Hi, I’m Maggie! I’m a writer with Philanthropy Together, and a first-time participant in their flagship Launchpad For You program! This spring, I’ll be taking you through my experience starting and growing my own giving circle through Launchpad For You, where I’m a member of the Spring 2022 Morning cohort.
Launchpad For You is Philanthropy Together’s virtual, interactive leadership training program for people interested in starting their own giving circles. In Week 3, my cohort met to discuss ways to establish a giving circle’s internal culture: the “WHO” and “HOW MUCH” we associate with our organizations.
Week 3: Structure and Culture – Hidden Dynamics, Decision Points, and How to Get Started
Although this is the week where we began to narrow down the financials of our giving circles, the week’s discussions were not strictly about money. As always, our discussion topics focused on people.
We started with a video compilation from circle leaders and past Launchpad graduates, sharing the variety in their circle sizes, membership, and responsibilities. Funding examples ranged from a dollar a day to ten percent of annual income. Membership was even more varied, from a handful of close friends to circles capped at 100 members to nationwide or international groups with hundreds of silent supporters.
This celebratory round-up was particularly impactful on me. My two co-founders and I are still workshopping names and structures, but we know that we want to loop in our close friends and peers – particularly the people that we found through music festivals, where the three of us met in the first place!
Ultimately, we’re leaning toward a circle structure that’s built more like a happy hour or birthday party than a formalized nonprofit, and that speaks to the type of member we’re looking to recruit as well. We all identify as Millennials or Gen Z (and most of our friends do, too) with close ties to the LGBTQ community. We decided that we don’t want to exclude anyone from membership, but having this perspective on the kinds of people who make up our social circles was a useful exercise for determining who we’d want to work with in a giving circle format.
This was a good week to bring up the question of circle structure. The Launchpad discussions focused on three main categories:
- Less than 15 members. Whether this is a starting point or a comfortable end goal, a smaller circle allows for easier communication and decision-making. Giving cycles and other issues can often be decided by consensus rather than by vote, and it’s easier to have close conversations with individual members. A smaller size can also be ideal for a family-run or friend-focused circle, where everyone already knows each other and no one has to feel excluded.
- 25 to 50 members. Most people in my cohort (myself included) want to land in this zone. “Medium” membership offers all the camaraderie of a close-knit circle with a little more spending power when it comes to grantmaking. One drawback is that it’s harder to make collective decisions with larger membership, so once a circle reaches 20 members or so, it’s a good idea to implement things like voting, a leadership team, and division of responsibilities.
- 100 members and beyond. With more members comes more money (sometimes), but also more complications (also sometimes). A big group can be tough to manage, so this is where voting comes in handy for making decisions. With a group of 100+, our instructors also recommended creating committees within the circle (for example, marketing, events, partner communications, etc.). A big circle can be a challenge, but it can also be extremely rewarding.
But how are we supposed to find all these people for our circles? We discussed recruitment tactics (the biggest thing being reaching out to two or three times the number of people you want in your circle – if you want 20 members, ask 60 people), but our instructors made sure to remind us that we’re just getting started. If we have lofty ambitions of a thousand-member circle that spans the globe, that’s totally awesome and more power to us – but it’s also completely okay (and expected) for our first meeting to just be our founding team and four or five of our friends.
Finally, we talked about money. Interestingly, we spent the least time on this topic. The main discussion point was how much to expect from membership dues and the like, as well as sliding scale giving structures that lower the barriers to entry for members who want to be involved but can’t make as much room in the budget as someone else.
Logistics were involved here, too – how to collect donations (PayPal, Venmo, cash hand-offs, etc.), how to store it (a separate bank account, an online tool like Grapevine, a circle leader’s savings account), and how to break down the tax implications of member donations. I won’t spill all the beans here, but it’s safe to say this part of the week’s discussion helped assuage some of my confusion (and stress) surrounding all those dollar signs.
Takeaways From Week 3
This week reminded me that being in charge is hard. That seems like a silly generalization, but when it comes to starting a giving circle, it’s all too easy to fall into imposter syndrome brought on by the overwhelming options and decisions to consider. At the same time, this week answered a lot of my nagging questions about logistics – and helped me narrow down some of my big “save the world” ideas into actionable steps and focus areas.
One of the key topics that stuck with me actually wasn’t on the syllabus for the day: Operating expenses. I had the chance to connect one-on-one with Tyeshia Wilson, Philanthropy Together’s Director of Engagement, and she talked frankly about some of the early trial-by-fire lessons she learned as an early member of her giving circle, HERitage Giving Fund.
Tyeshia stressed the importance of setting a budget from day one. As HERitage got off the ground, Tyeshia and her circle members were so focused on and excited about the giving aspect of their organization that they didn’t realize at first how much time, money, and energy goes into keeping a circle up and running. Things like a website, a donation-collection platform, and marketing communications come to mind as obvious must-buys, but other expenses can sneak up.
When a group meets in person, who buys the food? For far-flung circles, is it fair to host a meetup where some people have to fly in and reserve hotels? And what about events? I have dreams of hosting sponsored scavenger hunts and themed parties to benefit my Millennial-friendly circle, but how will we pay for the supplies associated with our big days – and how can we be sure we bring in enough donations or ticket sales to cover our operating expenses, let alone fund a new giving cycle?
Speaking with Tyeshia helped me put some of these questions into perspective. Some circles make operating expenses a percentage of members’ dues, while others hold separate funding cycles for the “etceteras” of circle management. For HERitage in particular, the most impactful thing Tyeshia mentioned was that her circle’s first meeting of the year always focuses on operating budget. That way, everyone involved in the circle understands the expected expenses coming up in the year – and they’re all on the same page from day one, so that if an unexpected cost or opportunity comes up, the members can decide together how to handle it.
For my own growing circle, I know that I want to create a website separate from our Grapevine page to host things like a blog, event photos, FAQs for new members and potential funding partners, and a full list of members and their bios (we’re also considering adding everyone’s dogs as our “Support Staff”, but that’s a fun addition for another time). The nice thing here is that we won’t have to hire anyone for this service. I’ve built multiple websites for blogs and businesses over the years, so that’s a task I can take on myself. However, my circle will have to plan for costs like domain hosting and the website subscription if we use a service like Squarespace. After taking about four pages’ worth of notes from my conversation with Tyeshia, I added operating expenses – and start-up costs – to my list to discuss with my co-founders.
The most important thing, as always, is communication. Open discussions about finances – your circle’s, not just the organizations you support – will help identify problems before they crop up and tackle challenges as they arise. Or as Isis Krause, Philanthropy Together’s Chief Strategy Officer, put it: “Be accessible and the money will work itself out.”
Follow along for updates each week, and for more news about the 32+ giving circle leaders graduating from the program! To join an upcoming Launchpad For You cohort, register today!