It’s hard to believe how long it’s lasted. We may not have given away millions, but we’ve kept it going.
Shortly after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, I reached out via email to fifteen friends I knew from different spheres of my life – my fellow elementary school moms, friends from church, old college buddies who lived nearby. “Between Katrina, Rita, the earthquake in Pakistan, the melting polar ice cap, the war in Iraq and, and, and … I’ve been feeling kinda gloomy and hopeless.” I wrote. I knew my friends did too.
I wondered, in the email, if they might want to join me to set up a social meet up once a month, where we would pool our funds—the suggested donation was whatever you would have spent on a girl’s night out—in support of a non-profit organization selected by the group. Pretty simple. We had no bigger ambition than to spend time with friends and throw a tiny bit of good karma back into the world.
Those first few meetings were rough. In the interest of supporting more charities, we had two members present their causes of choice, which turned into an awkward popularity contest. Another time we had someone present their cause only to tell us at the end that donations should be made out directly…to her brother? We waffled about how to add people to the group but maintain the same close-knit feel.
But over time, we learned how to make our “East Bay Giving Circle” work. One organization at a time was plenty, and it gave us the chance to make a bigger impact with our donations, which averaged about $500 each meeting. We laid down ground rules, both for the types of organizations that could be presented, and the commitment of the person presenting—no fair picking up checks for your organization and then never showing up to another meeting. We realized that as many people as we invited, we only ever got 12 or 15 to each meeting because everyone is busy. So we opened the doors wider to include more friends.
Eight years later, our group comprises 35 members, and we have the meeting structure down to a science. Meetings are held on Friday nights from seven to nine. We do quarterly meetings, but never in summer— it’s simply too hard to coordinate schedules.
For the first half-hour, in the dining room of whichever member has volunteered to host, there is a cacophony of catch-up as we drink the wine and eat the desserts that everyone has piled up on the table like a dessert smorgasbord. “Where did you decide to send her for high school?” “I love your haircut!” “When is your mom’s surgery scheduled?” It’s hugely productive for catching up on what’s going on in my friend’s lives and a whole lot more satisfying than reading Facebook status updates.
Then we repair to the living room for the all-important icebreaker. This may be everyone’s favorite part of Giving Circle: when we each answer a question like “If you could freely indulge in one vice without repercussion, which would it be?” or “What’s your summer book recommendation?” or—this took some advance work—“Bring in a picture of yourself from the ’80s.” Aside from the non-stop laughter, the icebreaker seems to tighten the bonds among the group members. What gets revealed in Giving Circle, stays in Giving Circle.
The business end of the meeting starts when one of the members presents her organization, describes its work and—this is important—why she chose it. I have learned so much about my friends by hearing what nonprofit they choose and why it’s a priority for them. Our group tends to favor support of struggling families and education for underprivileged girls, here and abroad. During this segment, boxes of tissue are in constant rotation.
Then, at ten minutes to nine, the meeting wraps up when everyone takes out their checkbook and starts writing.
Over eight years we’ve collectively donated about $30,000 to various causes. No one’s going to name a wing of a building after the our Giving Circle, but every bit helps. And more than that, we donate our time. We’ve driven inner city kids out to the ocean so their teacher didn’t have to fundraise for a schoolbus. We’ve run fundraisers at our elementary schools that model charitable giving for our kids. With our kids, we collected a mountain of cans for the local food bank.
And that, I think, is the key to Giving Circle’s staying power. Schedules are busy, kids outgrow school communities, and work demands never abate. But there is no other commitment on my schedule that makes me feel as good about myself, as lucky to belong to this community of women, as my Giving Circle. A booster shot of that (plus a plate of chocolate goodies and a glass of Malbec) once a quarter?
That’s worth way more than any number I can write on a check.