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 4, we got real about the “HOW” of giving circles: how to source and review potential grantees, how to practice due diligence, and how to ensure our giving circles are always improving grant cycle after grant cycle.
Week 4: The Power of Dynamic Decision-Making
With so much specificity, Week 4 was probably the biggest “info dump” of all of Launchpad. Trying to write about everything we covered this week would need a 127-page Toolkit of its own, so I’ll sum up the week of “HOW” in five critical questions:
- How do we decide who to fund? Most giving circles serve nonprofit organizations, but our instructors gave other examples like individuals, groups or projects, 501(c)4s, and issue funds.
- How do we find potential grantees? There’s only so much you can find on Google. Aside from online research, a few suggestions from the team included landscape analysis, following the example of philanthropic leaders we admire (for example, I’m MacKenzie Scott’s biggest fan, so I would probably enjoy funding the things she funds), or asking people in our networks for recommendations.
- How do we know our grantees are “the real deal”? This question was about due diligence – tracking down potential grantees’ financials and DEI initiatives, ensuring their values align with ours, and finding ways our funds will help them make an impact. Our instructors also made sure to stress that not every nonprofit has the best online presence – if we can’t find info about an organization’s financials, for example, that doesn’t mean that they’re a money laundering scheme. The power is in our hands, so we can always reach out to grantee leaders to get more information.
- How do we narrow down the grantmaking decision? Will our circle members vote on grantees, or discuss our options until we reach a group consensus? Our instructors also suggested aspects of participatory grantmaking, like getting the community involved or transferring decision-making power to leaders in our focus areas through flow funding or reparations.
- How do we know we’ve made the right choice? Finally, we talked about reflection. We want to see what our grantees did with our funds, but we also want to know that our circles are being as effective as they can be. We were encouraged to treat every grant cycle as an opportunity for improvement: connecting with our members (and our grantees!) to find out what worked, what didn’t, and how we can do better next time.
By the end of the session, the members of my cohort had the answers to these questions – or at least, all the resources we needed to make these decisions with our co-founders. It was a LOT of information, but most of the questions that had been nagging me throughout all of Launchpad were answered in this session.
A few days ago, I got an unexpected introduction to grantee nomination when one of my co-founders reached out to me about a struggling flower shop in her California neighborhood. In a freak accident, a car smashed through the flower shop’s front doors, destroying their huge (expensive!) glass windows, flower displays, and most of the reception desk. Luckily, no one was seriously injured, but the flower shop is closed until the owners can assess the damage and figure out how to get back on their feet financially. Obviously we’re not in a position to make any emergency grants yet, but Kyana asked me if this was the sort of thing our as-yet-unnamed giving circle could support, or if it was too niche for us.
I have to admit, I was stumped! On one hand, this situation checks a lot of boxes for us. The flower shop owners are highly active in the arts, music, and LGBTQ+ communities, and their location is in the heart of one of California’s thriving LGBTQ+ districts. However, would we be able to donate to a for-profit organization via Grapevine, or would we have to take crisis funding into our own hands through something like a Venmo fundraiser or a handwritten check? And would supporting a flower shop in crisis be stepping “out of bounds” for a giving circle, or is that the kind of thing we want to be able to do at the drop of a hat?
I didn’t have easy answers to those questions, but after discussing it, my co-founders and I agreed that once our giving circle is fully established – say, with a year of quarterly grant cycles under our belts – we would love to factor in funding for crisis situations, potentially as a fund separate from our quarterly grant cycles. We talked about creating a separate annual fundraiser for crisis relief, a funding bucket that could sit in our Grapevine account or a trustworthy circle member’s savings account to be rolled out when an important cause comes to our attention. At first, however, we want to nail down our regular grantmaking process, and agreed to start out supporting nonprofits and organizations in good standing with the IRS to ensure we have all our ducks in a row – especially while we’re just starting out.
