Recently several articles on the charitable impact of giving circles grabbed my attention. Research now tells us that members of giving circles: (1) give more; (2) give more strategically; (3) give to a wider array of organizations; (4) reach out beyond their social circle for advice and counsel.[i] A Wall Street Journalstory noted that the number of giving circles has tripled in the last ten years. Why? Because younger givers and women favor a more collaborative and informed approach in their charitable giving.[ii]One millennial put it this way: “You leave the giving-circle feeling like you made a difference in the world…we realize we can multiply the impact of our gifts if we give together.”[iii]
In her 2013 Lake Lecture, Harvard historian Ann D. Braude chronicled the influential role women’s giving circles have played in American religious and philanthropic history. Giving circles emerged as the vehicle by which women supported religious institutions that by and large excluded them from leadership. In 1814 a group of Presbyterian women formed the Female Cent Society to support young men studying at Princeton Theological Seminary and to provide a circulating library for their members. By the beginning of the 20thcentury 3 million women representing more than forty denominational women’s giving circles were building schools, hospitals, orphanages as well as supporting women missionaries around the world. In 1960, the Women’s Missionary Union, a cohort of giving circles in Southern Baptist churches had 1.5 million members and raised more than $1 billion to support women’s ministries. Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, for much of its hundred-year history has been the largest Jewish organization in the world.[iv]
What are giving circles? They are what congregations call “small groups.” Sociologist Mark Chaves notes the vital role small groups play in the lives of most congregations. He describes congregations as “an aggregate of individuals or, perhaps more appropriately, a group of small groups.”[v] Within congregations these groups form a network of enterprises.They bring people together for initiatives that reflect a rainbow of individual interests and enthusiasms: from choirs to bible studies, to personal and spiritual support groups, to mission and community outreach enterprises.
My curiosity scratched, I wondered as to what role – if any – small groups played in the financing of a congregation? I’m not aware of any formal research relative to that question. Yet anecdotally, I have observed that small groups influence their members when it comes to giving and volunteering. Why, because enthusiasm is infectious. We listen to friends and we give to people and causes we know and trust. People give to people!
My curiosity led me to have a conversation with John Koppitch, Director of Stewardship at the church I attend. I discovered that small group giving is alive and well, with many involved in supporting specific missions and programs. Sunday School classes are encouraged to select a mission project that appeals to their age and interest. Small groups often participate in the congregation’s larger mission outreach programs. For example, come Christmas the church serves several hundred families and close to a thousand individuals with small groups – such as the church choir – adopting a specific number of families to serve and support. John then offered this caution; small groups are voluntary and church leaders must honor the purpose for which a particular group exists. This suggests that the involvement of a small group in the larger mission of a congregation is likely to be more strategic, reflecting the interest and purpose of the group.
Two stories come to mind. I think of a group of six men in a suburban Chicago congregation who twenty-five years ago formed a covenant group that continues to meet monthly. Each December the members pool their Christmas offering to give a group gift of between eight and ten thousand dollars to aid people trapped on the fringes of life. One year they may choose to support a specific mission that is part of their church’s budget. Another year it may be a community nonprofit where their gift will be a true difference-maker; occasionally, it has been an international program. In a smaller county-seat congregation a group of retired men meet weekly for coffee and conversation at a café on the town square. One day their savvy pastor dropped in unannounced to share a need and seek counsel. The pastor was trying to raise money to replace the church’s frayed and outdated hymnals, but the project was fueling conflict. The men saw this as an opportunity to show their support for a church they had long loved. By the time the pastor stood to leave the conflict was resolved with the money in hand.
It strikes me that there is a kind of irony relative to congregations and small groups. Small groups exist because of the congregations that gave them birth. Yet, many congregations tend to ignore or take for granted the small groups living under their umbrella. It’s my sense that small groups are a fiscal resource yet to be mined by congregational leaders albeit, with respectful and creative prudence.
[i]Lilly Family School of Philanthropy: Fresh Perspectives from the world of philanthropy, Andrea Pactor: Giving Circles are Growing Informed Philanthropists, December 6, 2018.
[ii]Wall Street Journal: What’s Behind the Surge in Giving Circles, February 11, 2019.
[iv]Ann D. Braude, Lake Lecture, Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, Indiana University, 2013.
[v] Mark Chaves, Congregations in America, pp. 201-211.