Giving circles represent a trend emerging across the UK and Ireland in which groups of donors collaborate to support individuals, charitable organizations or projects of mutual interest. Members often conduct collective research on potential beneficiaries, and make joint or coordinated decisions about the use of resources. These groups typically include a meaningful degree of social interaction over the use of resources and mechanisms for joint or coordinated decision-making in the allocation of these resources.
While a growing body of research has mapped out the landscape of giving circles and tried to understand their impact on philanthropy and civic engagement, it has not included the UK or Ireland. The purpose of this research is to examine the landscape of giving circles in this region by addressing the following research questions:
What does the landscape of giving circles look like in the UK and Ireland? How does it compare to the U.S.? What are issues and implications for philanthropy?
Among the 80 giving circles identified in the UK and Ireland, well over half appear to be connected to networks of some kind. These include giving circles connected with a central headquarters or administrator, focused on giving in different areas, located in various locations, and/or intentionally limited in size and thus the need to create several groups. Many have professional staff or administrative support. This is quite different from the U.S., where most giving circles tend to be independent or only loosely connected and more volunteer-driven.
The largest number of networked groups is what we call here “mentored” groups. These are networks of small giving circles focused on mentoring young professionals to enable better educated, empowered and engaged philanthropists. There were at least 29 of these groups identified. These share some similarities with Young Leader Funds in the U.S. but with their focus on mentoring, seem to be unique to the UK. Also prevalent in the UK, and less often seen in the U.S. are “event-based” groups (16 groups) such as The Funding Network, which use live crowd funding events to feature pre-selected charities that pitch projects to the audience, who then make pledges in an auction-like session. An equal number of groups (16) are hosted within a charity or community foundation. We only identified ten giving circles that resemble the more “traditional” independent type of giving circle dominant in the U.S. Another type of collaborative rarely discussed in the U.S. giving circle literature is what we call here “brokers” (8), which play a kind of “matchmaking” or “brokering” role in connecting people to charities. Finally, we identified one hybrid giving circle that combines several elements of the other groups described above.
Young Philanthropy is an organization that started in 2010 with the goal of creating small groups of young professionals affiliated with a particular corporation that then selects a charity with which to partner for the year to provide funding and volunteer support. Members of the group (up to 15 members, all of whom work in the same corporation) pay in £15 per month through a CAF account and then this is matched by a senior executive in the corporation. The administrator of the group provides support and mentoring as the groups select their charity, often using a Dragon’s Den pitch model for the selection. There are currently 22 syndicates or small groups all in London (there are plans to expand outside of London in the future). Causes supported include those helping jobless young offenders, women who have experienced abuse and sexual exploitation, and other areas. Syndicate members meet frequently to plan out where to fund, and then how to support the charity further through volunteering. Young Philanthropy staff see this giving as a supplement or complement to corporate social responsibility activities.
Event-based giving circle are groups where individual donors gather at events to support small charities. Money is raised by members and non-members during events that typically feature a Dragons' Den-style live crowd funding element, during which a pre-selected number of charities pitch projects to the audience, who then make pledges in an auction-like session. Featured charities are typically nominated by members or supporters and then selected by a small leadership group. There is an important aspect of peer pressure and buzz that occurs at events.
The most well-known example of an event-based giving circle is The Funding Network (TFN). TFN is one of the first and largest networks of open giving circles in the UK. Started in 2002, it is a registered charity that runs live crowd funding events to bring donors together to support small charities addressing injustice and poverty with the intent to create social change. Many of the charities funded operate in countries outside the UK but have a local connection to the community in which a particular TFN group operates. For example the Bristol TFN group has supported a school in Darjeeling, India because some local members living in Bristol are connected to the project.
Similar to the US except for bold-areas.
The benefits of giving circles for members/participants and beneficiaries or hosts are many. For members/participants, the benefit brought up most frequently by members and staff of giving circles of all types was “learning.” This includes, learning about the funding area of focus, (new) projects/causes, the needs of others, how to cope with having wealth, how to do philanthropy, and about what's going on in the community. This learning happened most often informally through other members and the process of giving away resources.
Other areas also included those similar to what we’ve found in the U.S. except for solidarity…came up in women’s groups.
Solidarity was brought up in relation to a connection between the members/participants in the giving circle and the beneficiaries. A member of one independent women’s giving circle, for example, discussed the significance of this for one organization they funded: “….And we said that we’re here for you. And for her she said just to feel that there’s a group of women in solidarity is a huge thing” (Independent 3).
