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There’s a Gap Between Giving Circles and Social Justice — Philanthropy Together’s Newest Project Wants to Fix That

by Maggie May
There’s a Gap Between Giving Circles and Social Justice — Philanthropy Together’s Newest Project Wants to Fix That

Giving circles have been praised for their potential to democratize philanthropy. But thinking more ambitiously, can they play a role in democratizing democracy itself? That is, can they encourage organizations promoting social change and equity?

In an online survey commissioned by Philanthropy Together, the Social Justice Giving Circle Project (SJGCP) heard from more than 60 people this winter. Representing 56 giving circles, these respondents shared their approaches to social justice giving and provided a snapshot of where the movements for giving circles and social justice currently intersect.

Coordinated by Joelle Asaro Berman, Seiji Carpenter, Lijia Gong, and Mario Lugay, the SJGCP is a new effort, in partnership with Philanthropy Together, aimed at building a framework for giving circles that want to do more to uphold social justice values and be accountable to movement leaders.

From December 2020 to March 2021, the coordinators received online survey responses from a total of 67 respondents (55 of which completed the survey in its entirety). Drawing on the survey responses, the researchers compiled findings surrounding the noticeable gaps — and potential opportunities — between social justice movements and giving circles.

As the first research project ever to examine the connections between giving circles and social justice, the results from this project reveal two critical opportunities for the field:

  1. The actual definitions of the term “social justice” and “social justice giving circle” are still open to wide interpretation. There is plenty of room — and desire — for developing greater shared understanding; and
  2. There is a general lack of learning and best practice resources available for organizations self-identifying as “social justice giving circles.”

Based on these findings, the Social Justice Giving Circle Project raises the exciting question: how much further can these giving circles go with access to training, resources, and an overall cultural shift about how givers view themselves in the ecosystem of changemaking?

It’s in the Data: “Social justice” is Still an Unknown

The project results point to an existing gap that could signify a major opportunity for shifting this kind of collective giving: giving circles have the desire to be connected to — or even considered part of — social justice movements but have yet to translate social justice values into their giving circle’s practices and behaviors.

Ninety-five percent of groups surveyed say that “social justice giving circle” describes their group “at least slightly well,” but of those same groups only 15% say they’ve “heard quite a bit about social justice best practices.”

“These are folks who care about social justice and are connected to social justice, but when it comes to giving circles, they don’t feel like social justice experts,” said Seiji Carpenter. “There aren’t a lot of resources or models for this space.”

What this means is that “social justice giving circles” may not actually be as tied to active movements as they want to be.

“The majority of [giving circles who said they are at least ‘somewhat a social justice giving circle’] said they identify this way because the groups they fund support communities in need,” said Joelle Asaro Berman. “That means those giving circles equate being a ‘social justice giving circle’ with simply funding groups who serve the ‘less fortunate’ — but not even necessarily with justice or equity as a lens.”

“An opportunity exists … to help these circles bring the spirit of social justice more firmly into their strategies and behaviors[.]”

These findings suggest that many circles self-identify as social justice giving circles based only on who they support. An opportunity exists, therefore, to help these circles bring the spirit of social justice more firmly into their strategies and behaviors, informing each circle’s approach to giving, how they give, and their relationships to social justice movements.

Connection: The Key to Every Relationship

The data revealed a similar issue around accountability. While the giving circle respondents think of their work as in pursuit of social justice, many have not established relationships with the groups they support beyond depositing a check in someone’s mailbox.

As a convener and leader in the giving circle field, Philanthropy Together is committed to helping new and existing giving circle leaders facilitate discussion and activities that are grounded in change, not charity. This can only happen by building trusting relationships with the community. That isn’t easy and comes with its own set of challenges, but the findings from this research show the desire for change and the need for accountability.

“More than 60% of our respondents said they were interested in building relationships with social justice leaders, and [that behavior is] much different from the traditional ‘let’s just cut a check’,” said Carpenter. “People really do want to move up the ladder in those social justice relationships.”

However, only one-third of respondents said that they already have these relationships in place.

“The giving of money should only be one part of the relationship,” Berman said. “The research shows that very few giving circles are thinking about it that way.”
Joelle Asaro Berman, Seiji Carpenter, Lijia Gong, and Mario Lugay, coordinators of the Social Justice Giving Circle Project
Pictured above: Joelle Asaro Berman, Seiji Carpenter, Lijia Gong, and Mario Lugay, coordinators of the Social Justice Giving Circle Project

The Giving Circle Landscape Can Benefit From Expanded Resources

While the SJGCP noted a lack of close connection between social justice movements and giving circles, it also identified potential opportunities we have to close those gaps.

For example, many of the groups surveyed expressed an interest in learning more about social justice best practices: leveraging resources like these survey results to better inform their relationships with movement leaders.

“There are a lot of areas where folks have interests but not expertise, and there are plenty of opportunities for a project like this to provide some guidance,” said Carpenter.

As the Project continues to grow and facilitate new research, the goal is to share these findings with the surveyed giving circles as well as resource-sharing groups like Philanthropy Together. However, Carpenter and Berman do not want readers to feel disheartened by the findings.

“[New research] would help ground us in where there is a potential audience for helping move people along in their journey,” Carpenter explained. “We did not want to come in and say ‘here are the 17 things you need to do to call yourself a social justice giving circle, and if you’re not doing them, get off the bus.’ We just want to know who wants to be on that bus.”

What’s Next for the Social Justice Giving Circle Project?

Now that the initial research is complete, Berman, Carpenter, and their team aim to expand the SJGCP to include more voices — specifically, leaders from social justice movements on the ground. If social justice giving circles want to learn more from movements, the SJGCP aims to help facilitate that learning.

“We’re very eager to hear more movement voices, and after that, design something for giving circles that is itself accountable to those learnings,” Berman said. “This is just the beginning of what’s possible.”

In the future, we hope to build on the success of community-driven events for circle members and facilitators, like Justice, Giving & Politics Part 1 and Part 2, and the SJGCP team’s recent presentation at the We Give Summit. The team also plans on providing more opportunities for circle members to connect directly with social justice movement leaders.

“[T]he next round of research will seek to answer … what exactly giving circles can do to best support communities on the front lines of social justice movements.”

One question the next round of research will seek to answer is what exactly giving circles can do to best support communities on the front lines of social justice movements.

“Our hypothesis is that fundraising would be a pretty high priority,” Carpenter said of the expected findings. “Acting as a gateway to a larger group of potential supporters could be hugely valuable, but right now it is the last thing on the list of what [giving circles] are actually doing.”

“Giving circles are a recognition that nothing in this world gets done alone,” Berman said. “Coronavirus has taught us nothing if not that our actions and behaviors impact each other whether we want them to or not. Acting collectively and being in community is the only way that we are going to make this world more just. If giving circles are a microcosm of that, then this is exactly the right space and the right moment at which to help people see that not only can you be in community with a giving circle while doing this, but you can be part of a much broader group of people trying to make the world a better place. That’s what social justice movements are. We just want to open the opportunity for giving circles to take part in that incredible experience.”

To learn more about the Social Justice Giving Circle Project, email hello [at]

Maggie May
Founder & Executive Director of Get Mighty Creative // Senior Writer & Engagement Strategist at Philanthropy Women
Maggie May is a small business owner, author, and content strategist in the nonprofit sector working with Philanthropy Together to raise awareness on the power of giving circles through intentional storytelling.