Charitable giving | Donors are in charge of where money goes

The Bay Area Jewish community is making its mark on “giving circles,” one of the hottest trends in philanthropic life.

Steven Ganz (fourth from right) and San Francisco giving circle

At their simplest level, giving circles are small groups of individuals who donate money to an agreed-upon charity or community project that is personally meaningful to them.

One newly minted giving circle of 17 people — backed by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, which matched each donation dollar for dollar — recently gave a total of $24,000 to two Israeli organizations: Hagar, an education and peace program, and the Aguda, a nonprofit human-rights group representing Israel’s LGBT community.

“What we decided to do was to gather a bunch of families who are really interested in the Jewish community,” said Steven Ganz, a parent at Brandeis-Hillel Day School in San Francisco who is involved in federation fundraising and reached out to other Brandeis families. “We asked them if they would become members of the federation and if they would be willing to give a donation in a group effort.”

A giving circle is “kind of like a book club for people who want to make a difference,” explained Ganz, a technology consultant who is active with the JCF’s Israel Impact Grant Initiative.

Aguda delegates march at World Pride Parade in Canada in June.

IGI focuses on social-venture philanthropy, funding new groups working for social change in Israel. The giving circle, while modeled on the IGI approach, is different in that it focuses on established charities in Israel. The group’s first meeting was in April.

Ganz said Sigalit Rubinson, program officer for international grantmaking at JCF, was key in gathering information on potential Israeli organizations in need of financial support.

“The federation provided support by asking groups in Israel to submit proposals for the things they needed funded,” he said. “Having [Rubinson] involved really helped us move along.”

“We were thrilled to partner with Steve Ganz to develop the Israel Giving Circle, which is among the first of its kind within the federation,” Rubinson said. “The process brought a thoughtful, personal, hands-on giving practice into the living room with exponential impact — on the participants and on the issues and organizations that received funding. Many members of the inaugural group were previously unengaged with the federation, and the circle brought them into the community in a meaningful and dynamic fashion.”

The group’s first meeting took place three months before the onset of the 50-day Israel-Hamas conflict. Although a number of nonprofits were discussed at the time, including one for at-risk teens, Ganz said the thinking changed when everyone met again after the conflict ended.

“We started before the recent war in Israel and ended after it,” he said. “It definitely changed the priority of where the money should go,” shifting attention to programs that encouraged Arab-Jewish cooperation and human rights.

Hagar, one of the two organizations funded, promotes a bilingual Arab-Jewish educational system in the Negev. The giving circle funds will pay for new technology and office equipment, as well as more security for the education center. The other donation went to the Aguda, one of Israel’s leading LGBT and humand-rights advocacy groups since 1975.

Hagar’s garage sale in April raises funds for education and peace programs.

The giving circle will commence its second round of donations in 2015, Ganz said. “We plan on it being an annual event. The group plans on focusing on Israel next year, but we might give somewhere else in 2016.”

He is encouraged by the giving circle’s early success. “At most we thought we’d have a couple of families,” Ganz said. “We ended up with a total of 17 people. It’d be harder to have consensus with a larger group.”

The idea of giving circles isn’t new, nor is it exclusive to Jewish communities. However, the trend has gained momentum in the past few years.

Connected to Give, a consortium of Jewish and other foundations, noted in a new report that 14 percent of American Jews have participated in a giving circle. (African Americans comprise the largest ethnic group to donate through a giving circle in the U.S., at 21 percent.)

According to the report, one in eight Americans who have made donations have done so through a giving circle.

Shawn Landres, CEO and director of research at Jumpstart, which supports projects in the “Jewish innovation ecosystem,” said in a press release, “Giving circles teach us how, when philanthropic institutions don’t roll out the red carpet, people create their own ways in.”

More than half of the donors to giving circles in the American Jewish community are younger than 40, according to the report — something that doesn’t surprise Ganz. He said he saw early examples of communal giving at his son’s school.

“[The giving circle] was such a rewarding experience,” Ganz said. “Our kids do this kind of thing at Brandeis. They have a foundation that, in their [b’nai mitzvah] year, instead of giving gifts, the parents give checks to the fund and the kids act as a board to give the money away.

“They really taught us something,” he said.