Giving circles: a modern spin on old-style Jewish mutual aid

There was a time, not so long ago, when our ancestors — perhaps even our grandparents — came together as a community to assist the young widow with children, the old man without any means to support himself, the recently arrived immigrant family trying to make a life in the New World.

The benevolent societies our forebears formed, landsmannschaften, were organized around the concept of pooling together resources to benefit those in need who had come from the same shtetls or cities in Poland, Galicia, Hungary, Lithuania, Ukraine and other parts of Eastern and Central Europe.

The notion of landsmannschaften sounds so quaint and Old World. Yet today, more than a century later, they have been given a new life in the form of giving circles — a growing trend in philanthropy organized around groups of donors pooling their resources to support a cause, group, need or interest about which they all care.

They’re not too different, really, than the landsmannschaften of yesteryear, said giving circles authority Joelle Berman.

“Giving circles, by their nature, are a mutual-aid society,” said Berman, who will be part of the panel at the workshop “Giving Circles: The Future of Venture Philanthropy” at the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund’s Day of Philanthropy on Tuesday, Nov. 7. “The format is ancient, but the current application is relatively new.”

Berman is the executive director of Amplifier, which tracks and provides support and counsel to a network of approximately 100 giving Jewish-oriented circles — including those shepherded by Federation.

For our ancestors, resources may have gone to helping immigrant children learn vocational and English-language skills at settlement houses, Berman said.

For us, the resources may go to supporting organizations that, say, promote the advancement of Jewish-African American dialogue or the acceptance of interfaith families into the Jewish community.

Today’s Jewish giving circle donor is “more proactive than reactive,” Berman explained. He or she is asking, “What is the change I want to make in my world?”

The giving circle is “a more intentional” way to determine philanthropic giving, she noted, than the approach employed by our ancestors, who often felt inspired to respond to immediate, dire needs of their brethren — such as poverty, hunger, disease and other ills faced by many Jewish immigrants. The giving circle model goes to the heart of venture philanthropy, which entails interactive engagement, long-range strategic planning and research to address issues of concerns to donors.

But giving circles do far more than providing donors with a thoughtful conduit to giving. They allow donors to feel that they can “strategically give their money” in a manner that “amplifies their dollars and make a larger impact,” said Danielle Meshorer, the manager of venture philanthropy and giving circles at the Federation.

The format is ancient, but the current application is relatively new.

That was one of the appeals for Amy Berler, chair of one of the Federation’s giving circles, the San Francisco Jewish Women’s Fund. Along with Berman, she will be serving as a giving circle panelist during the Day of Philanthropy.

Amy Berler
Amy Berler

“When it comes collectively,” said Berler, referring to a contribution from pooled resources, “it makes a statement that is very different” from an individual gift.

In the case of the Jewish Women’s Fund, which is entering its fourth year at Federation, it means an aggregation of donations from its 20 or so members, each of whom gives at least $10,000 annually to this particular giving circle. With a minimum of $200,000 per year, the Women’s Fund can make a more powerful statement of support than a single, smaller gift, Berler noted.

Yet it is not only the magnitude of the gift that is more significant, Berler added. It is the process as well.

The Federation’s Jewish Women’s Fund meets six times a year to determine how its pooled resources should be dispersed. Thoughtful, open discussions and in-depth research provided by members have led the giving circle to make gifts to programs for older Jewish single mothers, older Jewish women seeking to return to the workplace and caregivers in need of respite. It also donated to the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, an organization that promotes dialogue between Muslim and Jewish women.

“We are non-hierarchical,” Berler said. “There is no rising through the ranks.”

What’s more, she said, is the opportunity to learn from and develop friendships and professional relationships with other concerned Jewish women. “I have enjoyed this form of philanthropy because it combines the power of giving with the bonding of community,” Berler said.

“The world we live in is individually based,” she added, “where people want things the way they want things.”

In a giving circle, Berler welcomed the opportunity to run counter to this trend and build consensus around giving priorities.

In addition to its Jewish Women’s Fund, Federation has two other giving circles, both of which are just getting off the ground: the Jewish Pride Fund, which will focus on LGBT giving opportunities, and Next Generation, for donors ages 25 to 40. The latter giving circle is being run in partnership with the Slingshot Fund, a New York-based fund that supports innovative Jewish programming. Both are expected to launch around January 2018.

Berman said that growth of giving circles has been exponential over the last decade. In 2006, there were about 400 giving circles in the United States, she said, and today, there are an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 — with many more expected over the next few years.

Giving circles at the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation are open to anyone. For information, contact Danielle Meshorer at (415) 512-6259 or [email protected].

Robert Nagler Miller
Robert Nagler Miller

Robert Nagler Miller, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Wesleyan University, received his master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. For more than 25 years, he worked as a writer and editor at a variety of nonprofits in the Los Angeles and Bay Areas. In 2016, he and his husband, Dr. Arnold Friedlander, relocated to Chicago. Robert loves schmoozing, noshing, kvetching, Scrabble, reading and NPR.