Members of the Jewish Pride Fund, Federation's longest-running giving circle, tour the Neve Tzedek neighborhood of Tel Aviv. From left: Danny Wein, Phillip Goldberg, Danielle Meshorer, Kyle Levine, David Rak, Oren Henry, Sam Goldman, Rob Barron
(Photo/Courtesy-Jewish Pride Fund)
Members of the Jewish Pride Fund, Federation's longest-running giving circle, tour the Neve Tzedek neighborhood of Tel Aviv. From left: Danny Wein, Phillip Goldberg, Danielle Meshorer, Kyle Levine, David Rak, Oren Henry, Sam Goldman, Rob Barron (Photo/Courtesy-Jewish Pride Fund)

Federation’s giving circles allow smaller donors a bigger say

What do you do when you have a small amount to give but want to make a big impact? One answer might be to join a giving circle, where a group of people pool smaller, individual donations to create a larger one.

The Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund is in the midst of expanding the number of giving circles it hosts. The expansion is part of the Federation’s new strategic plan that reconfigures its philanthropic model, combining its operations into a community foundation with staff managing, researching and advising donors on community grants and loans.

Danielle Meshorer
Danielle Meshorer

With giving circles, “we’re doubling down on our commitment to say, this is the way that we want to engage with the Bay Area Jewish community. Because we see it as really important to grow a culture of giving,” said Danielle Meshorer, director of collaborative philanthropy at the S.F.-based Federation.

Giving circles are typically made up of like-minded people who may already know one another. They each contribute a set minimum to a pot and together choose where to send the funds, as grants. While any individual could give $180 or $1,800 to a food bank or a Jewish arts group, Meshorer said that by pooling funds and doing the research, giving circles can get access to nonprofits that they wouldn’t otherwise have.

“Individually, you don’t have the same kind of access to hear an organizational founder or executive director speak about the organization and be able to ask them questions,” she said.

Lindsey Newman is a member of the Tzedek Fund, a Federation giving circle focused on Jews of color and racial equity. Its purpose is twofold: It brings together Jews of color, and it enables them to work together to support causes that meet their goal of promoting equity and social justice.

“Being able to pool funds together from multiple donors really leverages the impact that any one individual can make,” Newman said.

It’s also about community and building relationships, she added.

“Anytime I’m in community with Jews of color, I find that to be really nourishing,” Newman said. “And so to combine that with the ability to invest in our communities at the same time, it was great.”

For Meshorer, giving circles are also a way of opening up philanthropy to people with a wider range of incomes. While large-scale donors and foundations will always have an important place in the community, she said, no one should feel that their contribution is too small to matter.

“We really want to lower that barrier to entry,” she said. “And we want more people to engage and feel empowered. We want more people to connect with each other.”

Philanthropy is not just for people who consider themselves philanthropists.

According to the Stanford Social Innovation Review, as of 2022 there were more than 2,000 giving circles in the United States — comprising about 150,000 people — that gave away almost $1.3 billion.

The longest-running giving circle at the Federation is the LGBTQ-focused Jewish Pride Fund, which launched in 2018. With a current membership of 28, it has given out $223,600 in grants since its founding, according to Meshorer. The Federation’s other active giving circle, the Tzedek Fund, launched last year with 10 members and gave away almost $78,000 in grants.

Giving circles don’t need a bigger organization’s framework. But Meshorer said there are benefits to working through the Federation, especially when it comes to grants. Staff can help in several ways, including taking on the administrative costs of grantmaking, researching and profiling potential grantees, vetting groups for 501(c)(3) status, tracking grants, creating progress reports on their impact and providing a tax donation letter to members for their contributions. For Federation giving circles, the members technically make donations to the Federation. The money is held by the Federation until the members decide on their grants.

The Federation will sometimes contribute to the grant pool to help increase the pot, Meshorer said. That’s been the case for the Tzedek Fund, as well as for a temporary giving circle called the Global Jewish Citizens Fund and most recently for a Sukkot “pop-up” focused on food insecurity and hunger.

While giving circles usually operate on a yearly cycle — raising money, hearing presentations from organizations, discussing preferences and giving grants — the Oct. 4 Sukkot event condensed all of that into one evening and was held online. Meshorer said 15 people participated and raised $12,600.

Meshorer described the event as a “quick giving circle experience” where people learned about groups fighting food insecurity locally, nationally and in Israel.

The Federation plans to launch more circles on pressing topics, such as climate change. While not an explicitly Jewish issue, Meshorer said, it is among “issues that we know that the Jewish community cares about as well. I mean, we live in this world.”

Examining issues “through a Jewish lens” gives members an entry into deeper levels of philanthropy, according to Meshorer. “Philanthropy is not just for people who consider themselves philanthropists,” she said.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.