Sara Lomelin, discusses the importance and evolution of giving circles and how she and Philanthropy Together are taking ‘giving’ back into the mainstream.

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Connecting and catalyzing the field of giving circles to democratize and diversify philanthropy

“Giving Circles resonate with many diverse communities because they’re social, communal, fun, transparent, and accessible. ...They are incubators for civic engagement where people become more aware of the issues.” Click To Tweet

Giving Circles have existed since the beginning of time, we just haven’t called them that. Communities around the world have always had systems of supporting each other for communal prosperity. But wealth and finances have become so personal and private, especially in the US, that if you don’t have the capacity to give a significant amount, or you don’t know where to begin with philanthropy, you might not get involved at all. This episode’s guest, Sara Lomelin, discusses the importance and evolution of giving circles and how she and Philanthropy Together are taking ‘giving’ back into the mainstream… and beyond.

Sara is a connector. Introducing people who care with trustworthy organizations is a passion. Originally from Mexico City, Sara moved to the United States 24 years ago. She began her philanthropic career as a fundraiser in the Bay Area Latino Community Foundation —  knowing nothing about fundraising —  and started a giving circle with 16 Latinas that were born in the US, each of them putting in $1,000 dollars per year. She’s since developed the largest Latino donor network in the country and is now the Founder and Executive Director at Philanthropy Together, an organization whose mission is to connect and catalyze the field of giving circles to democratize and diversify philanthropy. 

The community knows what the community needs

A giving circle is a group of like minded individuals with shared values that unite to create change in the community — and beyond. Giving circles are democratic in nature —  members vote where the money goes upon reviewing an organization’s pitch for funds and impact. The number one element to success: trust. Trust is required of the donors and the beneficiary. The group must trust that appointed management is operating out of integrity and that the organization knows what it needs best. 

Sticky Power of Community: 

Second to trust, Sara sees that the social engagement element is the secret sauce to how many are most successful and keeping membership. (I can attest to that as well! I am both an individual donor and giving circle member. It’s hard to leave a group that has sticky power!) 

Giving circles are different from crowdfunding in that they are about more than giving money to one predetermined pot. Instead, there is an opportunity to determine giving priorities, strategies and intentions as a group before prospective organizations are nominated to receive funds. Once organizations are presented to the giving circle, funds are designated via voting. Furthermore, members are often encouraged to give more than their ballot entry, but also to get involved. Members often find themselves giving their talent, time, treasure, and testimony to organizations they fund through the circles. When people get involved in giving circles, they become more civically engaged and tend to give more over time. 

Philanthropy Together

Giving circles and other forms of collective giving have emerged around the world as an alternative to mainstream, bureaucratic philanthropy, growing significantly in visibility and popularity over the past 15 years. There are around 2,000 giving circles in the US and approximately 150,000 active members. Half of them are part of networks, while the other half are independent giving circles. The amount of giving can range from a dollar a day, to 1K per year, and even up to 6-to-7 figure donations, with a cumulative giving that has gone above and beyond $1 billion. 

Back when Sara was working with the Bay Area Latino Community Foundation, there was nothing to support these networks. A few people had the idea of having a convening of giving circle network leaders. During a year, they worked extensively, conducting hundreds of hours worth of interviews and putting together working groups around evaluation, funding, and tech. With academic input from researchers, funders, community foundations, giving circle leaders and members, they came up with the brainchild of more than 100 people: Philanthropy Together, a five-year initiative to connect and catalyze the collective giving field.

Sara and the Philanthropy Together team help start new giving circles, and help existing giving circles thrive with the American Giving Circle Model with its four strategic areas: Showcase, Scale, Strengthen and Sustain. Sara hopes to bring new people into giving circles with these areas, turning giving circles into the mainstream, and to support the existing field.

With a plan in place, The Melinda & Bill Gates foundation provided initial funding to launch Philanthropy Together. The aim was to create resources, systems and operations that giving circles around the country could use for higher impact and less redundancy. In April, their flagship program was released: Launchpad, a giving circle incubator.

This new program brings the vision and all the tools together for people to create giving circles. Being virtual allowed them to transcend the national scale and move into the global arena. People from Mexico, Germany, France, Ukraine, Sierra Leone, Singapur, and Brazil have come into two different cohorts that launched more than 26 different giving circles.

Key Takeaways: 

04:33 –  Sara’s amazing story, how she started the Latino Giving Circle Network™, and how Philanthropy Together was born.

17:29 – What a giving circle is and how it engages with the community and with nonprofits to drive impact.

21:15 – Why trust is the most critical element to making a giving circle successful. 

24:23 – The main difference between giving circles and board membership.

25:35 –  The intrinsic motivation of individuals who are in giving circles and why they’re not your regular donors.

32:28 – Philanthropy Together: A system that ties different giving circles into a giving network and the beauty of its flagship Launchpad program.

39:31 – The tiered membership at the Battery Powered giving circle and how their voting system works.

42:51 – Why people should give to Philanthropy Together and how their donation supports giving circles’ infrastructure and success.

Connect with Sara

Through LinkedIn

Follow Philanthropy Together on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter

Episode Resources

What is a Giving Circle?

Philanthropy Together


Join the LaunchpadPro waitlist 

The Seven Faces of Philanthropy by Russ Alan Prince


Latino Giving Circle Network

Community Investment Network




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