Again, we don’t want to be limited to anything in particular, or have to turn away a deserving grantee because they don’t fit our media image or membership. But at the same time, we can’t fund every deserving grantee, so we need to be making these hard decisions early on to give ourselves – and our future members – reliable guidelines to fall back on. Ultimately, it will always come down to a vote, and in situations like the California flower shop when we’re having such a difficult time deciding, anonymous voting will take some of the stress and pressure (read: guilt) out of the process.
A Quick Note on Funding Cycles
In the Launchpad curriculum, Week 4 is also the week where we got into the nitty-gritty of circle structure. Beyond power dynamics, we need to decide how often we’re funding and how to collect and disburse those funds. One of the easiest pitfalls for a new giving circle is trying to do too much too soon, or getting so lost in the possibilities that you never decide how to get started.
Making things too complicated also puts a lot of pressure on circle members. And as Tyeshia Wilson, Philanthropy Together’s Director of Engagement, put it, “Giving circles are about fun. The moment it feels like work, engagement is going to dip.”
To simplify things, the Philanthropy Together team shared a recommended starting structure:
- 25 to 30 members, including a leadership team of ourselves and 2 to 3 co-founders.
- 1 or 2 focus areas, possibly restricted to one geographic area. This is mostly to simplify the grant cycle, but is also a good way to drum up initial membership if the circle plans to support your local neighborhood or a community your members can identify with.
- Grantees with less than a $1 million annual operating budget. For starting circles especially, it’s motivating to see that our work has immediate impact. Grassroots organizations are systemically overlooked and giving circles can play a huge role in funding groups on the frontlines of social change.
- A simple member donation requirement, like a dollar per day or $1,000 per year. Choosing a round or familiar number (or a small one) makes the funding process a little less alien for members, and also makes it easy for collection when everyone donates the same amount.
Our instructors also reminded us about the free or low-cost tools there are for circle management, like Grapevine for funds collection, donations, and member communications; tools to design and publish low-cost websites; and branding tools for marketing materials and more. These resources were shared during the session, and we got to take them home in our Launchpad Toolkits as well.
Takeaways From Week 4
For me, this week reaffirmed that it’s worth joining Launchpad For You just to get access to the Launchpad Toolkit. This 127-page document is the Holy Grail for giving circle founders: it’s chock-full of how-to’s, exercises, resources, and examples that help turn all those swirling ideas into actual actionable steps.
Week 4 was jam-packed with information, so having the Toolkit to turn to during the presentations and on my own time significantly reduced how stressed and overwhelmed I felt trying to commit everything to memory. Before my first meeting with my co-founders, I made a giant Google Doc summarizing the entire 127 pages into a numbered questionnaire. My co-founders and I then added our answers to questions like “How many members do we want to have?” and “How will we collect funds?” directly to the document, color-coding our responses to differentiate between our opinions. This was insanely helpful for us during our first couple of Zoom meetings, because we had a concrete space to discuss things – and look back at our written-down, changing opinions – as we made decisions.
The Launchpad instructors have also been amazing – breakout rooms during the sessions, comments on the forums, and even one-off emails just to check in have all been exquisite resources for answering my questions and helping me get my plans aligned as I take my next steps forward.
I also love how much excitement the Philanthropy Together team manages to pack into every Launchpad session. I’ve left each session practically vibrating with inspiration – and sad that I have to go back to my “regular work” instead of just sitting down to work on giving circle ideas all day. (Poor me, right?)
Affirmation and validation are half the battle when it comes to leading a movement. My cohort members and I learned in Week 1 that we are of the people who GIVE, and every step along the way has helped us define exactly what that means.
Starting a circle is just that – the start. The more we learn, the more we give, and the more we work together, the more difference we’ll make on the world.
After all, isn’t that why you’re here?
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!
Read about Maggie’s Launchpad For You journey:
Maggie May is a small business owner, author, and story-centric content strategist within the nonprofit sector. Maggie is the Founder and Executive Director of the agency Get Mighty Creative, as well as a co-founder and the Director of Operations for The Undercard Collective, a giving circle focused on representation in music and the arts. She is a Maryland transplant by way of Florida, Pennsylvania, Ireland, and most recently Salt Lake City, Utah. She has a passion for finding stories and telling them the way they're meant to be told.