There are also several challenges encountered with giving circles. One of the most frequently mentioned is the tension that can occur between a host organization and the giving circle. This came up in nearly every hosted group, except for the one group that had been in operation for only a year, and seems to center around the question of “whose giving circle is it?” As one host organization staff noted, this tension seems to be an inevitable part of the process: “It is not uncommon where we’ve had various kinds of fundraising funds, or thematic funds, or collective funds, for there at some point to be some kind of falling out argument about who’s in control” (Hosted 4).
This tension seems to arise because of the need for the host to meet legal and accountability requirements and return on investment concerns, driving the requirement for some degree of formality and strategic direction in the giving circle; with the giving circles’ inherently informal and voluntary aspects: they are often member-driven and prone to being ad-hoc and at times unaccountable or undependable with unclear governance structures. Giving circles also, at times, want to give to areas that may be difficult or impossible to give to due to legal or bureaucratic constraints. This can put the host at risk and make it difficult to determine the value of the giving circle to the host, especially if a lot of staff time is devoted to the giving circle.
Some hosts were experiencing something of a power struggle with one or more giving circles. The giving circle, seeking some degree of independence and wanting its own brand separate from the host, conflicted with the original intent of the group and/or compromised the legal structure of the fund, which is technically “owned” by the host. Compared to the U.S., hosts in the UK seemed to devote a substantial amount of staff time to administering giving circles. Questions about adequate return on investment but hosts universally saw the potential value in the long-term benefits of the giving circle for reaching new donors, increasing giving, and developing philanthropy more broadly.
Along similar lines, some giving circles, with a desire to stay informal have also found it difficult to do so and take advantage of tax incentives or affiliate with a host, with its need for more formal processes (Independent 1a, Independent 3, Hosted 3-4).
Challenges with recruitment—new model, impact of the economy, vary by locations (London vs. elsewhere)
The research shows we cannot understand the landscape of giving circles in the UK and Ireland without an understanding of the environment and context in which they operate. The issue that came up most frequently in interviews and documentation had to do with British culture in relation to philanthropy. Several interviewees (Broker 1a, Broker 2, Hosted 5, Independent 2) brought up how common it is for people in the UK, especially in comparison to the U.S., to be private about their giving. This has been noted in the literature as well; however this also appears to be changing (Breeze & Lloyd, 2013). Giving circles indicate this shift toward making philanthropy more visible; in particular through the event-based model. Although interestingly, while people in the giving circle see other members doing it, members can still retain their anonymity with people and charities outside of the group.
Giving circle focus on local community may be indicative of efforts to keep charity at home. This may contradict what Wright shows have been the philanthropic priorities of the British—to focus on compelling needs that are often not local ones. Certainly, many of the giving circles in the UK and Ireland appear to indicate a strong focus on funding local issues or issues with local connections.
The downturn in the economy was brought up in a few interviews as having an impact on recruitment for giving circles (Independent 3, Event 2, Event 3). A couple of interviewees also discussed the significance of broader economic transitions, such as the transition to a gift-economy or the rise of post-materialist values and why giving collaboratives are important to these.
Giving Circles in the UK & Ireland (ISTR)
Giving Circles in the UK
ISTR 2014, Muenster, Germany
Angela Eikenberry, University of Nebraska at Omaha, USA
Beth Breeze, University of Kent, UK
Definition of a giving circle
Previous relevant studies and existing literature
Purpose and rationale for this study
Conclusions and further study plans
Definition of a Giving Circle
It is made up of individuals
Members donate money and/or
Members can have a say in how
funding is spent
Funding is given to multiple
organisations or projects
Rutnik & Bearman (2004). First study of giving circles: focused solely on
US, identified 220 circles – total giving $23m, format helps “grow dollars
Bearman (2006) update of 2004 study, identified >400 circles,
total giving nearly $65m
Eikenberry (2009) and Eikenberry & Bearman (2009) focused
on format and structure of circles as well as donor motivation and
benefits for participants and democratic governance
UK study aims to ‘catch up’ by mapping landscape and exploring
structure, motivations, benefits and challenges
Purpose of Study
Examine the landscape of giving circles in this region by addressing
the following research question:
What does the landscape of giving circles look like
in the UK and Ireland?
How does it compare to the US?
What are issues and implications for philanthropy?
Why study UK Giving Circles?
Growing global interest in philanthropy in a time of public spending cuts
Individualistic model of philanthropy dominates – collective giving is
acknowledged but rarely studied
Policy context in the UK of ‘Big Society’ – promoting voluntary action
and smaller government
Cultural context in UK – ‘taboo’ on discussing giving
Contribution to comparative studies re research on US and other
location’s giving circles
How did we conduct the study?
