What is a Giving Circle?

by Zoe Lawhorn

Philanthropy comes in all shapes and sizes. The kind of philanthropy that tends to make headlines seems larger than life and is often attached to names like Bezos and Gates; but there is no rule that says you must be wealthy to be a philanthropist.

When ordinary, like-minded people come together – united by their mission and values – they can make extraordinary things happen, too.

The number of Giving Circles has grown worldwide from 50 in 1995 to over 2000 in 2020, and while every circle is unique, we typically have the following qualities in common:

- A group of people with shared values, who join together to make change;

- The group pools their time and money and makes decisions together, as a circle, on where it should go;

- Their efforts, discussion, and collective gifts transform their communities and activates change.

The Women’s Fund of Smith County is a giving circle formed by a group of local women who wanted to innovate and empower. Early in 2007, a steering committee formed to develop a Women’s Fund in our community. Their goal was to maximize the impact of women’s philanthropy. Steering committee members represented the Women in Tyler committee, Fourth Partner, and East Texas Communities Foundation.

After researching other similar circles around the country, the steering committee hosted a membership kick-off which was met with an overwhelming response. An executive committee was formed, as well as, membership and grant making committees.

One hundred and twenty-eight Charter Members raised over $150,000, enabling the Women’s Fund to award $100,000 in grants to three non-profits their first year. In addition, they added 15% of every gift to an endowment that had already been started by the Women in Tyler.

The message was clear: have the greatest philanthropic impact possible NOW and grow funds to be used in the FUTURE.

In the following two years, continuing with a steady membership of over one hundred twenty members, the Fund was able to award an additional $200,000 to six more nonprofits in the Tyler area.

Late in 2010, we launched our website, and in January of 2011, The Women’s Fund agreed to become a program of The Fourth Partner organization. We continued to grow in members and in the amount of money given back to the community.

In early 2014, as part of its own strategic plan, Fourth Partner outlined a gradual decrease in funding of Women's Fund. This began the Women’s Fund of Smith County countdown to “sustainability,” meaning, we needed to stand on our own collective feet!

By July 1, 2015, the Women's Fund of Smith County became an independent, stand-alone not-for-profit organization, and we continue our mission of impacting the lives of women and children in our community.

Today, we celebrate over 14 years of giving together - awarding more than $2.5 million in grant funds to 30 different nonprofit agencies in Smith County.

The secret is simple, we are better together! Being a part of a giving circle not only gives women the opportunity to create positive change in the lives of others – we also benefit from our experiences working together. We become more well-rounded and educated on community issues and the nonprofit sector, and we develop a broader context from which we make philanthropic decisions.

As a member of the Women’s Fund, we get to serve alongside other community-minded women who value the importance of serving others and of sharing our blessings.

Recently, I saw a post on Facebook that captured several friends of mine participating in what you might call a micro-giving circle. They met for dinner at a beloved restaurant, asked for their favorite server, and each contributed $100 towards their server’s tip. Their night out was timed to coincide with the holiday season; their hope was to give their server a little extra cash to help out with holiday expenses – a joyful gift, made more impactful through their collective giving.

They gathered, they discussed and decided who to bless, they gave, and then they engaged in giving together. And they gave more together than they could have done alone.

Now that you know what a Giving Circle is, I’d like to invite you to join ours. The Women’s Fund is open to any woman with a giving heart, and we direct our grants to nonprofits who benefit women and children living in Smith County. If you’d like more information, please visit our website, www.womensfundsc.org. Find out why we say together is better!

Zoe Lawhorn serves as president of the Women’s Fund of Smith County, a collective giving circle of more than 300 women with a mission of transforming our community by funding programs that enrich the lives of women and children. Any woman with a giving heart is welcome to join our organization. Please visit www.womensfundsc.org for information about membership and outreach.

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