centuries-old roots in mutual aid societies, similar in its collaborative nature to better-known family foundations, but a more-practical option for individuals or groups that do not have the six-or-seven-figure resources of many family foundations.
Recent years have witnessed a major increase in the number of giving circles across the country, up to an estimated 4,000, paralleled by an increase of such groups in the Jewish community — there are about 170 Jewish circles in the United States, according to Felicia Herman, executive director of the New York-based Natan Fund giving circle (natan.org).
“It’s a growing trend,” said Joelle Asaro Berman, executive director of Amplifier (amplifiergiving.org), the first major network of Jewish giving circles. Statistics indicate that giving increases as time spent in giving circles passes, she said.
Philanthropists and budding philanthropists, givers of $18 or much larger amounts of money, usually prefer to align their charitable contributions with like-minded people. They earmark their donations for specific recipients whose work is close to their philosophies, instead of writing checks to established, traditional charities or do-good organizations.
Amplifier, like its co-founder, the Natan Fund, both of which arenondenominational and independent of other Jewish organizations encourages the 102 Jewish giving circles in its ranks to make donations “inspired by Jewish values.”
“You’re leveraging the wisdom … the intellectual capital” of the participants, teaching giving habits to people who may have limited means at the beginning but are likely to increase their “giving down the road,” Herman said. “If it were only for the money, we’d only be going to the millionaires.”
Fifty-two Amplifier members who participated in a 2016 survey raised $6.4 million, Berman said; she declined to speculate on the total raised by the giving circles that did not respond to Amplifier’s request for information.
The Natan Fund, which recently marked the 15th anniversary of its founding by a small group of people who were seeking “a more hands-on, collaborative, inspiring experience of giving,” has allocated more than $12.5 million in grants. Recipients include “innovative grassroots initiatives in Israel and in Jewish communities around the world,” including “244 startup and post-startup nonprofits, social businesses and social entrepreneurs,” according to the organization’s 2017-18 brochure. In 2017-18, the brochure states, “Natan has catalyzed $988,113 in contributions.
Joining a giving circle, Herman said, typically means more work than simply giving some funds, more thinking about where the money should go and why it should go there, and more collaboration.
Because of their non-traditional nature, “giving circles are not for everyone,” Berman said.
A giving circle is roughly equivalent to a book club, in which a member reads a book and delivers a report about it to fellow voracious readers at meetings. In a book club, members’ work ends when they hear they participate in the discussion. In a giving circle, the work starts when a member gives a pitch about a potential recipient; discussions about the proposed recipients follow.
Giving circles, said Jeffrey Solomon, an expert in Jewish philanthropy who is on the board of the Jim Joseph Foundation, are growing “for the same reason that book clubs are growing in number and importance” — participants like the sense of community built by membership in a giving circle and the close, ongoing ties with recipients.
Giving circles represent a “net” gain for the Jewish community, Solomon said. Most people who take part in giving circles do not do so in lieu of contributions to established recipients like local Jewish federations or the Jewish National Fund, but in addition to their previous donations, he said. “They are a supplement, not a replacement.”
Many giving circles collaborate with local Jewish federations, said Rebecca Kaufman, Amplifier’s program director.
Tribe 12 was part of an incubator program under the auspices of Amplifier, which was formed — with financial support of the Schusterman Foundation and other Jewish foundations — by Natan, but is now an independent entity.
In August, Amplifier sponsored a two-day training institute retreat here for leaders of 16 of its constituent giving circles. The organization recently published a glossy 55-page “Giving Circle Essentials” guide, and this month in Grand Rapids, Mich., it will convene a “summit” of 20 fellow giving circle networks in the United States.
Berkowitz attended the retreat.
At Tribe 12’s recent meeting in Philadelphia, the Giving Circle participants used principles he had learned at the retreat to guide their discussion of the organizations to whom they might give their pooled funds, Berkowitz said in a telephone interview. Amplifier’s four “curricular pillars” are ethical philanthropy, engagement in “civil society,” Jewish expression and community building.
Tribe 12, Berman said, is representative of the 102 giving circles that are part of the Amplifier network. Other members include the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York, similar Jewish women’s groups in other cities, the San Francisco-based Israel Giving Circle and Philadelphia’s Challah for Hunger Alumni Giving Circle.
Activities and programs sponsored by Tribe 12 with a focus on young professionals, include matchmaking services, an LGBTQ group and other affinity groups like an a cappella group and sports leagues. Some 2,000-2,500 people take part each year in its activities, Berkowitz said.
“Our mission is to engage people in their 20s and 30s so that they will choose to stay engaged Jewishly long term,” Berkowitz said. “We want to make sure that whatever those choices are that the person is going to make, that Judaism is an important part of that choice.”
The Tribe 12 giving circle is part of that paradigm, he said. “We look at the giving circle as an educational tool” to learn about the details of the organizations to which each giving circle member gives $100-$180 for “one giving cycle.”
Berkowitz said he looks forward to attending another Amplifier training session. “It’s very useful. I will definitely go back.”