Desk research of publicly accessible documents
Brief email questionnaire sent to UK philanthropic professionals to identify circles
Creation of a database of UK giving circles
29 interviews with donors/participants and with staff involved in hosting circles
Observations of giving circles in action
Documents, transcriptions and notes analyzed using MAX-QDA
Some Key Findings
A variety of different structures and decision-making processes; many
aspects are unique to the UK & Ireland as compared to the US
There are a number of reasons for forming and joining giving circles;
these are largely similar to the US but there are a couple of differences
Giving circles create an array of benefits and challenges for both
members and beneficiaries; some of these are similar to the US, but some
Structure of UK giving circles
Types # ID Structure Decision-Making Defining
Mentored 29 Centralised network with
Members select one
organisation each year
YPs mentored through
process; matching funds
The Bread Tin;
16 Centralised network, some
committee selects several
Live crowd funding;
individuals decide on level
The Funding Network
Hosted 16 Group within host
foundation or charity)
Staff recommends or selects;
orgs or projects funded
Funding mechanism for
BRC Tiffany Circle;
Rosa giving circle
Independent 10 Groups with no affiliation;
most small and informal
Members select several
organisations or individuals
each year; largely ad-hoc
member driven; strong
Kew; Eden; Give Inc.
Brokers 8 Independent networks of
individuals, one with five
Central admin staff
recommends or selects
donors and beneficiaries
Giving What We Can;
Hybrid 1 A combination of several
elements of the above
Members select following
various decision processes
A combination of several
elements of the above
Decision-making processes are related to structure:
Independent groups are the most informal
“[It] was somebody I sail with; his wife has set up a very progressive charity to
provide respite care for children in the summer time and I think I suggested, well,
give them £500 or £600 would be great. And everybody said, ‘Oh, that’s fantastic
work. We’ll give £1,000.’ So it’s a bit arbitrary.”
Mentored & events-based are a bit more formal
“The sponsor stands up and speaks for two minutes, answers questions for a
minute, more detail is circulated beforehand. Then we go round the room and
raise our hands and say “I’ll give £100” or “I’ll give £200.” That gets totted up
instantly and the funds would go out to the organisation within probably 3 weeks.”
A long-established, hybrid giving circle has the most formal decision-making
“At the end of September when we meet at conference the pools will look at all the
proposals that have come into their pool –it might be 8 or 10 or12…They spend October
and November going out and meeting the projects, reading through all the documents
and deciding whether they’re viable, whether they’re realistic and whether they fit the
values that we want to see promoted. They meet in December and decide which ones are
worth putting forward to the membership as a whole, then at February conference they
each pitch for funds and based on what funding is offered to each of them decide how to
allocate the funds within the projects that they’ve chosen.”
Generally informal due-diligence and follow up for all types of groups – Trust is
a key theme
“…and so what if somebody got 300 Euro and they really only needed 250? So
what…we’re really drummed into accountability and checking and what’s the criteria? I
spend my life thinking about what’s the criteria to give money out. And we do have kind of
loose criteria, but that was very – I just felt very free from that conversation.” –
Reasons for forming and
joining giving circles
Make giving meaningful and more personal
Make giving more effective
Most impact on the beneficiary
Giving to charities that do the most good
or have the greatest impact for the least
amount of money
Encourage and cultivate new donors
Increase, leverage or expand giving
To achieve social change*
Network, socialize or create community
Support host organizations
So it’s really creating a
movement where altruism as
it is being called is something
that isn’t weird to do. –
Benefits/Impact and Challenges
Increase or expansion in giving
Empowerment and solidarity*
Funding for beneficiaries and hosts
Exposure to new networks and ways
to be involved
….And we said that we’re
here for you. And for her she
said just to feel that there’s a
group of women in solidarity is
a huge thing.
Benefits/Impact and Challenges (cont.)
Tension between host and GC*
Administering and sustaining the group
Internal group dynamics
Keeping things informal*
Time commitment for beneficiaries
It is not uncommon where
we’ve had various kinds of
fundraising funds, or thematic
funds, or collective funds, for
there at some point to be
some kind of falling out
argument about who’s in
– Hosted 4.
Giving circles indicative of changes in philanthropy and broader economic
transitions in the UK and Ireland
Make philanthropy more visible (but retain individual anonymity)
Keep more charity ‘at home’
Impact of downturn in the economy
Rise of post-materialist values
Unlike the US, the majority of giving circles in the UK seem to be part of a
larger federated structure of some kind – mentoring groups and events-based
groups in particular tend be such. What explains this?
Is it possible for the organized philanthropic sector to enable giving circles
to operate informally? Can giving circles ‘fit’ in this organized environment
without losing their appeal?
UK and Ireland giving circles seem to be based a good deal on trust and
personalised due diligence than seems more typical of US. What explains