Excerpt from “How We Give Now: A Philanthropic Guide for the Rest of Us” by Lucy Bernholz
“Before we get started let’s take a moment to think of the people who made it possible for us to be here today.” As she says this, Masha Chernyak, who until this moment hasn’t stopped hugging and smiling and greeting people, lowers her voice and speaks slightly slower than before. There’s a pause and the room goes quiet; the only sound is the buzz of the fluorescent lights. “All right!” Masha says, her voice back to its above-the-party volume. “This is the fun part, when you all come together, all the work you’ve done all year. Get ready to welcome our guests, our community. Here we go.”
It’s a Thursday evening in a suburban office park. The temperature is just beginning to drop from a high in the mid-90s. Two dozen or so business-attire clad people crowd into a set of offices used by a charter school during the day. The fluorescent lighting and office desks clash a bit with the abundant food and music. Cans of soda, a few bottles of wine, and one of tequila are available on a back table, near the copy machine and recycling bin. Tonight, members of the Contra Costa Latino Giving Circle are meeting with three community groups. Two people from each group, an elder and a younger leader, get time to talk about their programs and answer questions from the people in the room.
The process is as orderly as any pitch session or demo day, although the warmth and friendliness filling the room distinguishes this gathering from similar settings defined by competition. Each presenter seems to know a few of the people in the giving circle. Each pitch is met with hugs and laughter all around. The presenters are there to raise funds for youth soccer groups and leadership programs. As they finish their pitches, members of the giving circle clap loudly, thank them, complement them on their work, and call out, “Why don’t you join us?” The pitching is going both ways—community members seeking funds for their programs and the giving circle recruiting future participants. “We’re familia” is probably the phrase I hear most frequently over the course of the evening.
The Contra Costa Latino Giving Circle is one of hundreds, possibly thousands, of such groups around the country. The idea is simple. People come together, pool some money, and make decisions together about using the funds. On that hot summer evening in Walnut Creek, California, the focus was on programs that help young people. The giving circle members are Latinx, the community groups are led by Latinx neighbors, and the young people served by the programs are mostly, though not exclusively, Latinx. Other giving circles focus on international giving, women’s issues, African Americans, LGBTQ communities, Jewish groups, Muslim groups, Christian groups, environmental groups, and every imaginable combination of these.
By the end of the evening, the circle members have decided how much money to give to each group. There are quiet sidebar conversations about politics, a bit of professional networking, a few toasts, and a lot of laughter. “I knew we could do it,” says Natalia Tocino, who sits across the table from me. “This is our first round. We can do so much more.” I ask Natalia how the group got started. “I did it,” she says. “I volunteer with a group that got money from a Latina circle in San Francisco. I asked that circle how to start one over here. They told me to find fifteen people who can each give $1,000 a year. So I did. And look at us.” I smiled. I’d counted twenty-three people sitting at the tables around us.
Not all community giving needs an online platform. Latinos are the largest demographic group in California, but they still hold few positions of public, private, or philanthropic power. The statewide Latino Community Foundation (LCF) is focused on changing that. One of its most successful tools for doing so has been supporting the Latino Giving Circle Network, which includes groups like the one in Contra Costa County.
Giving circles have been around for generations but have captured the attention of philanthropic and political researchers in the last few decades. The idea is simple: a group of people gets together, pools money, and makes joint decisions about how to give it. Some giving circles require monthly contributions of four dollars per person; others raise thousands or tens of thousands of dollars. At least one US giving circle has an individual contribution level of $2 million per year!
The key is not the amount of money, but the process of coming together and making shared decisions. Giving circles exist in every state and in Puerto Rico, and networks such as Amplifier, the Community Investment Network, and Philanthropy Together are emerging to help people start their own. People organize these groups by just about any identifier you can imagine, including age, religion, ethnicity, gender, and employer. There are so many individual giving circles that they’ve developed shared networks to connect them across geographies.
The Latino Community Foundation’s giving circle network includes twenty groups across California. Several have emerged out of corporate- sponsored employee groups. As Amber Gonzales-Vargas, who coordinates the giving circle network for LCF, notes, “For a lot of [corporate employee groups], there’s not much of intentionality with the gatherings. A lot of the times, it’s a taco Tuesday during Hispanic Heritage Month and that’s it.” In contrast, when these people start working together to give, they have a reason to meet on a regular basis.
They get to work on something that matters to them individually and collectively. These groups naturally tend to catalyze other groups, Amber notes. The first giving circle the foundation sponsored was created by professional Latinas in San Francisco. After it had been running for a few months, their male counterparts wanted a circle of their own. Soon people wanted circles in the East Bay and the San Francisco Peninsula. The foundation took the idea and ran with it. “I’m from Stockton,” Amber says, “and we’re a statewide foundation. We’re getting circles going in the Central Valley and down south.”
These circles give away money, but just as raising money together is a means to an end for Ioby, the money is one step in the larger aspiration of the giving circle members and the Latino Community Foundation. “This is about change, not charity,” says Masha Chernyak, vice president at LCF. “People bring their whole selves to these meetings. They bring their traditions from home, and realize they’ve been ‘philanthropists’ all along, just in ways that aren’t recognized here in the US. Remittances, mutual aid, serving on boards—these are all ways of giving.”
Masha is a Russian immigrant and Amber is a Peruvian American born in Stockton, California. The giving circles are about community and collective power. The members teach each other and treat their money and the nonprofits they fund as part of the circle. Many giving circle members join boards of the nonprofits they fund and seek to be the connectors between these Latino community organizations and the bigger, whiter nonprofits and foundations in the state.
Once the circle members get to know and trust each other, they start doing more than giving. Living up to their aspiration of “change, not charity,” they discuss the news, power, politics, and public policy. Before the 2020 Census, people who had met through a LCF giving circle organized their own study sessions to learn more about the Trump administration’s proposed citizenship question and how decennial census numbers affect state and federal budgets. People organized themselves to reach out to rural Spanish-speakers, recent immigrants, and multigeneration Californians about their fears associated with the count.
These offshoot political groups invited candidates to speak to them and mobilized across California for a get-out-the-vote effort. Tech workers and farm workers, professionals and homemakers, students and elders come together in these circles and across the network. Members help members within and beyond the circles, creating new networks around politics and employment. “They’re becoming philanthropists,” Amber and Masha tell me. “But we are also changing what philanthropist means.